Michael Pollan On Cooking As A Spectator Sport The Food Network draws more viewers than any of the cable news channels, but Americans are actually cooking less than ever. Food-culture writer Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) ponders the phenomenon.

Michael Pollan On Cooking As A Spectator Sport

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in this week for Terry Gross.

Writer Michael Pollan has become something of a crusader for changing the way we think about food in America. By growing and processing food on a massive industrial scale and transporting it thousands of miles for consumption, Pollan argues, we're burning too much energy, damaging the environment and undermining our health.

But lately, Pollan has been watching television, specifically shows about food and cooking, which he says are amazingly popular. In a cover piece for this week's Sunday New York Times Magazine, Pollan explores an interesting paradox: While we seem to love watching people cook on television, we're cooking less ourselves. The piece is titled "Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch."

Well, Michael Pollan, welcome back to FRESH AIR. In this piece in this week's Sunday Times Magazine, there's this amazing picture of the Julia Child set. Remind us: What was unique and path-breaking about her cooking show?

Mr. MICHAEL POLLAN (Writer): Well, Julia Child came onto the air in 1963 on WGBH in Boston. And there had been a couple cooking shows before that, but none had really connected with the audience in a big way and had won so many fans.

Right from the start, people wrote in, saying they wanted more Julia, more Julia. And she just had that way that some, you know, celebrities have of connecting with people right through the camera. She was a natural and very unstudied, and therefore, she felt very authentic to people. But, you know, the mistakes were there. It was unscripted. It had kind of the feel, that anything-could-happen feeling of live TV, even though it was taped, but it was uncut and unedited. And indeed, she did drop things and make mistakes and lose her way and sweat and have to wipe her brow with a paper towel. And so there was something very real about it that people responded to, and I think they found it very empowering.

DAVIES: You make the point that it was done without editing. So you had to wait with her while the butter melted or, you know, the onions browned, and…

Mr. POLLAN: You had this great sense of the duration of, you know, of what really the rhythms of being in a kitchen were like. So while, you know, she was waiting for the butter to stop sizzling, you know, you waited, too. And she would just vamp and, you know, offer some kitchen tips and lore. And so you had this sense of something unfolding right before your eyes and that sense we all know of desultory chat in the kitchen was recreated in her show.

DAVIES: Now she, in effect, spawned a whole new genre of television, I mean, the cooking show, which if we fast-forward, you know, four and a half decades, has really taken off. And you make the point that there are a lot of different kinds of cooking shows. What are some of the different kinds of shows and personalities that we see?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, if you go through the day on the Food Network, you'll find during the day, there really are a lot of shows that teach you how to cook. They're called dump-and-stir shows, because everybody's got their ingredients in these little dishes and they dump them into the pot and stir them and add another one. And you've got Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee and, you know, all these - mostly women - who are teaching you how to prepare.

In a way, they're very much the children of Julia, although I think their style is very different and the kind of cooking they do is very different. It's all about the shortcut. It's very impatient. It kind of assumes that we don't have time to cook. So here's some tricks that allow you to appear to be putting a fancy meal on the table, you know, in 20 minutes or something like that.

So I don't think they have the kind of conviction that Julia had, even though I think they're probably useful to some people. And the Food Network has research suggesting that people download the recipes after they watch the show. So they may be trying to cook some of these.

Now as you go through the day, though, in primetime, you get a very different kind of cooking show. And there are two, actually, in primetime. One is the athletic cooking show. You know, you've got "Top Chef" over on Bravo. You've got "Iron Chef America." You've got "Chopped," "The Next Food Network Star." You have all these shows that are really, they're more like sports than cooking, in fact. They're competitive. They're very macho, and I think that's a very interesting thing about them.

I think one of the things that Food Network has done is has made the kitchen a safe place for men by ramping up the testosterone. And, you know, you can argue whether that's a good or bad thing, but I think anything that gets men in the kitchen is a good thing.

The problem is, though, they're not exactly in the kitchen. They're in the Kitchen Stadium, where "Iron Chef America" takes place. And the way these shows are produced, you know, it looks exactly like "Monday Night Football."

You've got the slow-mos, you know, only instead of a, you know, instead of a quarterback sneak, it's the mincing of an onion. You've got the pre and post-game interviews, where people, you know, talk about they're - what they did or their nervousness or whatever it is. And you've got this really fast kind of attention-deficit-disorder-type editing and lots of rock and roll and lots of clashing knives and these huge gusts of flames coming out of these kitchens that are just wild.

So it's a great visual spectacular. Whether you learn anything from watching these shows is a whole other question. You certainly don't learn anything about cooking because they go by way too fast. They don't offer the recipes, so you don't really know how to make this stuff. And the food they're making is kind of so spectacular that it's really unlikely, I think, that anybody is trying this at home.

DAVIES: Now you've noted this paradox, that we're watching cooking shows and food shows more than ever, but we're actually cooking less. Why?

Mr. POLLAN: We're spending, on average, 27 minutes a day cooking and about four minutes cleaning up, so basically about a half hour. Any one of these shows takes twice as long to watch as that, which I think is very interesting because the main excuse people give for not cooking is they don't have time to cook, but somehow they're finding time to watch other people cook or eat on TV.

And I do find this a paradox, and that's what I really tried to explore in this article. And, you know, I think there are a couple reasons. I think we do feel pressed for time, and we're very tired at the end of the day. And I think we've got, you know, women in the workforce now in a way we didn't when Julia Child came on the air in 1963.

So there are a lot of pressures keeping us from cooking, but we also have a lot of powerful corporate interests working very hard to keep us from cooking.

You know, we've got all the manufacturers of processed foods. We've got all the restaurants, and they're all telling us we're too busy to cook. And I think these shows are, in a sense, part of the problem. I think that they give us the vicarious experience of cooking. They're not designed in such a way to motivate us the way Julia Child was designed to motivate us.

DAVIES: Now, there's a history to this, the decline of cooking, and our grandmothers would have made everything from scratch. They would never have used a cake mix. But now, even when people do cook, they're using a lot more prepackaged and prepared ingredients. How did that happen?

Mr. POLLAN: You know, there's a very interesting history to that, the rise of packaged foods. And now we're, of course, moving into the era of packaged meals. But really, it takes off after World War II, and you had these food manufacturers who'd come up with all these very clever ways to feed the troops by freeze-drying things, dehydrating them.

You know, you had instant orange juice. You had instant coffee. You had instant, you know, mashed potatoes. And after the war, there was a kind of a peacetime conversion of these field rations, and that really was the first explosion in processed food. And they weren't popular at first.

It's very interesting. There was a really uphill battle to convince American women in particular that serving this kind of dreck was equivalent to serving real food. And - but they kept working at it. And you know, the story of the cake mix, in a way, was - is the paradigm.

They came up with these, you know, just-add-water mixes to make your angel food cake or whatever it was, and consumers rejected them. They felt that it was cheating to make cake from a mix. And the marketers studied the problem and tried to figure out how could they persuade women to accept these cakes. And then they figured out that if they left something for women to do - and in this case it was cracking open an egg instead of having dehydrated eggs in the mix -that giving them that act would allow them to feel like they had actually cooked that cake.

So there's been a kind of defining downward of what it means to actually cook from scratch, and a lot of people will feel that, you know, using a cake mix is cooking from scratch. And compared to opening up a pack of Twinkies, I guess it is.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Michael Pollan. He has a piece in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine called "No One Cooks Here Anymore." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is writer Michael Pollan. He has a piece in this week's Sunday Time Magazine about our fascination with cooking shows, but the fact that we don't seem to be cooking so much anymore.

You know, I don't tune in to cooking shows, but if I come across one while I'm channel-surfing, I'll always linger a while. It's just so much fun to watch somebody cook. What is that fascination?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, you know, I thought a lot about this because there are many things that we no longer do in our own lives very much, changing the oil in our car or ironing shirts or reading newspapers, that we don't watch other people do on TV. We don't find them very interesting.

So why cooking? And I think there's something really visceral about cooking. I think when you're scanning the dials and you skip by one of these shows, suddenly you see this gorgeously photographed food, you know, this cascade of cherries in the Food Network promo or meat, you know, being lapped at by flames. And, you know, it's no wonder that we respond viscerally to this.

This is food. We have evolved to be attracted to this stuff. And I think these shows are, they're kind of like the campfires in the cable forest. They're really kind of viscerally attractive to us. And I also think - you have to remember, all of us have spend time in our childhoods watching cooking.

We watched our moms cook. We watched - some of us were lucky enough to watch our dads cook, too. And there is something we like about that process. You know, it always has a beginning, middle and an end. There's a kind of alchemy that goes on. You know, you take these kind of unpromising, raw ingredients, you know, chunks of animal flesh and plants, and you add fire, and suddenly you have something really attractive to eat.

That's a kind of nice little story. And so I think that there's something about watching cooking that really takes us back to that, you know, that primitive flame and those very comforting moments in our kitchens with our parents.

DAVIES: Well, and you note that anthropologists have - some at least - have developed some interesting theories about the role of cooking in, you know, the evolution of the species and the original development of civilization.

Mr. POLLAN: Yeah, it may well be - and I think that this is a fascinating avenue of research - it may well be that cooking is fundamental to our identity as humans. It may be the discovery of not fire, but cooking, that transformed us from primates who, you know, subsisted on raw food, who spent six hours a day chewing it - because raw food is very hard to digest.

Cooked food is very different than raw food from a biological perspective. It's easier to digest, and you get more calories out of it when it's cooked. It kind of unlocks the nutrients very often. And so that when humans discovered this way of dealing with food, that they could cook it, they suddenly had this new source of calories and that it allowed us, as an evolutionary matter, allowed our brains to get bigger and our guts to shrink because we didn't need the huge digestive systems that, say, apes need to digest all that raw plant matter.

So it may well be cooking that allowed the human brain to develop, and this is a theory that's been advanced more recent by a Harvard anthropologist named Richard Wrangham in a terrific book called "Catching Fire." And he really makes a good case that this is the defining event that made us human - not the discovery of language, not the discovery of fire, but the discovery of cooking. And if that's true, if cooking is that fundamental to our identity as humans, that would suggest that the collapse of cooking in our own time would be something that we would feel strongly and that would be, in some sense, destabilizing to give up one of those struts of our identity.

And so it may be that we are nostalgic for that experience, and if we're not going to do it ourselves, we at least want to watch other people do it.

DAVIES: And I wonder if the culmination of that evolutionary path is that we now stuff ourselves with fat and sugar and our guts expand and our brains shrink.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POLLAN: Well, we may see that happen. You know, I mean, one of the things processing of food is - you know, we talk about processed food as being unhealthy. What does that really mean?

Well, when you take, say, fruit and turn it into fruit juice, you have sped up that food and your absorption of that food because it doesn't have the fiber anymore and you're just getting that shot of sugar.

A lot of food processing is reducing food to its primary colors, you know, to sugar and salt and fat and removing it from the packages it has in nature, which contain lots of fiber and result in healthier products that you don't absorb quite as rapidly or completely so that, in a way, overcooked - we're overcooking food - and that's really one way to look at processed food - and thereby ending up with lots more attractive calories that, you know, explain, you know, our girth.

But I also think it's the collapse of cooking that is, in part, responsible for the obesity epidemic. And I think that this is a connection that is seldom overlooked.

DAVIES: You mean the collapse of cooking in the home, as opposed to in big, industrial plants.

Mr. POLLAN: Yes. Or we might say allowing corporations to cook for us has contributed to obesity. I don't think you can pin the whole thing on that. But it's very interesting to watch, as the amount of time spent cooking has fallen by about half since the 1960s, you know, obesity has risen dramatically. Now why should that be? Well, there is some very interesting research that correlates the amount of time that a culture spends cooking with its obesity rates, and that when you don't cook and you rely on corporations to cook for you, you tend to eat more special-occasion food, things like French fries.

I mean, take the French fry. It's a great example. I mean, the French fry did not become the most popular vegetable in America, which it now is, until corporations relieved us of all the work of preparing them. French fries are a whole lot of trouble to make. You've got to wash the potato. You've got to peel the potato, slice the potato, fry the potato and then clean up a kitchen that's going to be a wreck. And, you know, you wouldn't do that very often, and indeed, people didn't do it very often.

But now, since corporations are making all the French fries, we can have them two or three times a day, and many of us do. So, you see, when there's something built into the process of cooking that delays gratification, the work itself makes you think twice before you embark on a cake or French fries or fried chicken. And so as soon as you outsource that work, it becomes possible to indulge in all these special-occasion foods that no longer are special-occasion foods. They're everyday foods.

DAVIES: You know, it's clear from your article that you think we'd all be a lot better off if we learned to start cooking from scratch more often. Do you see that happening? Can we reverse this at all?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, I'm optimistic that we can. I think - you're right to suggest I think it's very, very important. It's hard to imagine. You know, we have this food movement going on and this rediscovery of local, fresh food and farmers' markets and artisanal meat production and everything. None of this is going to go anywhere unless people cook.

You do not find microwavable entrees at the farmers' market. You find raw ingredients. So I don't see how we really reform this food system unless people are willing to take up everyday cooking again.

Will it happen? I talked to some marketing experts, and they all just laughed. They say forget it. Cooking is over. One of them, a guy named Harry Balzer, very insightful expert on food habits in America, said here, let me give you an analogy.

You remember 100 years ago, if you wanted chicken, you had to go out and kill a chicken and gut a chicken and pluck a chicken. That's what having chicken meant. Well, nobody does that anymore. It would be considered crazy. That's what cooking is going to look like to your grandchildren. It's going to be just as outlandish as going out to kill a chicken.

Well, I surely hope he's wrong, but he may be right. I think, though, that the cost of not cooking is so high in terms of our health and, I would argue, our happiness, because with the collapse of cooking goes the family dinner, also, and that these are really important human institutions. And I think that we are in a feedback loop of discovering what their loss has really cost us.

DAVIES: You know, last October, you wrote a piece in the Times Magazine called "Farmer in Chief," which was an open letter to the next president - the election was still going on then. And you essentially argued that changing the way we grow and process food was critical to energy policy and, thus, a matter of national security - you know, the way we grow and process food at an industrial scale and transport it thousands of miles drains energy, pollutes the environment and harms our health. And you said that it's really important for the next president to take a lead in changing things. How would you rate President Obama on the challenge of rebuilding the food culture?

Mr. POLLAN: Well, I think Obama's taken some very encouraging steps. I think that Obama has shown that he recognized the links between the way we grow food and feed ourselves and the health-care crisis on the one side and the climate change and energy crisis on the other.

So I'm encouraged by some of the rhetoric. I'm encouraged by some of the appointments. There are some progressive people in the USDA, the Department of Agriculture. And there has been the new agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, has spoken in, you know, very encouraging terms about the importance of local food systems, the importance of farmers' markets, the importance of organic food.

So all that is very encouraging, I think. But, you know, frankly, the most important thing that's happened has been the garden that Michelle Obama planted, which has had a galvanizing effect around the world.

There's now a garden in Buckingham Palace. People are planting gardens all over America. You can't find seeds in garden centers, there's such a run on gardening. I think that's a very encouraging thing. I don't think it is merely symbolic. And by the way, I think it's very deliberate on the part of the Obamas. I think they understand that before you can begin to change this food system, you need to raise consciousness about it because for a lot of people, the food system works just fine.

There's plenty of cheap and abundant food. The fact that it makes people sick, the fact that it takes an enormous toll on the environment, on animals, on workers, isn't really clear to everybody so that there's a kind of raising of consciousness that needs to happen. And I think that Michelle Obama is playing a very important role in that. And then you can follow, one hopes, with a different kind of farm bill that would encourage the kind of fresh, local food that Michelle Obama has been extolling.

So, you know, I'm encouraged. I don't see any evidence that they're willing to take on agribusiness in any significant way yet. I think what's more likely to happen is that this administration will take steps to educate people on the value of real food and cooking and that they will also do things to promote local food economies.

Whether they will also go after the large food companies, it may happen in the anti-trust realm. It might happen with the farm bill, but there is, you know, some huge obstacles to real reform at that level, beginning with the agriculture committees in Congress.

DAVIES: Well, Michael Pollan, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. POLLAN: Well, thank you very much, Dave.

DAVIES: Michael Pollan is the author of "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma." His cover story in this week's New York Times Sunday Magazine is called "Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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