Finally, he connects fermentation to religious fervor, to questions about humanity’s very identity (if 99 percent of our DNA is from microbes we host, who are we, really?) and to an understanding of “hand taste” vs.“tongue taste.” The former, in the words of a Korean kimchi maker, is flavor that includes the mark of the person who took the care to make it.
Throughout the book, Pollan reminds us how much cooking matters. The food industry, he writes in one example, was all too happy to step in when women started working outside the home and couples were at risk of arguing over who should get dinner on the table. “In the end, women did succeed in getting men into the kitchen, just not their husbands,” he writes. “No, they’ve ended up instead with the men who run General Mills and Kraft, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.”(One criticism: He largely ignores the role of restaurants, from celebrity-chef-driven places to mom-and-pop joints.)
Pollan shows us the folly of our decision to hire food corporations and other industrial forces as our live-in cooks. The consequences include the gluten intolerance that he suggests might be tied to modern flour cultivation and processing, and the compromised immune systems that might be related to our diet’s relatively recent absence of live-culture foods. What’s the most reliable predictor of a nation’s obesity rate? It’s not income. It’s not the share of women in the labor force. Quite simply, the higher the percentage of a country’s residents who cook, the fewer of them who are obese.
And about that time crunch that keeps so many of us ordering takeout? Time for a recalculation. Pollan cites Richard Wrangham’s fascinating theory, espoused in “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human,” that it was the control of fire to help make food more digestible that allowed us to develop smaller jaws, teeth and guts, and a larger brain. In Wrangham’s calculation, cooking gave humans an estimated four hours of extra time a day, time that we once spent chewing food to prepare it for digestion — and time that now, Pollan points out, happens to be about what we spend watching TV. We have plenty of time to cook; we just don’t choose to spend it that way.
Ultimately, he makes the case that cooking is a political act, one that declares our resistance to the “learned helplessness” that the food industry likes to insist requires an outsourcing of dinner. “To cook for the pleasure of it,” he writes, “to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption.”
The choice is clear: Occupy your kitchen!
is The Washington Post’s Food and Travel editor.