In case you haven't already heard/binge watched the entire series, Netflix recently released a four-part mini series called Cooked, based on Michael Pollan's book of the same name. I became familiar with Mr. Pollan when I read The Omnivore's Dilemma, and also really enjoyed the follow-up In Defense of Food. What I really like about Pollan is his ability to be thoughtful about food, an really delve deeply into the sociology and anthropology of eating without feeling too...haughty? Boring? He acknowledges that food is so deeply tied to who we are socially, and also that there is a crucial connection between how we eat and how we see the world. How we choose to nourish ourselves reflects all sorts of choices, whether we make those choices intentionally and thoughtfully or not.
Cooked is interesting because it focuses on food from the perspective of cooking, and how cooking makes us uniquely human. He also touches on how cooking has changed drastically in recent history, and how changes we've seen in America are spreading to developing countries (there's a close look at India, for example, where home cooking is deeply embedded in the culture but where corporate processed foods are making a push to take over market share and convince the Indian people to embrace fast food and convenience foods). I highly recommend the series if you haven't already seen it, and if you have we should talk about it! Here were the three parts that have stuck with me the most:
1. The time that the average American spends cooking in a day has decreased by more than half in the last several decades, from 60 minutes a day to just under 30. Most Americans aren't really cooking in their kitchens anymore--they might be reheating frozen convenience foods, but most of us aren't really preparing food, from ingredients, very much at all. The documentary makes an interesting point about how this correlates with obesity, because a lot of the really attractive, delicious, high-calorie foods are also very labor-intensive if you were to make them yourself. Like cake or cookies--if you had to make a cake or a batch of cookies from scratch every time you wanted to eat them, instead of reaching for a hostess package or a tube of dough or box off the supermarket shelf, you would probably eat those things less often. The same is true of things like french fries--making them at home is a chore. You can do it, but you probably wouldn't do it every day. But, thanks to the miracle of fast food and frozen, processed supermarket foods, you can have french fries easily and cheaply every day. If you actually had to cook all of the foods you wanted to enjoy, your self-restraint would probably be much stronger.
2. Processed foods are much, much more lucrative for corporations than fresh foods. By convincing you to buy frozen or boxed foods rather than cooking the same meals from scratch, companies can profit significantly more. This isn't necessarily new information, but I hadn't thought much about how much this simple fact affects our diets. It's hard (impossible?) to ignore all of the marketing and messaging that you get about food in a day. It's everywhere! And even trying to sort out what "healthy" food is really tough. This is obviously a big interest of mine, and I still find it really hard to sort through the noise about what's healthy and not healthy. Even if you're just paying attention to nutritional experts with no vested interest in the food industry you can get confused (paleo? vegan? pegan? remind me if we like or hate canola oil this week?) BUT, if you're also being assaulted with messaging from companies whose entire goal has to be convincing you to eat processed foods, the deck is pretty stacked against you. And the food industry is not dumb--they know that people are trying to do better, and that's why they use buzz words that they know will make you think their food is healthy, even if it isn't. This is why you see "natural" and "simple" on food packaging all over the place these days, when it used to be "low fat" or "fat free" (still is, to some extent) or slapping "gluten free" on foods that never contained gluten to begin with. Because they hope that you're confused. And they hope that confusion leads you to buy their box of simply natural, gluten free rice-a-roni.
3. The Air episode that's all about bread, and gluten, and glutenous delicious bread. Pollan brings up the point that lots of people have been bringing up since the "gluten-free fad" got going, that only 1% of the population has celiac, but as many as 33% of the population tries to avoid gluten these days, many because they report feeling better when they don't eat gluten. The documentary points out that bread is one of the basic, staple foods that you see across cultures dating back to Ancient Egypt. So, what's up with that? Why would people suddenly be getting sick from something we've been eating for centuries? YOU GUYS, I ask myself this question all the time. I've seen the studies that say non-celiac gluten intolerance can't be proven when you do blind testing and ask people to self-report symptoms. I like science. I like scientific studies (I read them for a living, some days). And gosh, I don't know, maybe non-celiac gluten sensitivity isn't real? But, personally, I used to eat gluten and be sick almost every day. And now I don't eat gluten and I am sick basically never. But you get my point. If it's not real, then shit, I have no idea why eliminating it from my diet makes me feel so much better. And if there's a different option, please figure it out, because I love and miss a good baguette.
The interesting point that the documentary raised is that we've been eating bread almost forever, but it's only recently that commercialized bread (ushered in by Wonder Bread, etc.) has started adding all sorts of ingredients to a food that used to be just flour and water. Maybe a little salt. And yeast, if you add it, but you don't actually need to add packaged yeast to bread because yeast is in the air. So, ok--this food that used to be only three ingredients, and that was traditionally always fermented (what we think of as "sour dough" today used to just be "the only way we know how to make bread") now comes in a wrapper with upwards of 40 ingredients. Maybe it's something else in there that's upsetting our stomachs? A traditional baker who speaks in this episode said something to the effect of "there are so many terrible wheat products on the market today, it's no wonder people aren't feeling well." I don't have an answer or a conclusion to this section, but as someone who doesn't feel well when I eat wheat, I found it really interesting. Maybe interesting enough to try some simply-made sourdough bread. We'll see.
Again, if you haven't watched the documentary, I whole-heartedly recommend it. There are a lot more interesting points than the three I've highlighted, so don't think that it's all spoiled for you. And consider spending some more time in your own kitchen, preparing your own food. Or at the very least, make some thoughtful choices about how you're choosing to spend your grocery dollars. Because the bottom line is that we control how the food industry functions--we vote with our dollars every time we buy food. For a lot of America, those choices are really constrained and difficult to make (Doritos are cheaper than broccoli. That sucks, and it shouldn't be true, but it is.) I don't mean to minimize the difficult choices that a lot of families have to make in order to keep themselves fed. But we all have choices to some extent, and I would challenge you to make those choices intentionally, and support the kind of foods that you want to see more of. Later this week I'll post about how our family does that, for anyone who is interested.
I hope you all had wonderful weekends--it was gorgeous in Minneapolis.