Michael Pollan has written a half dozen best-selling books about food, but most people probably recognize him as the guy who has spent years warning against the dangers of factory farming on shows like Real Time with Bill Maher, The Colbert Report and the influential 2008 documentary Food Inc.
“Books can only reach so many people,” Pollan admits in a conversation with The Daily Beast. “I am on a mission to change the way we eat. So I want to reach as many people as I can and meet people where they are.”
That’s why he decided to translate his latest book, Cooked, into a documentary series for Netflix. Like the book, the new show is split into four sections—“Fire,” “Water,” “Air” and “Earth”—with each theme used to tell the history of human cooking and look ahead at the end of a dangerous trend in which fewer and fewer people are making food for themselves.
Pollan sees cooking as “something that’s hidden in plain sight.” We “watched our mothers do it or our fathers do it” but “haven’t given a lot of thought to it, especially since we’ve been outsourcing it to large corporations.” But while Food Inc. was a “scary film about food,” he describes Cooked as “very celebratory” when it comes to the food we should be eating.
“This is all pleasure principle,” he says, before stopping himself. “Well, I shouldn’t say all. You watch giant lizards get slaughtered. And it certainly doesn’t gloss over the fact that for us to eat meat, animals have to die. But it is a celebration of a primal human activity.”
“And it’s an activity that is still available to all of us,” Pollan continues. “Even those of us who might not be doing it now, we still have a kitchen, we still have some very basic knowledge, and maybe it will entice some people to get back in the kitchen a little bit more.”
Watching Pollan learn how to expertly roast a pig over smoldering embers or bake a perfectly crispy-on-the-outside, fluffy-on-the-inside loaf of bread is certainly enticing. But like so much other food television, from Top Chef to Anthony Bourdain, it may just make people want to eat. How does he find the balance between food porn and food lecture?
“We didn’t want to do food porn,” Pollan insists. “We wanted to do a food film that would be exciting and pleasurable, but there are issues at stake here. My orientation is actually quite political.” He says the same goes for Alex Gibney, the Oscar-winning director (Taxi to the Dark Side) who helmed the first episode of series.
“If you’ve seen his other work, it’s very strong in its politics and its sense that there are abuses in the world that he wants to correct, or at least shine a light on,” Pollan says of Gibney, who is also an executive producer on the show. “Cooking is a political act,” he says. Still, Pollan wants it to be something people do “out of excitement.”
As in the rest of his work, Pollan opts for balance over extremes in Cooked, which means he doesn’t shy away from meat, which has become the villain of most food documentaries. At the end of the first episode, he encourages a vegetarian friend to try a piece of sustainably-raised, slow-roasted pork. And it tastes way better than she thought it would.
“I have enormous respect for vegetarians because they have done something which most Americans have not done, which is think through the consequences of their eating choices,” Pollan says. “And try to align their ethics and morality with those choices. Most of us don’t think that hard about it.”
While writing his fourth book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which Pollan defends a “very rare and unusual” version of meat production, he says he discovered how important animals are to a sustainable farm.
“There is something quite elegant ecologically about having plants and animals together. The animals are fed by the plants and in turn, with their waste, they feed the plants,” Pollan explains. “So you have this closed nutrient loop, where there is no such thing as waste. And in nature, you always find animals and plants together.”
To describe what happens when plants and animals are separated into two separate industrialized systems, Pollan quotes philosopher poet Wendell Berry: “You take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.”
Since sustainable farms can’t scale up at nearly the rate that factory farms have been able to, Americans will inevitably need to eat less meat to achieve the standards Pollan desires. “The genius of industrial agriculture was to make meat, which has been a luxury food for all of human history, something so cheap that people could eat it three times a day,” he says. “Well, the world simply can’t sustain that.”
For instance, if the Chinese wanted to eat meat in the same quantities Americans do, we would need “2.3 more worlds” to grow all the grain to feed all that meat. “It’s simply not sustainable, the climate can’t take it, the land can’t take it and god knows the animals can’t take it.”
Because he’s so “picky” about the meat he buys, Pollan says he only ends up eating meat about once a week. “But it’s delicious, it’s nutritious and I think there is a place for farms where animals get to live a good life and, as the farmers like to say, have one bad day.”
Another controversial issue that Pollan tackles in the series is the ballooning number of people who claim to be gluten intolerant. While some people really do have celiac disease, those numbers are far smaller than those who believe they cannot digest gluten. “It can’t be growing in the population as fast as the market segment is growing, which suggests there are elements of a social contagion here,” he says.
“When other people are telling you they got off gluten, they feel great, they sleep better, sex is better, you’re going to try it too,” Pollan continues. “And because of the placebo effect you’re going to feel really good. Plus you’re eating less starch, which is going to make you feel good.”
But, as Pollan and Modernist Cuisine founder Nathan Myhrvold demonstrate in the “Air” episode, bread production has moved away from the “slow fermentation” process that breaks down the peptides of gluten that can be problematic for people to digest. In other words, the gluten in a slice of Wonder Bread may be very different from the gluten in a home-baked loaf.
“I’m skeptical of the size of the gluten-free movement, but I also think there are people who are struggling with gluten and that has to do with the way we’re making bread.” On top of that, Pollan says, “our bodies are very confused about what is friend and what is foe and that has a lot to do with our fast food diet.”
As much as Pollan aims to change individual habits surrounding food with his work, he acknowledges that there are some problems that can’t be fixed without the support of the federal government. Eating sustainable food is easier said than done, especially when you do not have the means to procure it.
“Look, I mean, buying really sustainably-produced food is more expensive than buying conventionally-produced food,” Pollan concedes. “And that is a function of how our policies don’t make for a level playing field. Our government subsidizes the building blocks of processed food: corn and soy in particular.” That’s what makes all those high-fructose corn syrup products so cheap and fresh vegetables so pricey. And while giant pig feedlots get money from the government, independent farmers raising sustainable pork get nothing.
Pollan notes that he hasn’t heard any of the presidential candidates on either side of the political spectrum talk about food issues. And the fact that Iowa, with its massive corn and soy farms, comes first in our presidential primary process doesn’t help the issue. “You have to pass through the crucible of Iowa to get elected president and when you’re there, there are certain things you’re not allowed to say.” For instance, that ethanol is a “very wasteful way to use corn and doesn’t actually do anything for the environment.”
He surprises himself by giving Ted Cruz credit for going against the grain, so to speak. “I didn’t think I’d ever say something nice about him,” Pollan says, laughing, but Cruz was “willing to question the gospel of ethanol in Iowa, which took some courage.” Of course, that’s because he was “representing oil interests” and doesn’t exactly believe in combatting man-made climate change in the first place.
“We need to elevate the place of food in our politics and I’m working very hard to do that,” he says. Pollan hopes that his new series will “raise consciousness about the fact that food is a key environmental issue and a key public health issue.” He wants to lay the groundwork so that when America is ready to have this debate on a national scale, the people are properly informed.
“There’s no question that voting with your forks is not an adequate [way] to solving these problems,” Pollan adds. “We also need to vote with our votes.”