Cooked is the new documentary series by Michael Pollan and Alex Gibney that debuted on Netflix this February. The series is based on Pollan’s 2013 book by the same name. Each episode is built around Pollan learning to cook using one of the four classic elements: fire, water, air, and earth and a mix of interviews and features on people from across the globe cooking in their everyday lives.
The series is visually stunning with slow motion shots of food being cooked from unique perspectives, including a steak being grilled from the grill’s point of view and how cooking on the stove works using a crystal clear pot.
The interviews take a refreshing approach by including people from a diverse set of backgrounds making a wide range of foods that help underline Pollan’s point that cooking and eating are a foundation of the world’s cultures. These segments are the antithesis of the celebrity driven visual junk food so prevalent on TV today.
A thought provoking segment focuses on India, alternating between a woman making home cooked meals for workers in India’s new economy and scientists at a lab for Nestle figuring out how to make prepackaged food that tastes like authentic cooking for the Indian market. It’s a revealing moment that shows how complicated the questions around food are and the resources being marshaled to encourage people to eat processed foods.
Others include fermenting chocolate, hunting with the Martu, and one that focuses on Mother Noella Marcellino, a nun with a Ph.D. in microbiology who uses wooden barrels and a traditional French recipe to make cheese.
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What makes the series stand out is how it draws the connection between cooking, what we eat, and where our food comes from. Pollan argues that cooking is what makes us human, both biologically and culturally, and there are consequences when we outsource the preparation of the food we eat.
Early in the series, Pollan makes the case that learning to cook with fire was what allowed our ancestors to evolve from apes to humans by making it easier for us to digest food and provide the nutrients our brains needed to grow. It’s interesting to think about the connection between evolution and cooking and how the development of our brains encouraged us to find new ways to work together to form communities; essentially coming together to turn nature’s bounty into usable calories.
Throughout the series, Pollan points out that as people eat out more and consume more processed foods at home that we’re losing our connection to what we eat, which is a part of why we’re eating more junk food that’s heavy on sugar and fat. He also contends that there is a relationship between people losing their connection between meat as something that comes from an animal and the living conditions for livestock in factory farms.
In general, the series gives people the information they need to draw their own conclusions. The main exception is the ire it shows towards the food industry and its efforts to get people to eat processed foods instead of cooking because it’s more profitable to sell people prepared foods than to sell them ingredients.
The series highlights this point in an entertaining way when Harry Balzer, an expert in food trends, gives his rule on eating while talking about how little time people spend in the kitchen. It’s a simple rule; you can eat anything you want, ice cream, pie, cookies, etc.… as long as you make it yourself. A rule that would dramatically change for most of us what we eat.
Pollan also talks about the traditional role fermentation plays in cooking and the possibility of unintended consequences from the efforts to remove natural occurring bacteria from food and the rise of gluten intolerance. Whether this ends up as a side note because of a lack of time or to avoid pissing off the gluten-free crowd is unclear. What is unfortunate is how little time the question gets, because it seems worth exploring further.
The series ends on an upbeat note with Pollan speaking in a hopeful way about a cooking renaissance, while acknowledging that the proliferation of cheap, easy food means cooking will be different in the future and that a kitchen renaissance will only happen if people choose to cook.
Photo courtesy of Netflix
Mark is Umami's publisher