Netflix Documentary Review: Cooked

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Netflix Documentary Review: Cooked

Postby Broomstick » 2016-04-24 10:19pm

Just got done viewing Michael Pollan's four-part documentary Cooked on Netflix. I'm been following Pollan for years - he's the guy who came up with the three-part plan for healthy eating that goes:

1) Eat real food
2) Not too much
3) Mostly plants

Now, some people have distorted his message because that's what happens when things get repeated over and over and people bring their own agendas to the table. One thing I like about his is that he is not an extremist, he doesn't forbid anything, just states that some things should be much more common than others. Now, that doesn't mean everything he says should be accepted without question, indeed, I'd say questioning authority is one of the recurring themes in his work and you don't have to agree with everything he says to think he has some interesting ideas and thought-provoking things to say.

Cooked is, not surprisingly, about cooking. It's divided into four parts, corresponding to the four classical elements of fire, water, air, and earth. Given that the discussion ranges from prehistory to the present, and the geographic range includes different continents, all in about 4 hours, nothing is explored in extreme depth. That's fine, because the point is not to deliver a sermon or plan on how to right all the wrongs of the world but to get you to think more about your food, where it comes from, and how it connects you to the world.

Another thing - for this documentary and the book it is based on Pollan actually went and learned from people practicing these techniques, studying southern BBQ with the Pitmaster featured, learning traditional one-pot cooking, learning to bake bread, brew beer, and make cheese so it's partly meditation on what he learned by doing these things. You also get some imput from the Modernist Cuisine camp, which is sort of the antithesis of primitive cooking, but also discusses the science and chemistry involved in cooking, both the trial-and-error of traditional cooking and some very hyper-modern stuff.

"Fire" deals with cooking with fire, and much of this hour is spent with a group of Australian Aborigines who still practice some of their traditions by going out into the bush, using grass fires to aid their hunting, cooking with open fires, and passing their traditions and language along to the younger members of the group around those campfires. Pollan meditates on how humans have always cooked with fire (it predates H. sapiens), how it allowed certain physical changes from Homo erectus onward, the sharing around of meat, mean hunting high status meat that was an infrequent catch vs. women hunting small game (in this case, goannas they pull out of holes and cook), and much talking and showing of Southern US BBQ. This is not BBQ over a small grill, this is cooking half a pig or more at once, a process that takes hours, but is also a group endeavor ending in a group meal. While seeing people hunt, kill, clean, and butcher an animal might squick some people out (although I was amused when one Aborigine woman mildly complained matter of factly that "this goanna is full of shit" as she was gutting the animal) the point is that such cooking does reconnect you to the fact that you are, indeed, eating a dead animal. When you had to hunt or, for Southern BBQ segments, raise and butcher your own meat you eat less of it and have a greater appreciation for it. There is also the element of fire at work, one of mankind's oldest tools, and how it transforms raw food into cooked food.

"Water" concerns "pot cooking" - boiling. As Pollan points out, you need a certain level of technology in order to perform this, something that can both hold water and withstand fire/heat. He does skip past the "boil things in an animal's stomach" method straight to the notion of ceramics (which would mean a pot you could reuse extensively), which we've only had for about 10,000 or so years. That's a newer technology. It also allows long, slow cooking that can soften tough meat, gristle, and plant fibers and make them more digestible and useful to the body. There are some interesting segments on dabbawallas, the Mumbai, India delivery men who take home-cooked meals from houses and small-scale cookeries and transport them to various work places around the city, then recollect the containers and return them back home. Every day. He also focuses on the women who cook professionally for men who want "home-cooked" meals but, apparently, don't have a cook at home. It's a form of work women can do out of their homes. He also has segments on more western pot cooking customs.

"Air" concerns bread, it's history, it's importance, and how it's made. Here he follows a woman in Morocco, a professional bread baker in the same town, millers both using water-driven millstones and modern industrial milling, and bakes his own bread. He discusses the history - it probably originated in the Fertile Crescent, at least as far back as Egypt. He talks about sourdough, and creating his own sourdough starter as well as commercial bread yeast. Bread dough is actually alive before you bake it, and there is something a bit magical about how it increases in size. Bread is surprisingly complicated, but as he says at the end, it's not rocket science. Certainly when you start you don't always get a perfect loaf but what you get is usually edible. This segment gave me an itch to make some more homemade bread myself during my next stretch of days off.

"Earth" is about fermentation. Fermentation is a preservation technique, but the flavors it produces can be something not initially pleasing - as several clips of professional chefs vomiting after trying foreign "delicacies" that are definitely acquired tastes. In this segment Pollan brews beer and makes cheese and kimchi (he did not attempt to make chocolate himself, though - did you know chocolate requires fermentation?). Fermenting foods are also alive, it's the use of yeast and bacteria to change food. The cheesemaker I found particularly interesting, she's a Benedictine nun with a PhD in microbiology. She makes cheese using a very old French recipe involving raw milk and wood casks, which in some ways is an industrial hygienist's nightmare but one of her college projects involved proving that some aspects of the recipe improved safety, using natural processes to avoid and reduce pathogens while promoting the ones a cheesemaker wants, the result being that the cheese she makes is safer than raw milk - which is one reason people used to ferment milk products, to preserve them and I'm sure they noticed there was less risk to eating properly made cheese than drinking raw milk. (She's also, apparently, pretty damn picky about the dairy herd on the abbey grounds and how the raw milk is handled. As pointed out by more than just her, you can have safe, raw milk but it takes diligence and unflagging attention to detail.) There's a lot of science and biology involved in fermenting foods, yet people figured out successful techniques before they had any idea of how it all worked or what bacteria and yeast were.

I found it an interesting series that, once again, made me think a little more deeply about what we eat at my house. It is both informative and entertaining, and something I'd recommend to others (hence this post). It re-iterates some of the points Pollan has been making for years: be thoughtful about what you eat, don't become reliant on industrial food, appreciate your food.
Now I did a job. I got nothing but trouble since I did it, not to mention more than a few unkind words as regard to my character so let me make this abundantly clear. I do the job. And then I get paid. - Malcolm Reynolds, Captain of Serenity, which sums up my feelings regarding the lawsuit discussed here.

If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. - John F. Kennedy

Sam Vimes Theory of Economic Injustice


A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. Leonard Nimoy.

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