Stop, cook and listen

Garden delights: The author tends his field of dreams.
Garden delights: The author tends his field of dreams. Photo: The New York Times

The heavy cleavers are flying furiously, splattering fatty pig juices in all directions.

It's a crisp autumn evening in 2010 in Berkeley, California, and I'm sitting in Michael Pollan's front yard, among his raised vegetable beds, waiting with 50 other invited guests to sample Pollan's pig roasti.

Pollan is the best-selling food writer of several books including In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma.

You might think 12,000 kilometres from Australia is a long way to fly for a bit of pork. But this is no ordinary barbecue. It's a fund-raising dinner for Pollan's friend, legendary chef and food activist Alice Waters, whose Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

The heritage-breed hog we've travelled to feast on has been roasting and basting in the Pollan family's garden fire pit for 18 hours.

Long and slow. This is excruciating delayed gratification.

Feast of the senses: Food writer and gardener Michael Pollan embarked on a traditional food odyssey for his latest book.
Feast of the senses: Food writer and gardener Michael Pollan embarked on a traditional food odyssey for his latest book. Photo: Fran Collin

The crisp, flattened carcass has finally been lifted from the grill onto a table, where Pollan begins vigorously chopping the pork into a fine mix of meat, fat, crackling, seasoning and vinegar. It's quite a performance piece. The hungry hordes aren't disappointed. The meat is earthy and tender, and the caramelised crackling is indecently good.

As Pollan says in his new book Cooked - A Natural History of Transformation, there is something life-altering about pork crackling. Who but a vegetarian would disagree with that?

In Cooked, Pollan charts his journey into the home kitchen as he sets out to explore how we harness the four classical elements - fire, water, air and earth - to transform nature into things to eat and drink. For example, Pollan says in the book, barbecue turns something you would never eat (dead pig) into something you can't wait to eat.

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To help him on his barbecue, braise, bake and brew odyssey, Pollan enlists the help of charismatic specialists. There are the showman grill pitmasters of North Carolina for whom ''barbecue'' is high theatre. We meet the modest chef from the Basque Country of Spain, who smokes every dish on his menu, including his butter. There's an American-Persian Chez Panisse-trained chef who teaches Pollan about braising or ''grandma'' cooking. There are the boutique beer brewers and the exuberant ''fermentos'' who use ancient pickling techniques to make sauerkraut and kimchi. But one of the most memorable mentors must be Sister Noella, the American Benedictine nun with a PhD in microbiology, who guides Pollan through the ritual of creating raw milk cheese.

It's a natural transition from Pollan's usual writing arena, which to date has focused on nature, plants, gardening, nutrition and the food production system. In fact, his work has become so significant, in 2010 Time magazine named him one of the world's 100 most influential people.

Cooked is a cookbook with a difference; it's not a ''how to cook'' cookbook. It's a ''why to cook'' cookbook. Only four traditional-style recipes are tucked into the back pages. (Fortunately, one is for Pollan's delicious pork shoulder barbecue.)

Michael Pollan's finished 18-hour roast pork.
Michael Pollan's finished 18-hour roast pork. 

Cooked is Pollan's Pied Piper call to entice us all back into our kitchens, which he says we've largely abandoned to spend more time in front of the television and surfing the web. Corporations now do most of our cooking for us and this, he says, is having damaging effects on our health, nutrition and family life. He also argues that home cooking might be the single most important thing an ordinary person can do to reclaim the food system.

''Home cooking is one of the best predictors of a healthy diet,'' Pollan says on the phone from New York, where his book tour is now under way.

''People who cook their meals - without even thinking - eat healthier food.

Serving the pork, with pitmaster Jack Hitt.
Serving the pork, with pitmaster Jack Hitt. 

''By its very nature, it will discourage you from making really junky food. You're not going to make French fries at home three times a day because it's too time-consuming. But you might eat them if a corporation was cooking them for you.

''I want people to reconnect with what food is and take it back from the marketing version, which is that it is simply entertainment and fuel. It's so much deeper than that. It's an engagement with nature. It's an engagement with our bodies, it's an engagement with our families. I want people to fall in love with cooking again.''

Being a nimble-minded intellectual, Pollan is able to weave back and forth throughout his book between the kitchen, laboratory, pulpit and altar, drawing upon Greek mythology, romantic poetry, anthropology, biochemistry and microbiology, to help build his compelling argument that we can only understand our relationship with food if we can master the processes that create it.

After trying his hand at several ancient cooking processes now practised only by a few artisans, Pollan is particularly captivated by the art of bread-making. ''My first globe resembled an attractive white buttock with some muscle tone,'' he says.

He says he still bakes a loaf a few times a month, always ensuring that, in the interim, he keeps his bread ''starter'' well-fed. He says he had no idea baking would be so intuitive and sensory. ''Baking is a respite from all the time we spend in front of screens,'' he says.

''There's something so sexual about handling dough and watching this transformation. There was something beautiful about the rhythm of those days when I would write for 45 minutes and then go downstairs and turn the dough, sniff it, taste it and see how billowy it was getting and then go back to work. There was a ritual to life after I got over the initial intimidation.''

Pollan loves gardening, writing and working with living things, which may explain why he developed such a deep fascination for the fermenting microbes that create some of our food. This ''microcosmos'' is responsible for some of the most delicious foods he explored, from sauerkraut and kimchi to beer and raw milk cheeses. He says the 20th-century war on bacteria - with its profligate use of antibiotics and routine sterilisation of food - has undermined the good work of microbes and our health by wrecking the ecology of our gut. Pollan says we need to eat all kinds of fermented foods regularly. Now, the only fermented product most of us are familiar with is yoghurt.

''I'm fascinated by the kinds of fermentation where we cook without any heat whatsoever,'' Pollan says, with genuine excitement.

''These are the most miraculous transformations of all because here we have food being cooked by bacteria and fungi. What an amazing idea. What an incredible discovery, that you could use this tropism [natural inclination] towards rot which is everywhere on us, in us, all over the environment, and you could harness that destructive energy that is trying to break you down and everything down, channel it in such a way that it leads to these incredible, striking, strong flavours and also makes food healthier and more nutritious than before you started.

''That's an incredible thing and I no longer take it for granted when someone serves me a good pickle.''

So you heard it from the horse's mouth. The man who coined one of the most famous phrases in modern food philosophy - ''Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants'' - will go ga-ga over a gherkin.

Which brings us to the often-cited reason most of us don't cook any more: lack of time.

As Pollan says in Cooked, time is the missing ingredient in recipes and in our lives. Even on weekends most of us are moving too fast for slow cooking.

He acknowledges that people need to re-evaluate their concept of time if home-cooking is to be revived.

''People are too busy,'' he says. ''We work too much. And the kinds of cooking that people can do in a modern life when both partners have jobs is not necessarily baking or grilling a whole hog in your front yard. But we do seem to find time for the things we value.

''My intention is to show people how interesting and worthwhile this work is. It's an argument for pleasure. How is it that we've come to think of it as drudgery? I blame food marketers for some of that. I think they've deliberately made it look too hard and not worth our time.''

Pollan says the survival of home-cooking will also have ramifications for the recent renaissance of farmers markets and local agriculture.

''We're not going to see the agriculture we want to see unless we're willing to cook,'' he says. ''Because when we don't cook, the farmer is only getting 8 per cent of the food dollar when you buy processed food. When you go to the farmers' market and buy ingredients that haven't been processed, the farmer captures more than 90 per cent of the food dollar. So revolutionising our agricultural system really relies on a culture of home cooking.''

I think back to that delicious free-range roast pig I enjoyed in the Pollans' front yard. It was raised with love, cooked with love and certainly eaten with love. A corporation would struggle to replicate that. As Pollan says in Cooked, is there any practice less selfish, any labour less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for people you love?

Michael Pollan's Cooked - A Natural History of Transformation, $29.99 is published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin.