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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Michael Pollan Riffs on Cooking, Fermentation, Gluten and Ayn Rand

The eating expert speaks on all things food at the Oriental Theatre

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Michael Pollan has already written, to much commercial and critical acclaim, about agriculture and eating. The mid-way process in the chain of going from growing food to consuming it had, however, thus far escaped his examination. Until now, that is.

Monday night Pollan read from and discussed his examination of the crux of the culinary cycle, Cooked: A Natural History to an appreciative audience at the Oriental Theatre. As Boswell Book Company founder Daniel Goldin noted in his enthusiastic, slightly discursive introduction for the evening, this was the largest ticketed author event in the then-1,488-day old bookstore’s history. And though there were no actual victuals served at the Oriental apart from its usual concessions for the Pollan lecture, attendees received food for thought in the form of a signed copy of Cooked, the price of which roughly covered the cost of admission. 

Pollan contends that cooking connects people to one another in civil and social interaction that's almost secularly sacramental in its specialness; furthermore, it gives humanity a position that connects nature to science. The ways in which food can be cooked also connects us to nature's elemental forces: fire (grilling), water (boiling), air (baking) and earth (fermentation, which seems to interest Pollan most). But, as with the introduction that preceded his talk, there are tangents aplenty within Cooked. And while Pollan contended that his latest book has, indeed, an argument, it's those side routes from it that make for the greater enjoyment in reading it.

Early in his presentation, some of the audience toward the front tittered at Pollan's hypothesis regarding the popularity of cooking shows, the gist of it being that more cooking may go on over television than does in the nation's homes. The implication of those yucks was that watching delicious dishes being made is akin to viewing other people having sex. He riffed on that, though it seemed like a point he would have eventually made eventually, discussing the fetishistic and voyeuristic parallels between pornography and food TV.

By implication of another of Pollan's anecdotes in Cooked, the boxes of pre-made meals in supermarket microwave aisles constitute another kind of food porn, in that their visual lure far exceeds their reality. The author and his family, on the suggestion of his teenage son, made a dinner of nuke-able foods, only to discover the frustration of the samey taste from entrée to entrée and the individualistic nature of their preparation. Pollan received probably his biggest laughs of the night with his assertion that microwave ovens constitute the Ayn Rand of cooking appliances. 

His description of that unfortunate supper also provided a segue to one of the complaints that threads through much of his writing, that Americans eat too many ultra-processed food-like substances that aren't, to his reckoning, actual food. Within the context of that complaint, Pollan recommended that his readers also take in Michael Moss's Salt, Sugar, Fat: How The Food Giants Hooked Us and referenced how the threat of demographic winter in the U.S. have contributed to the nation's obesity epidemic by companies promoting the eating of more of their product to a consumer segment in apparent numerical stasis.

In answering audience questions after his talk proper, Pollan hypothesized as to the rise of celiac disease and gluten intolerance generally, told of his pre-notoriety encounter with Monsanto per genetically modified crops and their failure to live up to the company's mid-’90s promises, courted potential controversy among Dairy State fans by dismissing milk as an overrated and oversold food about which he has some health concerns (though he enjoys yogurt and cheese and garnered some cheers for telling of his shopping for the latter at the farmers market on Madison's capitol square) and told of how humans aren’t the only animals to cook their food: Squirrels and chickens engage in fermentation when they bury acorns underground and store grain in the pouches underneath their beaks.