Michael Pollan: “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” | Talks at Google
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Michael Pollan: “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” | Talks at Google

KAREN MAY: I’m Karen May. I lead people development
here at Google, and have the honor today,
as you enjoy delicious food, of introducing Michael
Pollan to all of you. Michael– he doesn’t
know this yet, but his work has
changed my household. Because we say to
each other, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly grains. Mostly plants.” So we use our food
rules quite regularly. And I think, for many
of us, Michael’s work directly and indirectly
has changed our households for the better. One of Michael’s
rules that many of you know– since you’re here,
I’ll assume you know– is to not eat food that your
grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. And I understand
that’s been revised to great- great- grandmother,
depending on how old you are. You have to continue to revise
that every 20 years or so. And based on when refined
sugar was introduced. But we do, also in my
household, tease each other– would your grandmother
recognize that? Put that down! Grandma wouldn’t recognize that. So I think you’ve made–
you’ve raised consciousness around the world, in a way
that I don’t know if you know the full extent of
the personal impact. But it’s quite lovely. And I’m pleased– this is not
Michael’s first time here, but pleased to welcome
him back to our talks at Google series, multi-year
series, and to have you here. Michael’s work, as
many of you know well, the body of work preceding
the current book, “Cooked,” really takes us through kind of
a look at industrialized food, if you will. And Michael tackles
agribusiness, and throws devastating criticism
at processed food. And I sort of see you, as
I experience your work, as one part writer, one
part historian, and one part social activist. There’s probably another
part, nutritionist, and then another part, sort of
curious learner in there as well, if I put my
development hat on. But all of that comes
together to create a very accessible
body of work that’s both thought-provoking
and behavior-changing. So, in this current book,
“Cooked,” Michael sort of tackles, literally, the
art of cooking and helps us see cooking not
only as from kind of a social-historical
perspective, but also about what happens as
you bring ingredients together, and the impact on
society, on environment, on families, as
well as the impact on general kind of
social connectivity. So I think we take
something as potentially simple and unidimensional
as heating food in fire, and turning it
into something that infuses the social
fabric in which we live. So it’s very exciting. I am very fortunate to be loved
by two great cooks, my mother and my husband. I am very fortunate. And in reading
“Cooked,” I developed a deeper understanding
of some of their passion, and where that might
come from, as well as appreciation for the gift
that they give to me. So, on behalf of the Googlers
here and watching us virtually, welcome to Google and thank you. MICHAEL POLLAN:
Thank you, Karen. Thank you very much. Thank you. I think this is my fourth visit. And the last time
I was here it was because there had been
a program to give out copies of “Food Rules.” I don’t know if
any of you were– there’s a lucky recipient. And I see it’s had an impact. You all look very
svelte and healthy. So it works. Very glad to see that. And I’m also glad to see people
eating at an event about food, despite the sign as
we entered that said, No Eating In This Room. But, honored in the breach. What I’d like to do is
first try to tell you a little bit about
this project I’ve been on for the last couple
years, which was mastering– that’s a strong word–
the art of cooking, and the transformations
that we call cooking. But first I want to
start by putting it in the context of
other books of mine, and of the journey
that I’ve been on since I started
coming here, really. And that is, following
the food chain. I mean, that’s the story of my
work over the last dozen or so years, has been trying to figure
out where our food comes from and where it goes. And I started this
journey, really, with “Omnivore’s Dilemma.” And that was an attempt to trace
four different kinds of meals back to their
source on the farm. And what we eat
connects us to the land. It’s our most profound
connection to nature, is our eating. Although most of us
are not aware of it as such because we’re
now so disconnected from the source of our food. And we live at the end of a
very long and intricate food chain that’s largely opaque. And so in that book, I tried
to follow the food back to the land, and see
how it was created out of soil and chemicals and
fossil fuel and sunlight, depending on what
kind of food it was. And then after I did that book,
people just were asking me, you talked about every
dimension of food except health. And what I really
want to know is, what are the links
between diet and health. What I eat and
what happens to me. And so I plunged into another
project, equally exotic to me. And I should tell you,
whatever expertise I have, I’ve acquired as a journalist. Not with any– I have no
academic training in food studies or nutrition or
biochemistry or all the things I should have taken in college. I was an English major. And so I delved into nutrition,
and looked at, what do we know, and more importantly,
what don’t we know about the links
between what we eat and our odds of chronic disease,
our likelihood of getting obese, all these kind of things. It’s remarkable how much we
don’t know about nutrition. And so I was looking at these
two ends of the food chain, one after the other. The earth end, and the body end. And I hadn’t really
paid much attention to the middle of the food chain. Which is to say, the area
where the stuff coming off of the farms gets transformed
into the meals we eat, and how it gets transformed,
and who does the transformation. And I was picking up
clues along the way, though, looking at
the earth and looking at the body, that those
transformations were actually really important, and that
they were driving changes going on at both ends
of the food chain. So let me explain. So the industrialization
of our agriculture, the rise of these
giant monocultures of corn and soybeans
all over the Midwest, the rise of animal factories,
where we put tens of thousands of the same species in
tightly controlled situations and feed them these diets
that maximize their growth, and these pharmaceuticals
that also maximize their growth, that
was very much driven or underwritten by the fact
that we were no longer cooking. And that we were outsourcing our
cooking to large corporations. And when you let McDonald’s and
Burger King and Olive Garden and all the companies
making the processed food in the supermarket
do your cooking, they shop in a very
particular way. They want to buy from the
biggest possible suppliers of the most consistent,
cheapest food. And so that the
monocultures of corn and soy are very much driven
by fast food diets. That’s what corn
and soy is– it’s the building blocks
of the fast food diet. The corn becomes the
high fructose corn syrup, and the soy becomes the oil in
which the fast food is fried. And I realized this
when I was studying, I was looking at
potatoes, of all things, and I went to a
potato farm, which was this amazing
landscape in Idaho. It was 50,000 acres divided
into these vast crop circles, each one 156 acres with a sweep
second hand irrigation pivot that was putting out the
water or the fertilizer or the chemicals. And they were using one chemical
in particular– it really stuck with me– called Monitor,
that was such a toxic pesticide that the farmers wouldn’t go out
into their fields for like five days after they
spread it, because it was such a neurotoxin. And they explained–
I said, why do you have to use this chemical? And they said,
well, because we’re growing Russet Burbanks, which
is the only kind McDonald’s will buy, and all the
other– and Frito-Lay, and all the other companies. And it’s a hard potato to grow. And I said, why do
they like that one? And they said, oh, it’s
the longest potato. So when we get our
McDonald’s french fries, we love that red
envelope with the bouquet of long French fries
coming out of it. And the only way
you can get that is with the Russet Burbank. Problem is, Russet Burbanks are
susceptible to something called net necrosis, those little brown
lines you very occasionally will see in a potato,
or brown dots. Totally cosmetic defect. No problem eating that at all. But McDonald’s will
not tolerate it. So the way you deal
with net necrosis is Monitor, which is
this horrible toxin. And I was thinking,
God, so we’re kind of complicit in this
landscape I’m looking at. And indeed it is
driven by the fact that we are letting
McDonald’s cook our French fries
in a certain way. So that’s one side, and
that’s one example of how the collapse of
cooking in America is driving the industrialization
of our agriculture. And Eric Schlosser
told the story really well in “Fast Food Nation,”
the links between the fast food industry and the
new ways of raising chickens and hogs
and corn and soy. On the other end, though, when
I was looking at the body, this was even more curious. I realized that the
collapse of cooking there was taking a huge
toll on our health. And although we
couldn’t tell ourselves with real certainty
that saturated fat is the evil nutrient we
should avoid if we don’t want to get fatter,
get heart disease. Or sugar is the really bad
nutrient we should avoid. And we’re totally
still pretty confused about nutrients, good and bad. What we did know was that
home-cooked food is– people who eat a home-cooked
diet are much healthier than people who don’t. And that the best predictor
of a healthy diet, regardless of your income, was whether
it was cooked at home. And there’s a very interesting
study I came across that showed that poor women who cook have
healthier diets than rich women who don’t. So it even undoes
the usual class bias toward the poorer you are,
the worse your diet is. If you’re cooking,
you can undo that. So both of these
clues were telling me, I really had to deal with this
middle link of the food chain. Why aren’t we cooking? What is cooking? And why were we
willing to let it go from so many of our lives? So that’s what kind
of got me started. There was also, though,
a paradox I was noticing. And I started out by
looking at this, well whatever happened to
cooking in America? And I wrote a long essay about
that for the New York Times Magazine, that ended up in
the book in another form. But there was this
really curious paradox, which was as rates of home
cooking were declining, from more than an
hour per person per day in 1965,
to 27 minutes now, with four minutes
for cleaning up. Which, I know, what
kind of cleaning up can you do in four minutes? And it’s kind of suggesting that
cooking is not too ambitious, that you’re crumpling
a pizza box, or throwing out some
takeout containers. And indeed, if you ask
the marketing experts, will you define cooking for me? Is it cooking from scratch? Oh no, we can’t even
measure scratch cooking. That’s too small. It’s the combination
of any two ingredients qualifies as cooking. So I said, so bottled
salad dressing over pre-washed greens? Cooking. Slice of meat between
two pieces of bread? Cooking. And in fact, the sandwich is the
most popular meal in America, both for lunch and dinner today. And so we were
cooking less time, and cooking less in what most
of us really think is cooking. But at the same time
we were cooking less, we were obsessing about
cooking as a culture. And we were watching
cooking shows on TV. And we have magazines
devoted to chefs who have become cultural heroes. And this struck me is
this interesting anomaly, in that what it
suggests– OK, we’re spending 27 minutes cooking. How long is the average
cooking show on TV? It’s 30 minutes, or 60 minutes. So that meant there
were tens of millions of Americans who were
spending more time watching other people cook on
television than were actually cooking themselves. And I don’t need to
tell you that you can’t eat the food you see
getting cooked on television. You can’t even smell it. And yet, we were doing it. And so I wanted to understand
what that was about. Because if you think about our
lives, there’s plenty of stuff we’ve outsourced to
corporations, right? I mean, we don’t change the
oil on our car anymore, right? We don’t work on
our cars anymore. We can’t. We can’t figure
them out anymore. We don’t sew our own
clothing or darn socks. And there are many things
we’ve let go, we’ve outsourced, and we have not looked back. No problem. Don’t miss that. And I don’t watch TV about
changing the oil in my car, or darning socks. There are no shows
about that stuff. I mean, I’m sure
you could find them if you dig deep enough
into the cable channels. But in general,
they’re not popular. So why is cooking different? I think it’s a real
clue to us that cooking has a certain importance–
an emotional importance and I would argue, even genetic
importance to our species. And I want to try
to convince you that cooking is central to
our identity as humans, that to do it is an agricultural act. To paraphrase Wendell
Berry, who said, “Eating is an agricultural act,” I would
say cooking is even more so. It is a political act, and
it is a therapeutic act. And how I came to this was
by learning how to do it. I mean, I essentially
apprenticed myself to masters of the
four transformations that I think we can break
cooking down into, each of which represents
a technology. And I want to quickly run
you through what those four technologies are, in order. But before I do, this paradox
probably owes to the fact that we all still have
very powerful memories of being cooked for, of being
in the kitchen with our parents, probably our mothers, and that
incredible process of watching her conduct these
transformations, at the end of which is this
profound gift from parent to child, of something you
love to eat, a favorite food. I mean, I can remember the
foods that my mother would make for me on my
birthday, or things that– the dish during the
course of the week that was just– I loved. And so it goes kind of
deep in our lives, I think. And we remember those smells. We remember that
transaction of love. And so that’s part of it. But it turns out it
goes even deeper. And when I said that it’s
kind of hard-wired into us, I meant that quite literally. What we’ve learned in
recent anthropology is that the transformation
in our evolution that separated us
from the apes and led to the growth of our brains
and the shrinking of our jaws and our gut, which happens
about 1.8 million years ago, when we become– even
before we were human. Before we’re Homo sapiens–
when we’re Homo erectus. That dramatic
transformation has kind of mystified archaeologists
and anthropologists for a long time. What would cause such
a profound change? And for a while they thought
maybe it was meat-eating. But meat-eating can’t
really explain it, because eating
raw meat, in fact, you need a giant jaw to chew it. It’s really hard
to chew, and you need a big gut to
digest it, because it’s really hard to digest. What it really is, it
appears, is the discovery of cooking with fire. And when we figured
out this amazing trick, this critical technology,
these amazing changes happened. And the reason is that
when you cook food, essentially you externalize
much of the work and the energy
needed for digestion. So that instead of your
body having to do it all– and we burn a lot of calories
digesting, or we used to– it takes place, the partial
breakdown of the proteins and the carbohydrates
and the fats. And it becomes detoxified,
and it becomes easier to chew. It’s a huge deal. And it really gives us this
tremendous evolutionary edge, because it also gives us access
to foods other animals can’t eat like tubers, most of which
are toxic unless you cook them. Cassava, potatoes. You eat raw potatoes, you
can have solanine poisoning. But we found when you cook
them, you could eat them. And so we had this
new stash of calories that other animals didn’t have. So it gave us a big edge. But this energetic–
this boom of energy we got from cooking
food appears to be what underwrites the
growth of our brains. Our brains are tremendous
energy guzzlers. They take up about 2%
of your body weight, but they use 20% of
the energy you take in. So it’s expensive
to maintain a brain. And you can’t do it
without cooked food. So you raw foodists, take note. Now, raw food, you ask. OK, well, there are
people who eat raw food. And some people try to
do raw food exclusively. But most of them
don’t do very well. And half of the women on raw
food diets stop menstruating. They’re not getting
enough energy. And anyone who does do raw food
is highly blender-dependent. I mean, if you know any
people who cook raw food, they’d be literally
dead without a blender, because that’s doing
all that chewing and that work of digestion. So I would say that
actually qualifies as a primitive form of cooking. So we need cooked food. It’s now hardwired into us. We’re dependent on it. We’re obligate cooks. Now, the other thing,
though, that fire gave us is it freed
up a lot of time. Before we cooked with fire,
we spent a very large portion of our day chewing. And if you look at apes
that are our size, similar weight and size, they spend
half of their waking hours in the act of chewing. Six hours a day, chewing. It’s no wonder they
don’t get a lot done. You can’t have a culture if
you’re spending half your time chewing. You can’t have art. You can’t have software. There’s all sorts
of things– well, you probably could
have software. So it was a great boon to us. And the last thing
cooking gave us, and why I think it is
so important socially, is that when you start
cooking with fire, you start eating
in a different way. Cooking gave us
not just the stuff, but the occasion, the meal. And here’s how. If you’re cooking
over a fire, remember this is pre matches
and lighters. Keeping the fire going is
a tremendous undertaking, and requires a lot
of cooperation. So you need someone to
kind of tend the fire, while someone else is hunting
or preparing the food. And it becomes
cooperative in a way that hunting and
gathering never had to be. In hunting and gathering,
you could eat food wherever you found it. You might bringing some home for
your family, or you might not. But as soon as you cook,
you need cooperation. And you also need to
learn how to share. Because if you’re cooking this
big beautiful chunk of kudu, or whatever this
animal is that you get, you have to restrain
yourselves from eating it before it’s ready. And if you don’t have rules
surrounding your meal, you will find the biggest,
strongest, hungriest, greediest animal will get
the food, and you won’t. So with meat-eating around
fires becomes the rudiments of civilization. A lot of civilization is about
restraining your instincts, learning rules of
social engagement. And many, many things
happen around that fire, including probably language. And this rulemaking,
though, is that we’re going to divide it this
way, and you get this piece and I get this piece. This is the beginning
of civilization. So cooking give us a lot. And as we cook less,
we’re losing a lot. Our brains are not
getting smaller, but our guts are getting larger. And we’re not eating
around the table as much, as we fail to cook. So cooking is really
important to us as a species. And there are costs
to outsourcing it. Now we’re still getting
cooked food, obviously. McDonald’s and the
cafeteria here, everyone will give
you cooked food. And the problem is
that when we allow large corporations to
cook– and actually, we call it processed food
when corporations do it, cooking when humans do it– when
we allow corporations to cook for us, in general, and
there are exceptions, they don’t cook very well. They tend to use the cheapest
possible raw ingredients, and to use the most
salt, fat, and sugar to make that food acceptable. We love salt, fat, and sugar. We evolved to– we have buttons
that you can push very easily. We need those nutrients. The problem is, in nature,
they’re pretty rare. In modern industrial
economy, they’re really cheap and easy to add,
and everybody loves them. And when you layer
them together, you get food that’s
irresistible, that stimulates cravings. And that’s why the industry,
the food processing industry, works with them so much. And they’re just very
cheap to add to a food. So that’s one problem,
that you’re not going to get high
quality ingredients and it’s going to have too
much salt, fat, and sugar. Another problem, though,
which is a little more subtle, is that corporations
are very good at cooking certain things,
like French fries. Classic example. There’s something about home
cooking that basically gives you a nudge in the direction of
simple foods, simply prepared. Any of you made
French fries before? It’s a pain. I mean, they’re wonderful,
but you have to, like, peel the potato– wash the
potato, peel the potato, cut the potato, heat up
this big thing of fat, and then spatter
your whole kitchen. It’s a mess. And then you have to
get rid of all that fat. And you’re not going to do
it more than once a month, if you’re an ambitious cook. You’re just not going to fry. But McDonald’s, or
anyone, or Ore-Ida, can make really
good French fries so cheaply that they
become ubiquitous. And so you end up eating
this special occasion food, that I think of it, because
I love French fries. Many Americans eat
it twice a day. So when you outsource
cooking to corporations, they’re going to make those
labor-intensive, highly desirable cookies and cakes,
too, which are also a pain. And so you don’t
make them that often. So what I’m saying,
there’s something built into the nature
of home cooking that tends to keep you
onto the healthier foods than you can have. And it’s the ubiquity of these
labor-intensive foods that gets a lot of
people into trouble. So that’s another reason. And a food marketing expert I
talked to, this guy in Chicago named Harry Balzer, we
were talking about– and he works for the
processed food industry. And I was saying,
well, what are we going to do about this
obesity, this problem? And he said, well, I’ve
got the diet for America. You want to know how to
control weight in this country? And I’m, like, taking
out my notebook, what is he going to tell me,
the secret from deep within the heart of the
processed food industry. He says, eat anything
you want, as long as you cook it yourself. If you could actually do
that, any problems around food would disappear. Because you wouldn’t have
French fries that often. You wouldn’t have
dessert every night. And you would eat a healthy
diet without counting calories, without looking at
any ingredient labels. It would take care of itself. But that’s easier
said than done. So I kind of took the
Harry Balzer challenge, and went out and tried
to learn how to cook. And as I said, I divided cooking
into these four transformations or technologies. And they happened to correspond
to the classical elements. There is cooking
with fire, water, which is cooking in
pots, with liquid. And then there’s air,
which is cooking– which is baking, bread, which
is putting air into our food, which is very significant. And then fermentation– earth. Cooking with
microbes, the microbes that live in soil–
many of them do. And most kinds of
cooking, you could put into one of those
transformations or another. And I want to quickly
run through what I learned about each one. And they’re all interesting
in their are different ways, and in each case I found
a master to teach me. In the case of fire
cooking, I wanted to find the most
unreconstructed cooking, the most like that primitive
scene that I described, with the people around the fire. And that turned out to
be eastern North Carolina barbecue. And I specify eastern, because
if you go to western North Carolina, they do
it differently. But eastern North
Carolina barbecue is whole hog, wood fire, time. That’s the recipe. A lot of time– 20 hours, maybe. And it’s just so
simple, but dressed up with lots of pretension, and
lots of self-dramatizing men telling you how hard it is. But it’s really
simple, believe me. I’ve done it since. And I mean, guys
know that barbecue is all about taking
something very simple and making it look
like a big deal. And that’s probably been
going on for a very long time in human history. And one of things that struck
me learning about barbecue– and I explore the science of
it, like, why is cooked meat taste so much better
than raw meat? And there are these
amazing chemical reactions that take place– the Maillard
reaction and caramelization that create, like, 30,000 new
compounds that are elusive, that taste like other things,
that just kind of complicate the food in a really
interesting way, making it more
metaphorical, even, and less literal in ways that
humans always like doing that to everything– to
language, and to food too. But the thing that
struck me is that it’s so rule-bound, even now. Cooking the meat outdoors
is really rule-bound. And the barbecue pit masters
have– they’re, like, more rule-obsessed
than any rabbi I’ve ever met about eating meat. And so I’ll say, so what do
you think of the barbecue in over in western
North Carolina? And they’re like, well, those
are pork shoulders with sauce. And that’s good, but
it’s not barbecue. And I said, what about what
they do in South Carolina? Well, they do a mustard-based
sauce and they’re eating ribs, and that’s not barbecue. And so it’s like
it’s not kosher. Over and over again,
it was like Kashrut for goys going on
all over the South. So I was very struck by that. And there had been
this long tradition that the priest and the
butcher and the chef, all through classical history, Greek
history, was the same person. {Megaros}. One word for those
three functions. That’s how important it was,
and how ceremonial it was. And cooking meat is still very
ceremonial, and it’s very male, and it happens in a
very theatrical manner. So that was the first science of
cooking, the first technology. The second big breakthrough,
you have to leap forward way from 1.8 million years ago
to just 10,000 years ago. And that is when we
begin cooking in pots. It awaited pots. We needed to develop
the technology to create clay-fired pots
that could withstand a fire, and that you could
boil water in. This seems really
simple, but it’s actually a profound development. It’s hard to imagine
agriculture getting off the ground without
this technology. Because a lot about
agriculture is, is eating seeds, right– grain. And it’s very hard to eat
grain unless you’ve softened it in water, and you turn it
into a porridge or cooked rice or whatever you’re doing. So toasting grain, these
little things over fires, you can’t get a skewer on them. It doesn’t really work. So it’s no accident
that cooking with water comes up at the exact same
time that agriculture begins. And they’re probably
closely allied, and there’s probably a chicken
and egg phenomenon going on. But when you can
do this now, you can do all sorts of new things. You can combine vegetables
with meat, for example. You can eat parts
of animals that are very tough, because you
can break it down slowly. You can braise it and stew it. And what I learned to do
was braising and stewing in this chapter. Working with a young
Chapanese chef in Berkeley. And you begin to have cuisines. Cooking meat over fire,
if you close your eyes you couldn’t tell if you
were in Brazil, or North Carolina– leaving the sauce
aside– or Europe, or China. It’s meat over fire. But as soon as you
cook in pots, and you can mix these
vegetables with it, you get these
aromatic vegetables like onions and garlic,
or onions and pepper, these different
combinations of vegetables that really mark a food
as part of a culture. So if it has a mirepoix
base, that’s French cooking. That’s onions and
celery and– I always forget– carrots,
thank you very much. And then there’s
the Asian mirepoix. There are these
flavor principles that you really can’t
establish until you’re cooking in pots with liquid. And the other cool thing about
it is there’s no waste anymore. It’s a very economical
way to cook, because when you’re
cooking meat over fire you have the dripping
fat, which is all very nutritious, actually. And you’re losing
all those calories. But in a pot, you
get everything. You save it all, and you
get the amazing dividend that is a sauce. You can’t have sauce
before you have these pots. So it does a lot for cuisine. It also does a lot,
interestingly enough, for the human lifespan. Once upon a time, when you only
had meat cooked over fires, you couldn’t wean a baby
until they had some teeth and could eat it, or you would
have to chew it for them. But now, you can make these
soft soups and porridges that allow you to
wean babies earlier, which is a great
boon to society, because you can increase
population and have babies spaced more closely together. And then on the other
end of the lifespan, you can keep old
people alive longer. Because previously, when
you lost your teeth, you were kind of screwed. But now, you have
these foods, these gruels that you can keep people
alive even without teeth. So the pot actually
expands human lifespan, and so it’s a very
important technology. Now let me leap ahead. I’m going to go quickly,
because I really do want to hear your questions. And we can talk about
this, or anything else you want to talk about. Bread. One of my favorite
technologies of all. Bread is discovered
in Egypt, it is thought, about 6,000 years ago. How? Well, probably what
happened is somebody made one of those porridges
that I was describing. It was some grass seed, and
ground, and then added water, and lost track of it. Didn’t eat it. And it just sat off in a corner. And some yeast and
bacteria got into it, and somebody looked at
it one day and says, wow, that’s bubbling,
and it’s gotten big. It’s twice as big
as it was before, which is kind of amazing. Wow, I just got more
food by leaving it alone? And then they thought, hey,
let’s put it in the oven and see what happens. And even more miraculous,
it doubled again in size. And so you can see why bread
became this miracle that’s part of the Eucharist,
the Catholic communion. Because it does seem to come
from nothing, or very little. And it becomes quite big. And what’s happened,
of course, is it’s air is the additional food. Or “food.” But we’ve added air to the food. And the significance of
this was driven home to me by a food scientist I
interviewed for the book, a guy at Davis named Bruce
German, who said if I gave you a bag of
flour, even whole wheat flour, and water, you could
live on that for a little while, but not very long. You would eventually die. But, if you took that water and
flour and turned it into bread, you could live indefinitely. So what’s going on? Why is that such an
important transformation from dough, essentially,
he’s saying, to bread? Well, he explained
what’s happening. When you have that starter
culture, that sourdough– which is a culture of both yeast,
fungi, and bacteria– when you introduce them to that
wet mass of flour and water, they start digesting
the polysaccharides, the long-chain proteins
and carbohydrates. And the microbes
create these enzymes that break down
those long chains. The reason they’re
in long chains is that the seed–
remember we’re talking about
eating seeds here– that the seed has
everything needed for the next
generation of plants. It’s an amazing
pantry of nutrients. It’s got it all. Fat, protein, carbohydrate,
minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, it’s all there. But it’s locked up tight,
because the plant doesn’t want to give it away to animals. It wants to keep it intact for
the developing, the germinating seedling. But what the microbes
that we introduced do is they break down those–
they break into the pantry and break it down into
much more digestible forms, into short-chain
carbohydrates or sugars, and proteins that
become amino acids. So that’s the first
transformation, is during that fermentation. And then the second
transformation comes when you bake it. Now you know from your
elementary physics that if you have boiling
water or something like that, it can’t really get hotter than
the boiling point, at which point it turns into steam. But if you enclose it
in the crust of a bread, you create a pressure cooker
in which all those little air pockets inside get
really hot and steamy. And steam can get much hotter
than the boiling point. And you can drive it up
to 300, 400, 500 degrees. And what that extreme
heat does is thoroughly cook the carbohydrates so that
they become very digestible, and much more sweet
and delicious. So this is a
profound technology, for taking a mush of grass
seeds and turning it into a food that you can live on, unless
you’re gluten-intolerant. But people weren’t that
gluten-intolerant back then. We can talk about that later. And so, very
profound technology. And I worked with– if
some of you, I’m sure, live in San Francisco– Chad
Robertson, who bakes at Tartine and makes what I think is the
best bread in the whole world. And I spent a lot of time
learning from him how to bake, and when I was
making my starter, I didn’t know whether it was OK
to ask a famous baker to take some of their
starter or not, and I thought it wasn’t
a cool question. But I made a point of shaking
his hands every time I saw him and not washing my hands, and
then adding it to my starter. So I ended up with a
Tartine-ish starter that’s very lively, until
I went on book tour. And I neglected it for
two months and it died. So I need to see Chad
over lunch very soon and shake his hand, yeah. So that was air. And then the last section
I want to talk about is, for me, what was probably
the most fascinating. And that was this
method of cooking without the use of
any heat whatsoever, purely through the
action of microbes. What an amazing thing that these
microbes can give us everything from wine to cheese to
sauerkraut and kimchi and pickles, to chocolate,
which is a fermented food. I don’t know if
you realize that. And coffee, which must
be fermented before you can grind the beans. It’s an amazing thing that we
can use bacteria in this way. It began as a food
preservation strategy. Before refrigeration,
how would you preserve the harvest to
get through the winter, until you had another harvest? Well, you did it
by fermenting food. And it’s still going on. I was in China
recently, and they’ll take a bunch of cabbages and
they’ll throw them in a pit and cover it was soil. And the lactobacillus
will go to work. They’re already on the leaves of
cabbages, and everything else. They’re on you. And just like they’re waiting
to ferment you when you die, they are waiting to ferment
cabbages when they die. And so they start breaking
down the vegetable matter, releasing lactic acid, which of
course is a great preservative, and makes them more nutritious. So I grew up in a very
microbe-phobic family, like most of us did
in recent years. And my mother was
terrified of bacteria. And if she dropped a can of
green beans on the ground and it got a dent, she we sure
it had contracted botulism and we had to throw it out. And so we had lots
of hand-washing and all the normal things. But I met this generation,
this subculture of what I call “fermentos”–
people kind of obsessed with fermentation. And they’re all around us now. And they’re a very
interesting subculture. They go a little
further than I do. I mean, they’ll eat
roadkill and high-meat, and they love bacteria. And they’re trying
to renegotiate the terms of our relationship
with these microbes. And I think in that, they’re
really on to something. They’re very casual
about hygiene. You’ll ask them for a
recipe and I’ll say, well, shouldn’t I wash that crock
first, or that cabbage? No, don’t wash it, because it
has the good bacteria on it. And it turns out though,
they’re on to something. I mean, we’re learning
that our war on bacteria, even though it has helped
conquer several diseases, has also led to
various problems. And it is probably
our lack of contact with bacteria as
children that is leading to these high rates
of allergy and asthma and autoimmune disease. That’s the hygiene hypothesis. But we’re also
learning more recently that the ecosystem
of microbes that live in your large intestine–
I mean they’re all over you, but especially there– are
very important to your health. And that– I don’t know if you
know this, but you are only 10% human. 90% of the cells that you
are, that are on your body and in your body, those
belong to microbes. You’re a super organism. And our health is,
in significant ways, mediated by the health
of that ecosystem. And we have in our
antibiotic culture, literally antibiotic culture,
we’ve been killing off a lot of those microbes. We have not been ingesting
them in our diet, with the result that our
biodiversity internally is dramatically lower than
it is in people probably 50 years ago, and we know in
hunter-gatherer populations that have these wild, wildly
diverse and very healthy microbiomes. So the fermentos are
really on to something. And I look in the book
at the biology of this, what we’re learning
about the microbiome and how it affects our health. And that was fascinating to me. It’s leading to a
revolution in medicine that we will all feel
very soon, although we don’t have to wait for it. I mean, eating
more fermented food is what a lot of
these doctors will tell you is a good thing to do. I’m talking about
sauerkraut and pickles and all that live culture food. But as important as
fermentation is biologically, it’s very important culturally
too, and this kind of surprised me. A great many cultures
have a fermented food they love that other people
think is kind of disgusting. And they’re polarizing foods. I’m thinking of stinky cheeses
and kimchi and sauerkraut. And if you go to
China, they love something called stinky tofu. I don’t know if any of
you have ever had it. It’s well-named. It’s essentially tofu
that’s been marinated in rotten vegetables, just black
slime of rotten vegetables, usually outdoors. And then maybe if you’re
lucky, fried after that. It actually– if you can
get it past your nose, it doesn’t taste that bad. They love it. And yet they think
a cheese, even kind of a not so stinky
cheese, a cheddar or something, is the most disgusting
food imaginable. They will not– they can’t
believe we like cheese. And they say– and it’s oily and
the taste stays in your mouth, whereas stinky tofu, it’s so
clean and the taste disappears. Although, what kind of
praise is that for a food, that the taste
quickly disappears? I will also point out that they
eat stinky tofu exclusively outdoors. So anyway, cultures have this. And the Koreans are very
proud of their kimchi. And when I went to
Korea, I went to Korea to learn how to make kimchi. And I went to the
kimchi museum, in Seoul. I went to one on the
south side of the river. There’s another one on the
north side of the river. And there are a total of
six kimchi museums in Korea. And when I was there, I
asked the docent a question. I saw all these groups
of kindergartners with their little uniforms
and yellow backpacks trooping through, learning how kimchi
is made– the urns, the spice mixes, and everything. I said, why do you
bring kindergartners to a kimchi museum? And this woman said,
because children are not born liking kimchi. OK. It is, by definition, it is
the definition of an acquired taste. And these fermented foods
are all acquired tastes. And they’re one of the
ways– culture’s very much about drawing lines, right? And they’re one of the ways
that we define ourselves against other cultures. And I’m convinced–
I couldn’t write about this, because the
research isn’t there– but that these foods actually
change our bodily odors in ways that make us either
very comfortable or very uncomfortable. So anyway, fermented
foods are really interesting on many
different levels. And I learned how
to make cheese. I worked with a
wonderful nun who’s a cheesemaker and
a microbiologist. And she actually
believes– she makes this beautiful cheese
in Connecticut. And she makes it
in a wooden barrel, which is the most– you
know, it drives the health department crazy,
because you can’t sterilize a wooden barrel. And in fact, the recipe for
this traditional French cheese she makes specifies, don’t
sterilize the wooden barrel. Just rinse it out. Because they’re
really good bacteria that live in the
little crevices. And in fact, she proved to
the health authorities, when they tried to shut her down or
make her use stainless steel, like every other
cheesemaker in America, she got two vats of
raw milk from her cows, right in the abbey. And she introduced e.
coli into both vats, and waited a couple hours. And at the end of
three or four hours, the stainless steel vat
was so teeming with e.coli that it was toxic. You couldn’t– that would
be condemned, that milk. And the milk in
the wooden barrel, it had vanishingly
small levels of e. coli. And what had happened? The lactobacillus that
lived in the wooden barrel started– they call
it lactobacillus– eating the lactose,
their favorite food, breaking it down into lactic
acid which killed the e. coli. So you see, these people
have been practicing a kind of folk microbiology for
hundreds and hundreds of years. And she’s mastered that. And the health department went
away after this demonstration. And she really believes
the cheese is so wonderful that it belongs
in the Eucharist, along with those other
two fermented foods, wine and bread. And she thinks cheese is a
better reminder of the body than bread is, because it rots
and reminds us of mortality. And it’s like, it’s
a heretical idea, but it’s kind of beautiful also. So, a lot of the
cooking I did is not things you’re going
to do every day. It’s really extreme cooking,
making cheese or kimchi– although kimchi is really
easy to make– and sauerkraut and baking bread. But I found that doing
this, even every now and then, is an incredibly
satisfying process. When we learn how to do
something for ourselves that is not what we do at work,
it’s really empowering. So many of us, we live in
such a specialized culture. And we’ve gotten really good
at the one thing that we do and selling to the market. And we’ve outsourced
everything else in our lives–
our entertainment, our exercise to some
extent, our food certainly. And there’s something
wonderful about that. It makes this economy go around. But there’s something
debilitating about it too, and something infantilizing. The fact that we’re so dependent
on fossil fuel, which is really what allows us to do
all this outsourcing, and so dependent
on other people, that it feels really good
when you do something, you learn a new
skill that actually is in support of your body. And so few of us
have these anymore. And I found there was– it
was a very satisfying way to spend time, to learn
how to bake bread. And learning to
diversify your talents, learning how to take care of
yourself to a greater extent, I really think,
is a precondition for the kinds of political
changes we need in this world. I just don’t think we’re going
to tackle things like climate change until people can imagine
living in a different way. And if you’re
highly specialized, you can’t imagine living
in a different way– without that car,
without that fossil fuel, without that restaurant
to cook your meals. But as soon as you realize,
oh, I could do this, suddenly you’re open to change. And so that’s why I said
it’s a political act. Take back control of
your diet, take back control of some
part of your life that you’ve been letting
other people do for yourself. Not every day, even
just occasionally. I think you’ll find it feels
empowering and really good. So I’m going to leave it there. We have a microphone here
if anybody has questions. I’m happy to talk about
cooking, gluten intolerance. And I forgot to mention
there is one animal that does cook, at least one animal. If you include fermentation
under the definition of cooking, squirrels cook. Any animal that buries their
food is not just hiding it. They’re starting that
earth-driven process of breakdown, to make that
seed, that acorn healthier. So we’re not quite the
only animal who cooks. AUDIENCE: Back to the microbes. I think it’s great that
you’ve sort of helped get a lot people excited
about what is clearly becoming a pretty big deal
scientifically, understanding the
microbiota and how much it affects all our health. I have a two year
old daughter, so I’m very keen to make sure
she’s exposed to enough of the right microbes,
but my wife probably also, intelligently, is worried
about exposing her to too many of the
wrong microbes. So I’m just curious,
have you figured out, for people who are sort of
enlightened about this stuff, but still– we’re in a
world where the bugs are kind of hostile,
and there aren’t a lot of things that are–
the good bugs [INAUDIBLE] it’s hard to get raw milk, et cetera. Are there good practical
ways to get access to more bugs in your
diet without being too off the reservation? MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah. Well, I mean, eating
whatever fermented foods that your daughter likes. If she likes yogurt, great. Kids tend not to like
sauerkraut and kimchi. I mean, they’re
strongly flavored foods. But try it. But the other thing is
not just in the diet, but in the lifestyle. There’s a lot of
research showing that kids who grow up on
farms, especially ones who eat raw milk, drink raw milk,
but are exposed to animals, have much lower rates
of autoimmune disease. So raw milk is a complicated
one, and a risky one. And I don’t simply
recommend it, unless you’re very confident of the farmer
who’s selling it to you. But taking your kid to farms,
having pets– even having pets has been correlated with lower
rates of autoimmune disease. So those exposures while she’s
that age– her immune system is being trained right now. And exposure to bacteria during
that training is a good thing. Hand washing is still
advised, actually, because of– that’s how many
germs are conveyed among kids. And not that that’s a bad
thing, but it’s inconvenient if your kid is sick a lot. You’re probably building
her immune system every time she
gets an infection. So, exposure to
animals, really good, any kind of food that has
live bacteria is really good. AUDIENCE: Thanks. MICHAEL POLLAN: Sure. AUDIENCE: I’ve read, I guess,
all four of your food books. And one thing I don’t
remember you writing about is a currently popular, or
maybe faddish trend in food, and that is
molecular gastronomy. Or as Nathan Myhrvold calls
it, Modernist cuisine. MICHAEL POLLAN: Yeah. AUDIENCE: It certainly
violates your grandmother recognizing it. MICHAEL POLLAN: Well,
not always, because– AUDIENCE: But at
same time, it doesn’t seem to have any of
the bad things that led you to suggest that rule. So what do you think? MICHAEL POLLAN: I did look
into molecular gastronomy. And in fact, Nathan served
me a beautiful lunch up at his mad scientist lab
in Seattle, as part of it. And I was very interested
in it, and that kind of food is interesting and
artistically engaging, but I don’t think it’s central. I don’t think it’s
going to change the way we eat any time soon. And so I think it was a little
too rarefied for me to explore. I was really, in
this book, trying to get back to the fundamentals,
the basics of cooking. And he’s on the
frontier of cooking. Which is interesting,
but I don’t know that we’re all going to be
doing sous-vide and using some of the techniques he’s using,
even though it produces interesting food. I was trying very much not
to write a foodie book. This is not a foodies’ book. I hate that term. I think our food culture
gets a little bit decadent at various points, in
the way we’re eating sometimes. And so we really
wanted to concentrate on familiar foods that are
available to everybody at home. Even though
intellectually I find what he’s doing fascinating. There may be some
applications at some point of what he’s doing. And if we can figure
out a way to use the techniques of
the food scientist to make food more nutritious,
I think that would be great. It’s striking how little of
that work has succeeded so far. That, in general, and I
tell the story in the book, in the bread chapter, processing
food for thousands of years consistently made it healthier. Coming up with fermentation,
cooking in pots, breadmaking. At a certain point, we
started processing food to make it less healthy, to
make it have a longer shelf life, mostly. And it happens when we go from
whole wheat, stone-ground flour to white flour. And so that’s kind of
an interesting story. And it may be Nathan is
at the beginning of a move toward figuring out how
to again use technology to make food more healthy again. But not much has happened
in that area yet. AUDIENCE: If I can make just
one final comment on this, you can now get a
really good immersion circulator for only $200. I think in 10 or 15
years, sous-vide cooking is going to be like a
blender or food processor. MICHAEL POLLAN: It may be. I’d be curious. The last big addition has
been the microwave, which is an interesting technology
and it’s really good for, like, heating up your cup of tea. It’s not really
good for cooking. And I don’t think it’s
very good for family life, because you do one
thing at a time. So I look forward
to the new gadget that we’ll put in our
kitchens that will actually make cooking easier, and make
the food more nutritious. And that might be it. AUDIENCE: So I come from a
family of traditional rice farmers in southern India. And when I was growing
up, 90% of everything I would eat with my grandparents
came from the land around them. They grew it themselves. A couple generations later,
many of us, including me, have chosen to
pursue other things like develop software and
chew food for six hours a day, in an ape like fashion,
and outsourcing our food production to other people,
and cooking to Google. But no one I know around
this area actually says, I want to be an alfalfa
farmer or a wheat farmer. Everyone wants to
pursue other careers. And I wonder in
50 years from now, will anybody be available to
grow this fundamental thing that hedge fund managers
and software engineers still need for their survival. Who will be there? Who will grow the food? MICHAEL POLLAN: I think
that’s a great question. Well, I actually said at
dinner the other night with the 125th employee
of your corporation, who is now a farmer. His farm is supported
by his Google stock. [LAUGHTER] But he’s doing
really interesting, good farming somewhere in Marin. And in fact, I’ve
met a succession of people who work
in your industry who have gotten the bug. I mean, one of the encouraging
things going on right now is, for the first time
since we’ve been keeping track, the number of farmers in
America is ticking up. It’s been going
down consistently since we had– since we
measured it, since 1900, say. And there is a generation
of young people who’s very engaged by the
work of farming, which is really important
because you point to the big problem with
industrial agriculture. It doesn’t require
a lot a labor. We basically traded
labor on the farm for chemicals and machines. And we’re paying
the cost of that. It’s very hard to grow
good quality, nutritious, chemically-free food without
more people on the land. And we will need many
more people on the land if we really want
to eat sustainably. But there’s also growing
food in your own home, which is not trivial. I mean, during the
World War II, about 40% of the fresh produce
in America was being grown by individuals
in their gardens. There’s no reason we
couldn’t do that again even while developing software. So I think the
challenge, though, is going to be in
places like India, that– there are many people
who want to stay on the land, there are many people who don’t
want to stay on the land– that the option of staying
on the land is preserved. Because that’s in
danger in many places. I mean, there is a vision of
industrializing, developing world agriculture on
offer right now, that threatens to flood
the cities and lead to a kind of agriculture that
will be very hard to sustain because it’s so
fossil fuel-dependent. So we do live in a
specialized economy. We need people to grow our food. The best thing we can do
as people writing books, or developing software is,
pay them a living wage. Make it attractive. One of my food rules
is pay more, eat less. Good food, sustainable
food, does cost more. And those of us who can afford
to support those farmers need to do it. We need to make it a very
attractive way of life, so that we will draw more
people into doing it. And we will pay
farmers for doing something, as you
recognized, is so dependent. No matter what we’re
doing, we still need food. And food still comes
from the earth. And to ignore that connection
and lose track of it, I think, is a tragedy. So it begins with
supporting farmers who are doing good work. Thanks for your good question. AUDIENCE: Well, I was going
to ask a final question, but we’ve run out of time. So everybody join me
in thanking Michael for coming back to Google. MICHAEL POLLAN:
Thank you very much. Thank you.

About Earl Carter

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53 thoughts on “Michael Pollan: “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” | Talks at Google

  1. This guy makes no sense, one minute he says eat lesss meat the next he says bar b q a hog.  Fucking inane, how is this idiot so popular.

  2. a 1992 study followed by a 2008 study proved that bovine protein in DAIRY is the cause of TYPE 1 DIABETES. when a pregnant / nursing mother consumes dairy or when the baby of less than 3 years of age are introduced to dairy and the baby has a genetic pre-disposition to type 1 diabetes..the babies digestive tract is not developed enough to filter bovine protein..once in the blood stream, bovine sets off and auto-immune response to destroy the antigen..that is good…PROBLEM HERE is the immune system cannot distinguish between BOVINE and BETA cells.. so it attacks both…now you have a baby with an auto-immune disease called type 1 diabetes.. BOVINE PROTEIN and a genetic pre-disposition have to be present for this to occur…   if you have  type 1 in your family and you plan to have children, please do the research…there is a huge body of work…
    no good reason consume dairy..best source of calcium is green leafy veggies that contain the magnesium, iron and zinc necessary to lodge calcium in the bone..where do you think a cow gets her calcium..? dairy dose not contain magnesium, iron and zinc..so that calcium in not bio-available..

  3. Not true about fries. Dump some olive oil onto a baking sheet, cut some potatoes with those circular grate things, hit them with salt and pepper, and bake at whatever temp till they start to stick. Mix around with a spatula half way. Tasty as fuck, and not bad for you unless you don't know how to burn off olive oil calories. Only pain in the ass is to clean the banking sheet but just soak it and you're all good. 

  4. Michael inspires me to cook at home.  We haven't eaten out in over a month.  My husband and I are feeling so much better!  Thank you Michael!

  5. Three very powerful observations in this talk:
    1. That the transformation from hominid to human may in fact be marked primarily by the discovery of cooking with fire, and not, as previously thought, solely by the addition of meat and/or seafood (because of the high omega-3 fatty acid content) to our diet.
    2. That we can pretty much eat whatever we want, so long as we cook it ourselves. As a poor person who cooks the majority of her own food, I can vouch for this.
    3. "I just don't think we're going to tackle things like climate change until people can imagine living in a different way. And if you're highly specialised, you can't imagine living in a different way—without that car, without that fossil fuel, without that restaurant cooking to cook your meal."

  6. I'm on a raw food diet. I'm not dependant on a blender and I have my period.

    However, it's not easy. I eat around 10 meals a day and it require very good planning skills.

    However, do you know anyone that can eat all day long without gaining weight? 🙂

  7. You will be glad to hear, that fermentation changes everything!  Traditional sourdough breads do not have gluten issues.  I know you will do the research and find this truth, quickly, you just needed to be pointed in the right direction!  😉  Thanks for all you've shared. 

  8. Micheal Pollan is such a great guy and so interesting to listen to! I lived in China and he's right, stinky tofu tastes pretty awful but they seem to like it. The Chinese also seem to think cheese is horrible, except on pizza which they tend to like.

    In my native country of Iceland we have rotten shark and many people like it, but I've never seen a foreigner like it hehe 🙂

  9. Love Michael Pollan – he is always so engaging, personable, and open-minded. His research is thorough, his writing both clear and poetic, and his advice sensible. He just seems like a super-intelligent guy who is also down-to-earth and humane. I wish he was my neighbor and I could hang out with him!

  10. Genial Pollan, un gran comunicador.
    49.32…el nabo con los google glass, me dio como verguencita ajena.

  11. I would like to email someone about this video but I can't find any contact email addresses anywhere. Please can the makers of this video contact me via email. Thanks.

  12. To learn about bread you have to come to Germany. Germany has a real bread culture with 5000 different breads.

  13. This intro is so long that I lost interest by the time he’s ready to speak, maybe you could have cut your intro for you tube viewers or if you want to talk some more get it all out in your car

  14. hi Micheal just read your new book (How To Change Your Mind) bang on loved it had a lot of experience with drugs and drink but bean clean now for 6 years 7 months and will never go back. i did not get the look of an education i had to do it my self. self educated in evolution and science just read Richard Dawkins new book Science In The Soul. but are you not misleading people about food all food we eat is not natural it is all G.Modified. the last time we ate natural food was 8.000 200 years ago when we in Britain had to go back to hunter gathering farming only began 10.000 years ago that's when we started to change food and g. modified it so no one eats natural food all fruit and veg is G.M. but yes we should eat as healthy as we can for the good of the planet and us all human and none human. we are the only species that works to destroy the planet all other species work for the good of the planet. they (none human) animals used to eat all natural food now they are eating plastic P.S.Bs DDTs CBCs. if a whale washes up we have now got to treat it as toxic wast. we are destroying our self's and with the planet it breaks my heart after all we are part of nature. you can always find me on facebook. take care. great book.

  15. yes the in the high attic they will catch returning little auk's put them in to a seal skin and bury it for it to ferment then dig it up in 3 6 months later and eat the hole thing they do not even skin the birds. they call it kiviat.

  16. that's the problem our immune systems need practice other wise when the time comes (infection) our immune systems can not cope. its a double edge sword. but yes we need bacteria.

  17. Whenever I hear any "Talks at Google" introduction, It is said so fast it sounds like "here at toxic Google." 🙂

  18. Big gut to digest meat?! Nonsense. Cow got big gut or lion? You should read "Should we eat meat?" by Vaclav Smil.

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