In his 2013 book “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” author and food activist Michael Pollan argued that a return to the kitchen is a way to reclaim traditions, restore balance, and improve health in a culture where cooking is fading in importance. By outsourcing cooking to fast-food restaurants and processed-food companies over the past decades, he said, we gain convenience but are giving up on one of the fundamental qualities that makes us human. Pollan has teamed with Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney to continue telling the story of food transformations from baking to brewing in “Cooked,” a four-part series that premiered on Netflix in February. Pollan, 61, is currently living in Cambridge, where he is a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study at Harvard University.
Q. How did “Cooked” change in translation to film?
A. It’s now a different creature than the book. Film is a different medium and I was working with some really gifted filmmakers. It has the spirit of the book, but the filmmakers also deepened it and added a whole other dimension. It’s a more global story than the book was. Every one of the four hours has a location somewhere in another country: India, Morocco, Western Australia, and Peru. These are filmmakers at the top of their craft. It’s sensual. It’s beautiful.
Q. What’s your role on screen?
A. I’m in it and so spent a lot of time doing interviews and cooking for them on TV, which was fun and sometimes daunting. I had to wonder whether the loaf of bread I bake was going to come out right. We didn’t need to use a stunt loaf, thank God.
Q. How is it that many Americans seem to have lost the habit of cooking?
A. There are a lot of factors, but the food industry has been trying to wheedle its way into the American kitchen for more than 100 years. They learned early on that the way you make money in the food biz is by processing it as much as possible and starting with cheap raw ingredients. They started with processed ingredients, things like dried pasta or bouillon cubes. Then they started figuring out that they can make even more money selling complete meals or things that are very close to being complete meals — frozen food and ready-to-eat things. This was a very good business model.
Q. Has it always worked?
A. There are great stories of flops, things like cake mix in the ’50s. People couldn’t own a cake that they just added water to. They couldn’t bring it to the church social and feel like they could accept a compliment. They felt guilty about it. Then the industry figured out that they can take out the powdered egg and let people crack an egg. Suddenly, people felt like, yeah, that’s kind of like cooking. We’ve now redefined cooking so that basically combining any two ingredients is cooking. If you put bottled salad dressing over a prewashed salad, that counts as cooking in the marketers’ view.
Q. What do you think everyday cooking should look like?
A. Cooking in my own life most nights is very simple. It’s a piece of fish that’s cooked in a cast iron pan. Maybe I marinate it or make a little sauce. I think we have overcomplicated cooking based on what we see done on television and the cooking we find in restaurants. That’s not normal cooking. That’s festal cooking, special-occasion cooking. It makes people feel intimidated about cooking.
Q. What are people missing by not cooking?
A. It’s what they’re missing and what they’re not missing. Read the ingredient label on a frozen dinner and you will see a long list of chemicals that are totally unfamiliar and could not be found in any human being’s pantry, many of which are questionable in terms of their health effects. This food was cooked long ago and far away and much is done to disguise that fact. You end up eating far more salt, fat, and sugar than you would if you cooked yourself. Also, as soon as you go down that path, people in your family are going to want a different single-serving meal. There’s something really wonderful about eating from the same pot, both figuratively and literally. When you’re eating the same thing, you kind of get on the same emotional page.
Q. What are you working on at Radcliffe?
A. It’s a fellowship where you work on new projects and meet this fascinating group of people in every discipline you can imagine. It’s a great gift to be able to do it and be in Cambridge. The food scene at Harvard is really interesting. There’s a whole food law thing going on at the law school and things at the public health school. I’ve had a chance to engage with people working on these issues across campus and that’s been exciting. Lots of students are involved. I’m also living around the corner from Formaggio Kitchen. Coming from California, that’s the best place to be.
Four episodes of “Cooked” are available on Netflix.