BY MAHRUKH SHAHID
“To cook or not to cook is a consequential question”.1
The above quote is one of the parting words from Michael Pollan’s documentary Cooked—a four-part miniseries divided into the classical elements: air, earth, fire, and water. Pollan shows us the science, and magic, behind the transformation of these elements into food. His documentary engages the senses. You salivate at the sight of the sizzling steak and smell the aroma of the cherry wood it is being prepared. Cooked also explores issues that relate to our health, and the dilemmas that modern food production requires us all to face.
I am personally very fond of barbecued meat but after seeing a cow being slaughtered, I refused the pulao, a Pakistani rice dish that my mother made with its meat for Eid. I had seen the animal struggling and the blood gushing from its neck as it was killed. How could I perpetuate this cruelty and consume its remains? Michael Pollan has an interesting take on this question. He thinks that meat-eaters should be able to “deal” with the fact that they are eating a dead animal. He wants consumers to be aware of the violence behind getting food to our plates, and reflect that in our choices. At first, this made little sense to me. Why would I want to say that I am eating a cow instead of a beef burger?
The answer to that question lies in factory farms or “visions of hell” as Pollan calls them.1 We all know that the meat on our plate was slaughtered but what we don’t realize is that the animals are being kept for long beforehand in dreadful conditions. Factory farms have been called agents of bioterrorism by academics because they create the conditions necessary for breeding and spreading disease among animals and then from animals to humans e.g. E. coli infections and Salmonella poisoning.2 These animals are kept in crowded, unsanitary spaces while being fattened with antibiotics and growth hormones. The unhealthy end product of this industry arrives on our plates in the form of a clean looking chicken breast or a scrumptious hamburger and we eat it up, never thinking about the consequences. Antibiotic use engenders drug-resistant strains of pathogens and hormones given to the animals’ upset local ecologies.3
If we are aware of the violence involved in eating meat, we are more likely to be responsible when procuring that meat. To learn more about how to avoid factory farm foods, you can read this guide from the Huffington Post. We should have knowledge of the life that the animal lived and make an effort to choose humane options. This is the crux of Pollan’s argument and he wants to give people the autonomy that comes from cooking their own food, starting with the type of meat they choose to eat. He does this in the second part by illustrating just how amazing the act of cooking actually is. The visuals from this episode are breathtaking: Simple ingredients in food being broken down and mixed to create a rich array of flavors and aromas.
After impressing the viewer with these visuals, Pollan then reminds us that cooking has been made optional these days. He highlights the infiltration of the food industry into our home kitchens and the problems associated with the highly processed foods to which we have become accustomed. The food industry realized that it was more profitable for them to sell processed food than fresh produce. They make the cheapest possible raw ingredients attractive by adding salt, sugar and fat. As the time spent cooking has been reduced, obesity levels have risen. Some horrifying facts are cited in the documentary: 8% of all Americans today have diabetes and many children are now getting adult onset diabetes.1 As people in the developed world are realizing the correlation between processed food and health problems, the industries are shifting their focus towards developing countries. We all come from different parts of the world and have unique food cultures built around our native ecosystems. Our traditional cuisines are rich in nutritional and medicinal value. Pollan praises this diversity and encourages us to preserve our distinct food cultures.
Additionally, many poor people in rich countries can’t afford the more expensive organic, freshly produced food and instead turn to the processed junk food easily available at every store. We are aware of this phenomenon but Pollan is pushing us to act upon this common knowledge. Yale Dining sources its beef and meat from grass-fed farms in Australia and has several other sustainability initiatives’ but the effort needs to continue at a personal level as well.3 Pollan encourages us to go out and buy produce, the healthiest options we can afford, and cook it for our loved ones. He says that “meal is this incredible human institution” and this really resonates. Cooking at Yale can be a very fun get-together with a close group of friends. I prefer to make food that reminds me of home and which is hard to obtain anywhere else in the US.
In our busy lives, especially at college, we hardly have the time or the autonomy to prepare our own meals and sit down with our family and friends. Unlike the act of eating, the job of preparing food is time-consuming. In the time we choose to save by opting for fast/processed food, we are losing the cooking skills passed down in our families for generations as well as the health that comes from eating wholesome, home cooked meals. Humans have evolved food processes over centuries that utilize the basic elements and it is necessary to go back to the basics if we are going to deal with some of the persistent non-communicable diseases plaguing populations worldwide.
Mahrukh is a rising junior in Morse College. She is a Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Ginny, A. (Director). (2016). Cooked [Video file]. In Netflix.
- 5 Modern Diseases on the Rise Because of Factory Farming. (n.d.). One Green Planet. Retrieved July 15, 2016, from http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/5-modern-diseases-on-the-rise-because-of-factory-farming/.
- Yale University. (n.d.). Retrieved July 15, 2016, from http://sustainability.yale.edu/news/yale-dining-sustainability-efforts-shine.