Cooking makes us human. It’s one of the few distinguishing features between us and our primate ancestors.
It serves an important physiological, cultural, and even spiritual purpose. Cooking unlocks potential energy in food. Research has shown that eating a cooked vegetable or piece of meat provides more calories than if you were to eat the same food in its raw form. Cooking is the centerpiece of many of our most cherished holidays, like Thanksgiving. Rituals of sacrifice, killing and cooking a large animal, have been important to diverse groups and followings throughout history. It’s a way to pay homage to a higher spirit.
Cooking commands a different place in today’s culture. Gone are the days when if you didn’t know how to cook you didn’t eat. As Michael Pollan describes in his book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, we’ve outsourced cooking. Instead of owning the craft we’ve put our faith in others to prepare nourishing food for us. Paradoxically, as Pollan puts it,
“How is it that at the precise historical moment when Americans were abandoning the kitchen, handing over the preparation of most of our meals to the food industry, we began spending so much of our time thinking about food and watching other people cook it on television?”
Since the mid-1960’s, the amount of time spent preparing meals in the average US household fell by 50%. Now, the average household spends a mere 27 minutes cooking per day. Instead we opt to consume food other people prepare for us, whether at a restaurant, prepared foods at a grocery store, or any processed food. And as we’ve found out, putting our full faith in this type of outsourcing has contributed to some serious shifts, and unintended consequences, related to our health, the economy, and society.
This is the tip of the iceberg. You could, of course, read Pollan’s 400+ book on the topic, which describes this historic transformation in fascinating detail organized around the 4 essential elements of fire, water, air, and earth.
Or, if you’re looking for a captivating movie, I highly recommend Pollan’s new 4-part documentary series, entitled Cooked, just released exclusively on Netflix on February 19th.
It’ll make you think and maybe even make you reconsider the role of cooking in your life. More than anything, the film symbolizes a broader question, a broader movement of why cooking matters.
In the words of Pollan,
“Is there any practice less selfish, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for the people you love?”