If You Love Food, You Need to Watch Michael Pollan's New Netflix Series
In the first episode of Cooked, host and mastermind Michael Pollan memorably gives his vegetarian friend her first bite of meat (a sizable chunk of slow-roasted pork) in years. At first, it seems -- during those long seconds of hard, silent chewing -- that she is going spit it out, the bite far too big for her first foray back into meat.
Similarly, the premier criticism of author Michael Pollan's (who's best known for his book The Omnivore's Dilemma) new Netflix docu-miniseries is that he took too large a bite for his first foray into television. But don't buy into the doubt: in four one-hour segments, this project is the story of humanity through cooking, and cooking through humanity. It introduces us to cheese-making nuns, grandmas in the Australian outback who club giant lizards, and avant-garde theories of how cooked food has influenced human evolution. Oh, and James Taylor singing to his dead pig.
Every serious food lover with a Netflix ID owes it to themselves to binge this masterfully shot, fact-heavy documentary that aims to change the way we think about food, and its impact on our world.
Pollan, a food historian with the looks and general cheesy personality of a middle-school guidance counselor, pegs every episode to an element (fire, water, air, earth -- it's very Captain Planet-y) and follows a strict template: bringing us out to exotic locales, like the Australian outback, then looping their primordial traditions in with modern, Western cooking, before taking wide stabs at the political, socio-economical implications of food in our lives, with streamlined Bill Nye-style science interludes. All this, while working on dishes of his own, which eventually tie a convenient bow atop the episode's climax, behind a bloom of sweeping, emotional music fit for Full House.
"I started with fire because that's where cooking begins," Pollan narrates at the beginning of his first episode. Frankly, some of the worldview vignettes seem a little too perfect, the symbolism too overwhelming and ham-fisted. The "Fire" episode has an early scene where a baby is baptized in a burning desert before an aboriginal lizard hunt. It's like they stumbled onto the set of a U2 video, and just decided to shoot.
But the show is at its apex when it ties in ancient concepts of food, cooking, and eating with our modern gastro-society. Like chalking up our modern bone structure to evolution spurred by softer, cooked foods. Or deftly comparing tribal cooking methods with Southern, American barbecue culture. The science segments are brief and breezy, and full of Fun Facts™ you can spout over any dinner table (a whopping third of all the foods we eat are fermented!)
Each episode lingers on the sentimental, emotional aspect of food. Whether your grandma is the type to cook a stew in a cozy kitchen, or hunt lizards in a burning Australian bush, you will feel something here. These moments, when juxtaposed with lengthy segments about the ongoing commercialization of the food process, tend to hit home.
What Cooked does differently than any cooking show before it, is lasso our current diets into the overarching narrative of humanity and evolution. It's loaded with opinion, and fact-backed contrarianism, which is what makes things fun, but also a little messy.
Tuning into a Pollan project and expecting an apolitical look at food culture is like watching an Anthony Bourdain show and expecting no cursing or booze: it just comes with the territory. The co-creator of Cooked, Alex Gibney, is the dude responsible for documentaries like Going Clear and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, so anticipate a little soapboxing. But listen: even if you don't agree with someone, it can't hurt to listen and try to learn from their opinions. It's what separates human beings from Trump supporters.
The importance of Cooked is held in its overlying message, which defies any political borders or opinions. That central theme is, succinctly, that food deserves respect again. And cooking, once a required component of every meal, is an essential activity to make food great again. Man's relationship with sustenance shouldn't be limited to Seamless accounts and fluorescent-lit aisles. If we respected food and the act of cooking as much as our ancestors did thousands of years ago, much of our worldwide food problems would be (slowly) solved. Cooking doesn't need to be a vehicle driven of necessity. It can be satisfying, too. The show's claims may not be adequately supported for some -- but Pollan urges us to do our own searching, like he urges us to do our own cooking, in order to truly learn what it means to us and our lives.
Just as that ex-vegetarian eventually opened her mouth after mastication, and delivered a suspense-shattering, "Wow," you will probably end up getting more out of this little Netflix joint than you ever thought possible, so long as you keep an open mind.
Binge respectfully, people.
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