“We all have powerful memories of being cooked for. That act of generosity and love, I think, is still in there for most of us and is very powerful. The meal is this incredible human institution… but we’ve lost touch, I think, with how that food got to our plates. This is more important than people realize” (Pollen).
From best-selling author Michael Pollen, comes a four-part cooking series that will stop you in your tracks. The short series is simple yet magnificent. It is separated into the four classical elements of fire, water, air, and earth.
The first episode merely had me intrigued. By the second, I was invested. It was during the third episode, though, that I realized I was truly enamoured. By the fourth one, I knew this work was going to leave an important mark on my life and the way I was going to live it.
Pollen believes that it is cooking over a fire that made us who we are as humans, “Fire is a very powerful thing.” For many people around the world, it seems to serve as a common ground which can be used as a template to tell a life story.
In today’s society, what typically remains of this primordial unreconstructed idea of cooking is the culture of BBQ; however, it is a dwindling practice.
What stands out the most about the first episode is the notion that anyone who eats meat should be encouraged to go hunting at least once to see how they really feel about it. Pollen highlights that most people who hunt for their own food will greatly appreciate the meat they consume.
He’s uncomfortable with much of the current food processing standards:
Most of the meat eating we do, I have a lot of trouble justifying, but I have visited enough farms where I have seen animals living the kinds of lives they should live. And that they have what farmers like to say ‘one bad day.’ That kind of agriculture is something I can support and I want to support. I also think there are ecological reasons to justify meat eating. The most sustainable agriculture involves animals and plants together. Plants are feeding the animals, the animals are producing waste that is feeding the plants, and you have a complete nutrient loop. If the whole world were to go vegetarian, I don’t necessarily think it would be a good thing.
A small livestock farmer who takes great pride in the way she raises her animals is introduced in the series. She explains that farming offers a lifestyle that allows one to live in the present, savour the past, and be excited about the future. Originating from the farm myself, I really appreciate this perspective.
Pollen doesn’t shy away from revealing the rawness of how many of us perceive the food we eat, “If it comes to you as a chicken nugget, you can completely lose sight of the fact that there was a chicken at the beginning of that process.” He describes that we often hide the animals that make up the meat we eat behind these high walls of mass production. We try to separate ourselves from these inhumane processes. It is apparent that in order to disconnect from being a passive consumer, we need to reconnect with our food sources and value cooking traditions for what they still have to offer.
It is brought to viewers’ attention that the element of water opens up a whole new possibility of flavours, allowing favours to be mixed during the cooking process. Furthermore, skill and time can be utilized to transform humbly flavoured ingredients into an impressive dish.
Air, on the other hand, is the most elusive element; it actually allows flavours (gases) to arise. A perfect example of this is baking bread. Through this episode, viewers are able to get an incredibly interesting glimpse at the constant lust for bread throughout many cultures. This has actually made wheat one of the most desired grains in the entire world.
Something I found intriguing was the original, unadulterated method of making bread – the long sourdough process. One of the most important advantages of this approach is that it allows the grains to be broken down into parts that our bodies are actually able to absorb: nutrients.
Pollen powerfully identifies that all cooking is alchemy, but making bread is the greatest alchemy of all. The invisible ingredient needed in the process is available to everyone, and this ingredient is air.
The last piece of the pie is earth, which provides us with a transformative process called fermentation. It is highlighted that our ancestors were mastering this practice long before they even knew how it worked. Taking a look at this concept allows us to develop a better understanding of the link between food microbiomes and the human microbiome.
Throughout the series, it is evident that Pollen desperately wants us to get back to relying more heavily on fresh, home-grown ingredients – food that is created with purpose in the kitchen and built in front of our own eyes. This short series made me re-evaluate my own inattentive approach towards sourcing my food (food which is often provided by Big Industry). It motivated me to start taking control of nourishing my body at least a little bit at a time.
As the series concludes, we are left with the question, “To cook or not to cook?” After watching this, the answer is clear.