Speaking Volumes: In Defense of Food

(Published in the Business Standard, May 28, 2013)


The crumb of the bread was dark and soft, the irregular pattern of the grain signalling that it had been hand-kneaded, not machine-made. In Delhi, it would have been called “artisinal”, given a fancy packaging and equally fancy price; in this friend’s home in Shimla, it was called “breakfast”.

Commercial bread is filler, designed to be the edible sponge beneath a range of fillings; good home-baked bread, like the loaves of pao and poyi we’d had from Sevros’s Bakery in Goa the year before, is a rousing hymn to the essential rightness of the world. In Sunnymead, Shimla, you could have lived on the bread alone, though Madhavi Bhatia’s groaning breakfast table, loaded with delicacies, made that experiment unnecessary.

For the sake of decency, let’s pretend that my interest in home-baked brown bread has less to do with gluttony, and far more to do with understanding the intellectual underpinnings of good food. In Michael Pollan’s 450-page meditation on food, Cooked, he offers two ways of looking at bread. The first is as “an ingenious technology for improving the flavour, digestibility, and the nutritional value of grass”.

The second is what he discovered after he turned amateur baker himself, falling in love with the fact that bread has life to it—the mysteries of the yeast, the springiness and the moods of the dough. “A loaf of bread is something new added to the world, an edged object wrested from the flux of nature…”

Pollan has lofty material in Cooked,  where his four movements reflect the four elements—fire (the cooking of meat, in American barbecue), water (an appreciation of pot dishes, braising, stews, onions), air (baking and bread), and earth (fermented foods, from kimchi to alcohol).

He’s best known as a food writer—he told us how to eat in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he explored the relationship between plants and humans in The Botany of Desire. But Pollan should really be placed alongside Epicurious, Sei Shonagon, Aurelius, Thoreau and Musashi: an eclectic list of writers who, whatever their stated subject, end by telling you what you need for a good life.

When Pollan began writing, in 1988, he was obsessed with gardens and green things. His approach was typical: “Preparing a bed for roses is a little like getting the house ready for the arrival of a difficult old lady, some biddy with aristocratic pretensions and persnickety tastes….”

By the late 1990s, he was writing about American life—what it meant to be defined only as a consumer, eerily prescient columns about the drawbacks of GM foods. He had useful observations on the human need to balance the love of meat-eating against the rising awareness of the suffering that goes into animal slaughter. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he distilled his philosophy into seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

To say that “Cooked” is written well is like praising a great bakery loaf: you’re stating the obvious, given that Pollan’s writing is exact, sensual, mesmerising, a reflection of the obsessive curiosity that he brings to the world around him. But what makes Cooked such an interesting—and necessary–book is the range of ideas that Pollan brings to the table.

Humans have compressed too much dietary change into too short a time, Pollan argues, and our eating choices are making ourselves sick. (As an aside, India has a rapidly growing processed food industry, with considerable penetration in rural areas.) People don’t save much time by outsourcing their cooking, if you factor in the time it takes to order, pick up and plate food. They lose out not just on nutrition, but on creating a kind of hallowed togetherness in the kitchen.

Some previews of Cooked criticised Pollan for mentioning that women’s liberation from the kitchen meant a heavier dependence on commercially cooked food, but he argues that both men and women should return to the kitchen, which is feminist enough for me.

As he practices everything from butchery to baking his own bread, fermenting his own sauerkraut in large crocks, his days take on a different shape. Cooking changes the way he lives; he spends weekends cooking sauces and stews to freeze for weekday meals, he becomes as obsessive about crumb and crust as any of the bakers he meets.

The pattern of your lives will change, if you want to live well; in order to eat a salad from garden leaves, you must have the house, the garden, make the commitment, just as the bakers we met in Goa thought little of waking up at 3 am to start shaping loaves, firing their ovens. Most people think of their office meetings and assume that the other life, the cooking life, is not for them.

Pollan makes you believe that it is possible, and desirable. “Hand taste,” he says, talking about foods that are made by individuals, is about “the care and thought and idiosyncrasy” that people put into their cooking, and by extension, into their lives. It is “the taste of love”, he says; it cannot be faked.





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