If you’re looking for an inspiring series to watch with your family this spring look no further than the four part Netflix series ‘Cooked.’ Based on a 2013 book by journalist, author, and professor, Michael Pollan, the series dives deep into the art and science of cooking by looking at it primarily as an act of transformation. For Pollan cooking is essentially a process by which humans turn ‘nature into culture’ by transforming raw and sometimes inedible ingredients like plants, animals, and fungi into something that’s delicious and nourishing. In both the book and the series Pollan organizes all the different forms of cooking according to the four classical elements Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. Each episode of the series is dedicated to one of these elements and all the forms of cooking they inspire.
Fire: Episode one is devoted to all the methods of cooking that involve fire such as grilling, barbecuing, and smoking. The episode opens with a breathtaking ariel shot of a fire burning across the aired grasslands of Western Australia wherein the rich reds of the soil and the flames contrast starkly against the green grass, and the black ashened landscape left in the fire’s wake. As we soon learn this massive fire was started deliberately by the local aboriginal people as a means of driving out wild game that they’re seeking to hunt. They explain that such a technique has been used for millennia as a traditional way to hunt and in some cases cook various forms of pray that are inhabiting the landscape.
It’s a primal example of human’s age old relationship with fire, and how fire has been used as a tool to transform what was once a wild animal into something that you’d actually want to eat. This is then contrasted with a journey into the world of southern barbecue, as well as Pollan’s own attempt to roast a whole hog within the confines of his small patio in Berkley, California.
Water: The second episode is devoted to cooking with water by boiling, stewing, braising, and steaming. As we learn the invention of pottery allowed humans to take cooking to a whole new level by combining various ingredients within a pot where water can function as the medium through which all of them can interact. This in essence marks the birth of cuisine as opposed to the mere cooking of individual ingredients. Pollan also demonstrates that when cooking with water, time is also a critical ingredient because it allows various chemical reactions to occur within the pot, unlocking nutrients, and deepening flavor.
Air: Air is a key ingredient in one of mankind’s most staple foods; bread. The advent of agriculture and the cultivation of cereal grains such as wheat ushered in the age of civilization, by allowing man to control and create his own source of food and by extension his own security. The third episode makes the argument that bread is actually the best way to get the most nutrients and energy out of a kernel of wheat and that air of all things makes this possible in several ways. Yeast is what makes bread rise, it’s a bacteria, and it’s everywhere, especially in the air, so before you could buy it in the store you could simply expose a bowl of flour and water to the air and let the little guys go to town munching away at the flower and burping back up Co2 making the bread rise. The series tells the story about how human kind has been doing this even before they knew what yeast was, why their bread was rising, and why they were able to make more food from less by simply managing these interactions.
Earth: Cooking with Earth? As the fourth episode explains, before the days of refrigeration, methods of food processing and preservation i.e. pickling, curing, and making foods like cheese, beer, and sauerkraut were just about the only ways in which people could preserve food for extended periods of time. All of thees methods make use of bacteria to transform raw ingredients into foods that in many cases are not only less perishable but more tasty. Bacteria are everywhere, they come from the earth, and each of these methods as Pollan puts it rely on the ‘careful management of rot’ thus ‘Earth’ was a fitting title for the final installment of the series. The episode was perhaps the most eye-opening given its exploration of the symbiotic relationship between man and the bacteria that are not only on our food but also live within us, helping us breakdown the food we eat, and keeping us healthy by crowding out bad pathogens.
Overall the series was successful in making one want to go out and try some of these methods for oneself in the kitchen, or in the case of fire, in the backyard. This is partly due to the fact that Pollan, as well as some of the other inspiring characters featured in the series, really make an effective case for the importance of cooking in our everyday lives. In a time where everything is ready made for convenience cooking is a way to take back some of our independence and reassert our identity not simply as consumers but as producers. It’s also a way to stay healthy given the fact that corporations cook differently then we do in our kitchens, often adding high amounts of sugar, fat, and salt that keep us coming back for more and keep their sales high.