Pollan We’re Cooked

Cooking vs Eating

We at SPURSE have been watching Michael Pollan’s Cooked series on Netflix as it has come up in a number of discussions of the Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook. It is great to see another series by Pollan– we are big fans of his book The Botany of Desire and the related series. There he presented a way to understand the agency of plants in shaping us, and in doing so overturned our comfortable sense of being the species that dominates and subjugates nature.

So, CookedIt is really worth watching as it covers many critical ecological and food topics in a compelling manner. His argument in a nutshell is that we have lost touch with cooking and that this matters because cooking is fundamental to what makes us human.

For Pollan losing touch with cooking means that we no longer spend the time to cook with real ingredients in any significant or meaningful way for ourselves. It is true we have lost touch with cooking and as Pollan powerfully demonstrates that major industrial forces have played a significant role in this.  For us, as we watched the program we could not help but ask ourselves how does cooking relate us back to other species and our immediate environments?

We wondered if Pollan was both right, and pointing to something symptomatic of a larger issue. Could it be that the fact that few of us spend any real time cooking is a symptom of our losing touch with our immediate environment and that this is the critical issue today.

Food and eating are fundamentally environmental questions. Before something is an ingredient is living integral part of an environment. But to shop at Whole Foods or anywhere else you would never know this. Sure you can find out about the conditions under which something lived and grew, but in all of this there is no actual connection between you and your environment being fostered. There is no inter-dependency being championed. Even the most local of food is not from the same environment as you live. At the end of the day very few of us have any deep and significant connection to our immediate environments. The example that we like to use to illustrate what we mean by “meaningful connection to our environment” is picking a dandelion from your sidewalk. When you eat that dandelion whatever has happened to it is now happening to you. If your life was interdependent with this dandelion you would care for it and its immediate environment as a way of caring for your own health. You would necessarily become an active interdependent participant in co-shaping your environment. For much of human history this was our basic way of being alive — we, along with many other species, all co-shaped our immediate environments. Now our connection to the environment is at a distance and the closest we get is visiting it as a walker, picnicker, or hiker. This uncoupling of direct interdependency has meant that we can treat the environment as an abstract resource to be exploited for either food and materials or reprise as “nature”. In having no real connection to our immediate environment we have ironically come to see this as a value: nature is something we should stay out of or that the most “take only pictures and leave only footprints”. But what if what is missing from our environmental worldview is the evolving a deep sense of local interdependency?

Pollan’s program Cooked begins with a wonderful example of this oversight: We are introduced to members of the Martu peoples in Western Australia who are setting fire to their environment and hunting for Iguanas. While Pollan in his voice over focuses on how the Martu are cooking with fire and how this use of fire in its most “primitive” form is what makes us human. But in his focus to cooking he passes quickly over something fundamental: the Martu peoples are involved in a very sophisticated practice of co-shaping an ecosystem — their mode of living, hunting, cooking and eating are all part of an active interdependent way of being of a place. Cooking, here cannot be separated, from their practices of hunting and gathering and burning. Their contemporary practices are all ways of producing and maintaining interdependencies. The Martu are not visitors to “nature” but active participants in the interdependent making and maintaining of a place.

Once cooking becomes a separate and separating practice we can begin to divorce ourselves from an environment and from our fellow creatures. But as we see so clearly with the Martu and in many other contemporary cultures there are alternatives. Eating, as opposed to cooking, is what all living beings do. Eating, the total act of say picking a dandelion, involves caring for the soil, the dandelion’s flourishing, picking a limited amount, using it well and returning something back to the environment. Ways of eating that help establish continuities between us and other creatures is what is most critical today.

We need new recipes for engaging with these practices of producing interdependency — really intradependency. These would necessarily expand and push beyond what Pollan is offering in this wonderful series — we still need to cook for ourselves — but the purpose and processes of that cooking would be quite different. In a very simple way one could say the key difference would begin with foraging. We wish to emphasize that while cooking begins with ingredients, eating begins with foraging and that this act is one of fundamental dependency vs selection.

Now our interest in Urban foraging is not about getting everyone to get everything they eat from their immediate surroundings. We have no wish to enact some false return to eden. But if developed a level of interdependency on our immediate surroundings a number of significant changes might happen. How can we eat our sidewalks?

Can urban foraging make our cities less toxic?

Could weeds become our urban farms?

Can our political communities contain plants and animals as participants?

Is “Nature” still relevant to the environmental movement?

Is urban hunting the most ethical way to eat meat?

Could “sidewalk to table” be better and tastier than “farm to table”?

If heat was not central to cooking could we develop a new gastronomic revolution?

What are the best ways to prepare roadkill?

What does it mean to put eating at the heart of place-making?

How does our style of cooking shape our most basic mental models?

Please take a look at the Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook as it takes on these issues and more in greater depth and pleasure. Let us know what you think.