Book>> Cooked: A Natural History Of Transformation • by Michael Pollan • Penguin • Rs 1,400
Around 250,000 years ago, a piece of raw meat fell into a fire. It was easier to chew and tasted good. Historians believe this to be the most plausible explanation for the genesis of cooking.
An animal or a bird was placed at the end of a stick and held over fire until it was considered sufficiently done. Gradually it was discovered that food tasted better when, before cooking, the covering of fur or feathers was removed and the insides of the beast or bird were taken out and replaced with a stuffing of grain and herbs.
A major advancement in cooking was the use of a heated, flat stone for frying and baking. As metals came into use, the flat stone was replaced by a sheet of iron or copper. A later development was the oven, which at first was probably a hole in the ground that was lined with stones and filled with fire. Utensils were devised. The hearth became the nervecentre of homes. Gender roles developed around cooking and elaborate social rituals and manners developed around meals.
Sometime in the 20th century, things began to change. People no longer had the time to bake, roast, fry or stew food. As life became more hectic, people began to spend less time in the kitchen. Traditional gender roles were questioned. Packed and fast food found its way to people’s homes.
This is a development that worries author Michael Pollan. In Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, he argues, “Cooking is a political act. When we let corporations cook for us we lose control. There’s an enormous leap of faith to think they are going to have integrity.”
A life involving no home cooking, Pollan argues, is a life not well spent. And cooking may be the best line of defence against obesity: Pollan cites a 2003 Harvard study that correlated the increase of obesity in America with the decline of home-cooked food. Pollan despises the microwave, a technology he associates with TV dinners. At one point of time he, his wife and their teenage son attempt a “Microwave Night”, each choosing a different entree. They find the experience disappointing. The writer recognises that to speak for home cooking against the might of corporations is to run up against gender politics. As he writes, a man arguing for more domestic cookery is on dodgy ground given that the burden often falls upon women. After all in the 70s, Kentucky Fried Chicken advertised its products with the slogan “women’s liberation”.
Pollan notes that women now spend about 40 per cent less time cooking than in 1965, with married, unemployed women and working wives putting in less than an hour a day in the kitchen. But he also argues that the adoption of processed food at home is less about feminism and more about the food industry capitalising on the time crunch and gender roles of the 70s as middle-class women entered the workforce. If the solution is to cook more at home, Pollan says, it “will probably get nowhere unless it challenges the traditional arrangements of domesticity, and assumes a prominent role for men in the kitchen, as well as children”.
Nonetheless, Pollan has drawn flak from feminists. Perhaps his antecedents worked against him. In a 2009 article Pollan had suggested that feminists “had thoughtlessly trampled” American cooking in “their rush to get women out of the kitchen”. This line of thinking persists in Cooked and the appeal to change traditional gender roles appears forced.
J Asha is an editor and writer in Mumbai
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