Michael Pollan - Additional Content
Michael Pollan met with culture to talk about cheese, cooking, family, and life for the Voicings article in this spring’s issue. However, the result of this meeting was over 15 pages of notes, certainly more than the one-page article can hold! Here are some extra highlights that we just couldn’t throw away.
The Intersection of Nature and Artifice
What’s interesting about cheese is what’s interesting about a lot of cooked things, that they have elements of nature and culture mixed together. I guess you can make cheese in a laboratory, but it’s not what you’d consider cheese. You finally need a cow, or a goat, and you need milk, and you need grass, or grain, and then you work on it, but you don’t totally control it.
You can manipulate things, you can guide things, but finally, the microbes are going to do their thing. It’s a lot like gardening. Control is too arrogant a word for what you do.
Not Making Cheese for His Book
I did a lot of things that didn’t happen in the book; I spent time with a lot of other cheesemakers, and I didn’t use them, even though I learned a lot from them. There are a couple reasons for that. I made yogurt, a couple times, and I aged a cheese disastrously. I got a green cheese from Sister Noella, and I had a basement [to age it in], although I couldn’t get the humidity right... it got really bad. I was afraid to taste it.
Sister Noella is rather relaxed about it. I mean, she’s making cheese in a wooden barrel, and in her own way, has a very sophisticated understanding of food safety.
Cooking in the Family
We’ve always cooked together. One of the really important lessons I learned about cooking is that, what people don’t like about it, is its isolation. And to the extent that it can be a social experience, within a family or even with friends, all that goes away. It’s a great place to have a conversation, while you’re slightly distracted. Time passes, the food is often better from collaborating, people share tips. So whenever possible… [my son] often had homework but on weekends, he’d help us cook, cut up the onions.
Narrating Audio Books
You’re always nervous about [rereading your book], but when I read it in galleys, I was pleased. It held my interest, I felt that I’d done what I’d wanted to do. When I think about it and haven’t read it in a few months, I’m full of doubts about it. But when I actually sit down and read it I’m like, “Oh, this’s pretty good.” So I think I did what I wanted to do. I don’t know what other people are going to think, but it’s a different book than I’ve done [before].
American Food Obsession
I do worry [that I’m feeding food obsessions]. Because I’m always running into people who’ve gotten onto obsessive, extreme diets that they claim are based on me and my work. I always try to stress to people how relaxed I am about this and that I don’t have a lot of rules. I generally don’t eat white flour, but I enjoyed that bagel—every now and then, I have white flour. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s kind of, “What’s your default?”
We’re all going to have lapses, we’re all going to have special occasion foods. I feel that people who get too absolutist, too fanatical about their eating, always fall off the wagon. It’s like dieting: dieting doesn’t work. The challenge is to make these large course corrections with the understanding that there’s going to be detours and all this other stuff.
One of the important things about cheesemaking and winemaking and beermaking is the role of tradition. You have a lot of novices getting into this having to learn a history, and find that wisdom before its gone. There’s an incredible work of conservation going on around food, around food craft. We were this close to losing all that and forgetting it.
The loss of those cultures, and I mean both the microbial and human cultures, that we were on the verge of allowing to happen with the industrialization of food, that would have been a tremendous loss. This would be like losing a literature. This is a trial and error knowledge built up over thousands of years. I think we pulled it back from the brink of extinction, and I think that that’s important work.
Read more from Michael Pollan in his new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.