Aspen Times Weekly: Food on Film
THE SEARCH FOR GENERAL TSO
His chicken dish is ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants across America — how did that happen?
JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI
Then-85-year-old Jiro Ono, considered by many the world’s greatest sushi chef, struggles with leaving his legacy — a 10-seat restaurant tucked in a Tokyo subway station — to his son Yoshikazu.
Peek inside the lives of six world-renowned chefs from Argentina to Australia.
East Coast college pals move to Iowa to farm a bumper crop of America’s most-productive, most-subsidized grain.
F*CK, THAT’S DELICIOUS (Munchies TV)
Rapper and bon vivant Action Bronson eats favorite foods with celebs and common folk in six- to 20-minute clips. Hilarity ensues.
THE MIND OF A CHEF (PBS TV, 4 seasons)
Anthony Bourdain narrates this Emmy- and James Beard Award-winning series featuring top chefs (David Chang, Sean Brock, April Bloomfield, Ed Lee, Gabrielle Hamilton) exploring cooking through history, science, and inspiration.
LAST WEEK, the inconceivable happened: I let a perfectly pillowy loaf of bread go stale on my kitchen counter. I could have made killer French toast — had I been able to stomach such a sweet, eggy confection. But I was battling the bad bug that you or someone you know may have caught, too, and I just didn’t have the energy. An appetite? Fuggedaboutit.
So, off to the couch I went, to curl up in front of the TV with a bowl of applesauce and a fistful of Saltines. If I couldn’t eat a tasty meal, I figured, I’d do the next best thing: watch someone else cook one.
Ironically, my eager subscription to “foodtainment” in lieu of making breakfast — sick or not — is precisely what puzzles award-winning food author and activist Michael Pollan.
“The less time we invest in cooking ourselves, the more time we seem to spend watching other people cook on television,” says Pollan, in an early scene of his new Netflix Original Series, “Cooked.” “Food we never get to eat!”
So, Pollan sets out to discover how we got here by visiting food artisans around the globe and linking their customs to his own kitchen adventures. Based on his bestselling 2013 book of the same name, “Cooked” explores how the four natural elements — fire, water, air, and earth — relate to the history of food preparation in as many digestible episodes.
The first installment, “Fire,” opens with a panoramic shot of Australian grassland ablaze, where Martu aborigines hunt iguanas with steel spikes to roast over open fire pits. “This is sign you were about to be fed,” Pollan narrates, as a controlled burn consumes the plains. “No other species cooks. When we learned to cook is when we became truly human.”
First, a brief history lesson: the evolution of the first human, homo erectus, from primal apes, shows how man has biologically adapted to eat cooked meat using smaller jaws and teeth. Pollan visits a barbecue pit master in North Carolina, then returns to his Berkeley, Calif., home to build a backyard barbecue oven with a buddy. He touches on “the dark side of Southern barbecue” — that much of it is based on commodity pork, raised on feed lots — contrasted with happy heritage hogs bred by a gentle farmer and broken down with care by a local butcher. James Taylor shows up to tell a story about his pet pig, immortalized in his mellow tune, “Mona.”
Unlike many other call-to-action films out there — Forks Over Knives, Fed Up, Cowspiracy, even Food, Inc., in which Pollan is a subject — “Cooked” is refreshing in its mission: to inspire viewers to return to cooking by investigating our shared biological roots and cultural influences. Instead of preaching, Pollan is playful yet candid.
“There are ecological reasons to justify meat-eating,” Pollan declares during a farm visit. “The most sustainable agriculture involves animals and plants. Plants are feeding the animals, and the animals are producing waste that feeds the plants. You have a complete nutrient loop. If the whole world were to go vegetarian, I don’t think it would necessarily be a good thing.”
The second episode, “Water,” travels to India, where a country defined by its regional cuisine — long, slow braises and stews, which require water as the transformative element — is succumbing to convenience foods manufactured by companies tasked with engineering our innate cravings for fat, salt, and sugar. Archival footage portrays the American housewife’s constant struggle to put supper on the table and how TV dinners and microwaves swoop in as mother’s little helpers — for better or worse.
“Air”—which focuses on universally adored bread—is the episode that hits home for me, literally. Pollan journeys to the rolling hills of my childhood, to bread-whisperer Richard Bourdon’s Berkshire Mountain Bakery in Housatonic, Mass. Bourdon is a true food artisan, having mastered the art of slow-fermented sourdough since the early 1980s. I remember when my mom, always on the hunt for local food, would drag us to the bakery—housed in an old, 3,000-square-foot brick paper mill crumbling into the Housatonic River — to procure loaves of what we knew then as “sour bread.” The loaves we left with were deep brown with a thick crust, and they tasted tart and chewy. To a 10 year old: “icky.”
Back then, my younger brother and I didn’t understand — nor care about — Bourdon’s fermentation process, which allows natural bacteria to break down carbohydrates and gluten and release healthy minerals in the dough for easier digestion. (Fermented foods — “made strictly through the action of microbes, without applied heat”— get their own showcase in “Earth,” a visual feast of artisanal cheese, chocolate, and kimchi — with support from other rotten-good items (ketchup, hot sauce, beer, sake, salami, prosciutto) that make up roughly a third of our American diet.
Along the way, Modernist Cuisine founder Nathan Myhrvold demonstrates how current bread production has all but abandoned the slow-fermentation process revered by Bourdon. Enter soft-whipped, vitamin-fortified Wonder Bread…and today’s misguided gluten-free fanaticism of epidemic proportions.
Remarkably, Pollan narrates, while we watch women in Morocco and Egypt pummel mounds of dough into submission, wheat plus water plus heat equals a food that “can feed a lot of people — out of thin air.”
Gorgeously shot — thanks to Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney (known for films including Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) and a cast of top cinematographers and directors—“Cooked” is a satisfying amuse-bouche that inspires us, as Pollan hopes, to reclaim lost traditions and reconnect with our primal urge to cook.
I devoured all four episodes of “Cooked” in one sitting during my sick day— the series combines an absorbing balance of education and eye candy. And, wouldn’t you know it, my appetite returned after all.
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