The Conversation: Michael Pollan, food writer

'A teacher taught me that cooking is like yoga'

They call you the "high priest" of American foodies, but what did you have for dinner last night?

Grilled salmon – the local salmon is running now – with a cold salad of farro, asparagus, mushrooms and fresh peas. Also some sautéed greens from the garden with green garlic.

That does sound good.

It was good, I have to say. The salmon was from Santa Cruz.

And good to be able to picture the place the food on your plate came from. I had pork belly and I have no idea where the pig lived. What encounters have you had with British cooking? Does it deserve its bad reputation?

It once did. I was at Oxford in the 1970s and the food was really horrible, even if you could afford to go to restaurants. But now the food in London is as good as anywhere in the world. It seems that the EU and access to a larger market of produce has been a good thing for English eating.

Well there's one reason to stay in the EU…

It is. British lamb was always good, too. However I do remember eating a good leg of lamb that had been totally destroyed by the English desire to cook until completely dead.

Well we don't want it to get away, you see.

That's the only explanation.

What about the food culture in Britain'? We like to talk about how fat Americans are, but should we take a long, hard look at ourselves?

In most of Europe obesity and type 2 diabetes rates are heading up. They haven't quite reached the lofty heights of the USA, but they're headed in that direction.

The new book, Cooked, is all about the importance of getting back into the kitchen. How do you persuade someone with very little time on their hands that it's worth taking an hour to cook rather than grabbing a ready meal?

We find time for three hours a day of television, two hours a day to surf the internet outside of work – we've decided that's an important way to spend our time… What I'm suggesting is that if you decide cooking is important to your health or your society, if you approach it as a form of leisure, then maybe you'd find the time. We also spend an enormous amount of time watching people cook on television.

Yes, we have celebrity chefs coming out of our ears in Britain…

Same here. It's a paradox that we're happy to watch people cook, but not to cook ourselves. It tells me there is some deep, unacknowledged interest in cooking.

You said cooking is good for your sanity – how so?

I used to be a very impatient person. I always thought there was something more important I needed to be doing, so I rushed in the kitchen. I had a teacher who taught me that cooking was like yoga – the keys to it were patience, practice and presence. Spiritually, I'm not a very well-developed person, but I really took this to heart. I found I could enjoy it a lot more, was more patient and could allow my onions to sauté for 40 minutes.

It sounds like you achieved a level of Zen enlightenment with these onions…

That would be a large claim but I'm a little further down that path than I was. I would submit that cooking is as good for our health and sanity as exercise.


Michael Pollan is a leading commentator on the food industry. Born in New York, he wrote the bestseller, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and his latest, Cooked, is out now

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