Before I married my wife, I stocked my refrigerator and pantry with what I considered the essentials—frozen pizzas, hot dogs, and lots of ramen noodles. These foods were affordable, easy to prepare, and agreed with my youthful metabolism. My wife, on the other hand, loved to cook. She watched the Food Network religiously and collected family recipes. To celebrate my birthday for the first time as a couple, she surprised me by preparing homemade spaghetti and meatballs. From scratch. If I close my eyes, I can still smell the lingering scent of sautéed garlic and taste the salted blend of pork and beef. That was one of the moments I knew I could not let her get away.
Over the years, my wife’s joy for cooking taught me how to see food differently. I have learned to enjoy reading about food, tasting new flavors, and splurging on the occasional high-end meal. Perhaps most important, I have come to appreciate food as more than merely an object for consumption, but a gift that has the potential to cultivate community, gratitude, and even faith.Nonetheless, as our culture grows increasingly mobile, Pollan fears that we will lose touch with a profound opportunity to love others by discarding the practice of meal preparation.
Media outlets have sought to capitalize on that power for the purpose of entertainment. Some have gone the route of investigative journalism, aiming to unearth the more insidious side of industrialized food production. (And rightfully so!) But most major networks have begun producing a variety of food-based entertainment from timed cook-offs and reality TV competitions to intimate profiles of the culinary styles of gifted chefs around the world.
As a result, a new categorical phrase arose into which many of these shows have been placed: “food porn.” It describes any form of visual take on food meant for the primary purpose of arousing one’s appetite. For the most part, these shows appeal to our desire to consume and conquer, pitting esteemed chefs against one another to create the best meal or glamorizing the challenge of polishing off a 72-ounce steak in less than an hour. Don’t get me wrong, I have gladly watched them all, but they rarely leave me with more than a fleeting sense of entertainment, often resulting in a frantic trip to Chipotle.
Netflix’s docu-series Cooked aims for something more by finding the balance between the extremes of passive indulgence and guilt-laden lecture. Adapted from Michael Pollan’s best-selling book, the series splits into four episodes, each devoted to one of the four basic natural elements—fire, water, air, and earth.
Over the course of the series, Pollan traces the development of cooking as an essential ingredient within the formation of human cultures. Along the way, Cooked treats its viewers to a unique look into food around the world ranging from an Aboriginal community in Australia to communal cooking in India and bread making in Morocco. Each episode profiles an expert in his or her trade including a lifelong baker in Massachusetts, a pit master in North Carolina, and a Benedictine nun in Connecticut who has mastered her form of cheese making. Behind them all is a rich heritage of memory, often passed on from previous family generations. Through their stories, Pollan encourages the cultivation of a renewed contemporary conscience toward the way we approach our food.
For those familiar with Pollan, this should come as no surprise. A notable figure in the Slow Food movement, he has built a writing career on food and its intersection with human culture. But while he freely embraces the fact that his goals are politically oriented, his posture comes across as remarkably humble. Even more, his passion for the subject is infectious. Rarely does he appear on screen without a smile, seeming giddy about the opportunity to share. And each episode includes him working through a slow-cooked recipe for friends and family who share a meal together before the credits roll.
In the second episode, Pollan explains how he attempts to convert others to a greater appreciation for their food: “I don’t want to lecture people into the kitchen. I want to lure them.” And lure he does. Rather than motivate his audience by detailing the abuses of the food industry, he demonstrates the value of slow cooking by doing it himself. Following a brief detour into barbecue’s contribution to bridging racial barriers, he slow roasts rich, flaky pork; opens up his home to a group of friends; and convinces a vegetarian to taste his recipe. He compels by way of beauty, inspiring an appreciation not just for the final product of cooking, but for the process itself and what it creates.
Nonetheless, as our culture grows increasingly mobile, Pollan fears that we will lose touch with a profound opportunity to love others by discarding the practice of meal preparation. A more involved approach to our food forces us to consider the nourishment of those we love, creates deeper thinking about the morality and ethics of what we eat, and cultivates a greater sense of gratitude for God’s creation.
In his work Culture Care, Makoto Fujimura describes beauty as “something we want to remember and something we would not want to change.” Perhaps part of the reason our eating habits have changed so drastically is not due to the fact that the food industry creates better meals, but that we have forgotten that which we should not want to change—the beauty of cooking.
God did not create us primarily as consumers, but as cultivators. Since the beginning, the meal has been one of the bedrocks of cultivation, especially when it comes to building community, memory, and culture. It is so central to our experience that God chose on many occasions to disclose himself using a vocabulary of food. Jesus claimed to be both the bread of life and living water. He regularly taught his disciples after gathering together for a meal. He even foreshadowed his death by breaking bread and drinking wine. We are told in the psalms to taste and see that God is good.
Our approach to food influences our faith. As Wendell Berry wrote, “You cannot damage what you are dependent upon without damaging yourself.” When food becomes a matter of consumption at the cheapest rate possible, we damage more than our physical health. We shortchange our ability to understand an aspect of how God has entered into our lexicon—as the one who meets our hunger and quenches our thirst. Practiced care for the food on our plates cultivates gratitude for God’s grace in a way that value menus simply cannot.
Each of us bears a holy appetite that can only be filled by that heavenly meal prepared by Christ. Though physical food is not our ultimate nourishment, our earthly meals have the power to preach. Without question, there will be days when time refuses to permit the luxury of a home-cooked meal. Praise God for convenient alternatives. But when we slow down and take our time, we gain a richer vision for the intent of God’s creation and recall his promised banquet. By returning in small ways to the practice of cooking, we return to a truer knowledge of our sustenance allowing us to partake in heartfelt thanksgiving.