Created and narrated by the famous food writer, Michael Pollan, the new Netflix original show Cooked seeks to provide an in-depth look at the anthropological and nutritious importance of cooking in human history. On the surface, it is a fascinating topic, as Pollan touches on a wide array of topics like cooking meat, fermentation, stews, and, inevitably, the commercialization of the food industry. Pollan seeks to blend science with cultural case studies as well as imbuing a clear streak of social activism into the show, which is very reminiscent of his famous writing and documentary styles. The whole series is rather short and incorporates four hour-long episodes, each of which attempts to follow the theme of one of the classic elements: fire, water, air, and earth.
The show got off to an interesting start in the “Fire” episode, cataloguing biological and anthropological evidence that homo sapiens had evolved to digest cooked food rather than raw food. Even our closely related ape relatives spend a significant portion of their day chewing and have far more extensive jaw muscles, molars, and skull infrastructure to compensate. The interesting observation Pollan made was that cooking allows humans to reduce chewing time, which really liberates us to spend our time doing other things like nurturing young, building tools, and communicating. This makes the use of fire for cooking a crucial step in our social and cultural development, as it is a catalyst for the early development of civilization. Cooked also gives details about the science behind cooking meat, like how the enzymes and fats are changed and what the flavors are caused by. There were also some case study sorts of exposés on the cultural significance of fire in Aboriginal tribes in Australia and in the American barbecue. The parallels were interesting, but Pollan sometimes condescends too much when he talks about people’s cooking choices, making these cultures seem like the last brave bastions to fight against the evil West. But that disregards his own status as a wealthy, intellectual white male from the US, making him about as Western as they come.
Even so, this show did have some serious strong points that would be very interesting for anyone interested in food culture, history, or the science of flavor. The third and fourth episodes were the best, focusing on the science behind fermentation and the crucial importance of bread in the history of humanity. Those two episodes were fascinating and enlightening, as Pollan and co. illustrated the difference between commercial and natural yeasts in bread-making, discussed the importance of air bubbles and how the glutens stretch to contain the bread bubbles, and did an in-depth analysis of various foods that require fermentation including chocolate, beer, and even some other surprising foods. The inclusion of insightful experts that explained the importance of covering chocolate for fermentation or how the baking of wheat into bread increases the caloric value of the wheat exponentially, all helped to frame the importance of each topic.
Unfortunately, it did also have some weaknesses. First and foremost, the theme of the “four elements” seemed a bit forced, and only Fire and Air proved to truly be about those concepts. “Earth” was a great episode and all about fermentation, but that wasn’t really about the earth at all. Also, the second episode, “Water,” was by far the weakest, as the whole discussion basically devolved into a lament of the industrialization and commercialization of food. Pollan laments the home-cooked meal and over-simplifies economic forces such as globalization and the tech boom, all while downplaying the political and social importance of women entering the workplace. At times, as I mentioned above, Pollan seems so ingrained in his elite American sense of liberal idealism that he sits on his pedestal and judges the poorer masses who are most often the victims of the ills of commercialized food. Increased fats, sugars, and obesity, coupled with decreases in time spent cooking do paint a pretty clear picture, but simply urging people to take the time to cook seems pretty hopelessly naive, and overestimates the amount of control many people have over their time. While an important issue in society, it is not reasonable to expect that food issues like sustainability and nutrition will take priority in households across the country and the world.
Nevertheless, the show is worthwhile to those interested in food history, sustainability, or any kind of documentarian look at such an important aspect of our daily lives. If you know Michael Pollan or watch these kinds of shows, you may know a lot of it already, but it’s all presented in a fun and engaging style that you’ll enjoy at least most of it. Rating: 7 of 10