TORONTO - Michael Pollan makes a powerful argument for home cooking in his new book "Cooked."
Not only is cooking healthier, but it's also an important life skill he was surprised to find is pleasurable and rewarding.
"Whether you regard cooking as drudgery or alchemy is really in your head and it's really in the attitude you bring to it," says the author of "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation" (Penguin).
"I'm not trying to persuade people into the kitchen. I'm trying to entice them into the kitchen with the promise of satisfaction, pleasure and that's the surprise," he adds.
"It's easy to argue that cooking is good for you ... but the more important thing is that you're missing out, you're being robbed of incredible pleasure and satisfaction in life if you hand this incredible work over to corporations, so take it back for your own good and your own pleasure."
"Cooked" is an educational pilgrimage in which Pollan, 58, apprentices himself to a series of culinary masters to discover how the classical elements fire, water, air and earth transform items from nature into food. He also shows how cooking involves us in relationships with farmers, history and culture and our family and friends.
The topic of food has been at the forefront of many of his six previous books, including the New York Times bestsellers "Food Rules," "In Defense of Food," "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "The Botany of Desire," but he hadn't written about cooking.
"It didn't engage me as a journalist until I realized how important it was to the food system. It really drove what kind of agriculture we had, whether we're cooking or not, and it had a huge bearing on our health and that's really when I decided it would be interesting to write about it," Pollan said during a recent visit to Toronto.
He says he'd always been impatient and inattentive in the kitchen because he felt pressured to get the task done and move on. But his cooking teacher Samin Nosrat taught him to apply the yoga principles of practice, patience and presence.
"Learning just how to be present when you're chopping onions or whatever the job is and not fight it, not try to multitask, is very hard to learn. We are so used to multitasking, but I tend to see that the great luxury in life is unitasking, just doing one thing at a time.
"And when you start doing that in the kitchen this whole world opens up and it's incredibly pleasurable and it really almost is a practice, a meditation. And I say this as someone who is not a spiritual person at all."
The collapse of home cooking has affected the obesity epidemic, says Pollan, who's also a contributor to the New York Times.
"If you look at the numbers, as home cooking has fallen, obesity has risen in America. If you look around the world ... countries that still do a lot of home cooking have lower rates of obesity compared to countries that don't."
The types of foods consumed when you're not cooking at home tend to be full of fat, sugar and additives and the manufacturer has decided the portion size.
"You're not going to have french fries twice a day if you're cooking for yourself. It's too much work," says Pollan, who lives in Berkeley, Calif.
In "Cooked," Pollan cites research from the NPD Group that Americans spend 27 minutes a day cooking and four minutes cleaning up. "And that four minutes should raise eyebrows because how much cleaning up can you do in four minutes? It suggests that you're kind of crumpling a pizza box and scraping some plates."
We shouldn't always assume convenience foods are convenient. "That's what the industry is telling us, but see how much time they really save you."
He and his family conducted an experiment. To defrost and heat four ready-made entrees in the microwave took about 45 minutes. The entrees and a dessert cost $27.
"You can buy a lot of good food at the farmers market for that price including meat. It didn't save that much money.
"It saved effort. It's much easier to watch the microwave carousel spin than it is to chop onions."
Pollan laments people are spending more time watching food being prepared on television than doing it themselves.
"It's really a paradox, but it's a sign too that we're not prepared to let cooking go, that there's something about it that still compels us even if we're not doing it."
He says some cooking shows teach. "But then there are others that are simply entertainment, sensation, spectacle, sport. Those ones, I think, actually intimidate people and discourage people from cooking because they make it look really hard," with "crazy combinations you're never going to make."
He says it's commendable that the "fetishization" of food that's going on now is elevating it.
"But on the other hand it is making people feel really inadequate that if you can't cook food at that restaurant level, if you can't dazzle people, then you don't know how to cook. And that's not true.
"Everyday home cooking has always been a very different thing. People are afraid to have dinner parties now because the expectation is so high. And I think that's a shame."