Michael Pollan on Cooking As Soulcraft

I like listening to Michael Pollan speak. He has a very honest-sounding voice, and is as engaging when talking as he is when writing.

Last week he wrote a lengthy piece in The New York Times Magazine called “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” in which he observed that the average American spends more time watching people cook on television than they do actually cooking.

Naturally, it made quite a stir — enough of a stir that NPR’s Fresh Air interviewed him. And that, my dear readers, is what I want to share with you. For, as you now know, I like listening to Michael Pollan speak.

He made several observations which tied quite nicely into my idea of cooking as soulcraft.

First, he commented on how consumers initially rejected boxed mixes in which you simply had to add water. The marvels of modern science and industrialized food had given us powdered eggs and dry milk, so food manufacturers bent on selling us convenience created cake mixes using these wonders. All you had to do was add water, stir, and dump it into a pan.

The public hated them! They felt like such mixes were “cheating.”

Then the food industry marketers realized that if they just made the mixes a little more complicated, if they just gave consumers something slightly more hands-on to do, they would feel that sense of accomplishment that comes from cooking. And so, the modern cake mix was born. Now we crack open an egg, add water & oil, and stir.

I believe that the desire to feel that tangible sense of competence is hard-wired into our psyches. So, even though we may embrace the convenience food, we don’t want it to be too convenient. Otherwise, it wouldn’t feel like we’d produced something of value with our own two hands.

It’s one of the primary reasons why cooking is ennobling: it gives us a sense of agency and competence. If you deprive us of that sense of accomplishment, we don’t feel like we’ve “cooked” anything at all.

Another point Pollan made, which I found fascinating, was that there are many tasks we outsource today that we don’t watch people do. We will never have a television show in which we watch people iron their clothes or change their oil. So, Pollan asks, what is it about cooking that makes people want to watch others do it?

He theorizes that it’s because we respond viscerally to food. We like the alchemy of taking unpromising raw ingredients like meat, vegetables, and herbs, adding fire, and ending up with something attractive to eat. It’s comforting. It’s beautiful to watch.

Yet I’d take it one step further. I’d say that having given up the craft of cooking, we feel its loss. If we can no longer produce something authentically beautiful in our kitchens, we’ll at least watch others do it. And — as with all drama — it will be cathartic. It will fill a void, purge an instinctual need.

Pollan also briefly touched on how cooking brings joy — the joy of work. In The NY Times Magazine article, he compared the emptiness of office work with the satisfaction of cooking. He writes, “How many of us still do work that engages us in a dialogue with the material world and ends — assuming the soufflé doesn’t collapse — with such a gratifying and tasty sense of closure?”

Again, I’d say the difference lies between the work of a cog in a machine, repeating dull tasks over and over again without any sense of purpose, and the work of a craftsman.

The work of a craftsman requires virtue and ennobles the soul. It makes us better people. Along that same vein, Pollan said in his interview that cooking “delays gratification.” I said it requires patience. Either way you put it, cooking real food from scratch makes us more fully human.

But, says Pollan, it’s not just about the soul. It’s also about health — our individual health, environmental health, and arguably the health of our nation’s security.

As it relates to individual health, the cost of convenience is sickeningly high. The work of cooking from scratch makes you think twice before you begin making a cake, or french fries, or donuts. These are involved foods to prepare, and if we made them from scratch they wouldn’t be daily meals. They’d be special occasion foods. Yet by outsourcing our cooking to others, we’ve made them every day foods. We’ve made these ultra-calorie dense, high carbohydrate foods too accessible. And we’re paying the price in rising obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates.

As it relates to environmental health & national security, the cost of convenience may not be so immediately obvious. But, it’s there — the hidden cost of our petrochemical based agricultural model in which oil is not only fuel to plant, harvest, and transport food, but also fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide.

For a lot of people, the food system works just fine. The fact that it makes people sick, that it takes a toll on the environment, workers, and our national security is hidden from most people. So, to reform our food system, we need to raise people’s consciousness.

The first step in doing that will be to help people return to cooking real food. It’s the key that unlocks the puzzle of reformation.

But, you object, cooking takes too much time! In our zeal for efficiency and our quest for convenience, we honestly believe that cooking is far too time consuming to be practical.

Well, my friends, let this be your first mission. Cooking from scratch does not take any more time than cooking with so-called “convenience foods!” I know it from my personal experience, but I also have a scientific study to back me up!

A recent observational study done by Margaret Beck out of UCLA discovered that — on average — there is no statistical difference in the total preparation time for those cooking meals relying heavily on convenience foods and those cooking meals from scratch. In other words, it took the same time for food to arrive at the table, regardless of how you prepared it.

The only time saved was in “hands-on” time — time spent actually manipulating ingredients and heating food. Families relying heavily on convenience foods saved 10 to 12 minutes per meal of hands-on time.

Granted, that is 10 minutes you could be doing something else. But how do most people spend that time? Watching TV? Chasing kids? Emptying the dishwasher?

Are those activities really worth the cost? Before you answer, count the cost — the real cost. To your health. To your happiness. To the environment. To your soul.

Count the cost, and choose Real Food.

This post is participating in Kelly The Kitchen Kop’s Real Food Wednesday carnival. Go check it out!

(photo by Rubin110)


  1. says

    True confession time. I know I’m supposed to have the kids in the kitchen with me when I cook, teaching them this technique and that ingredient. And I try to, I really do. But for me, cooking is a meditative act. It is sunshine, rain, soil, farmer, blessing, financial resource, creativity and alchemy. Few times in my day do I exercise my creativity (and it is so very in need of exercise) as when I’m cooking. The calm I experience in the kitchen isn’t duplicated in anything else I do.
    .-= Local Nourishment

  2. says

    Local Nourishment — I often shew my kids out of the kitchen, too. Mostly because they’re young and can’t seem to be as explicitly obedient as I need them to be while I’m wielding knives, fire, and other dangerous kitchen tools. I keep hoping that when they get a little older, they’ll be able to join me in the kitchen w/o interrupting my peace.

    Kelly — You’re mighty welcome. Thanks for hosting yesterday’s carnival!

  3. says

    I have two recent posts related to this very topic. Eating more sustainably & whether it’s a) affordable b) inconvenient.

    I’ve found also that I don’t necessarily need to come up with a ‘job’ for my four-year-old when he wants to be involved in the cooking. Most of the time he’s happy just to pull up his step stool and watch what I’m doing from start to finish. We talk about the things I do, the ingredients I’m using, and he enjoys just learning about it. Occasionally there’s something he does want to ‘help’ with even though I say it’s too hard for him. But if I let him try we either find out that a) he can actually do it or b) it is too hard, at which point he willingly hands the task back over to me. All of this gives us time to spend together instead of me shooing him out of the kitchen which is what I’m often tempted to do instead.

  4. says

    I heard this broadcast, and have thought much about it since it was aired. It’s a very thoughtful and insightful concept that Michael sent across the airwaves, and one we definitely need reminded of as the instant-gratifying, throw-away culture that we are. I’m glad he’s continuing to do these little spots on the radio, makes appearances on television, and does narrations in movies like Food, Inc. It gives me hope that the message of returning to our roots and preparing real foods from scratch will keep being repeated, and that its meaning will finally hit home with more and more people about how significant is the notion of us becoming more connected to our food, our land, our heritage, and ultimately, ourselves.
    .-= Raine Saunders

  5. says

    Pollan does a great job describing how food preparation has been outsourced. Mark Bittman several months ago talked about how TV cooking shows baffle and intimidate. But, only you, FoodRenegage, moves past all that to describe cooking as “soulcraft.” I love it!

    For me and everything that has emerged around Pro Food, the single thing that I believe will push sustainable food into mainstream consumer markets is awaken America’s “cooking instinct.” It is with such a change that people begin to experience the complete satisfaction that comes with Real Food.


    Rob Smart
    .-= Rob Smart

  6. Meggan says

    Hi! I love this site and totally support and agree with Real Food, but I disagree that it takes the same amount of time–at least for me.

    When I was in school, I wouldn’t plan any meals, I’d just show up at the grocery store and buy ramen noodles and rice-a-roni, bread,etc. No looking up recipes, checking to see if I had the ingredients, making a grocery list, checking labels, etc. Hands on prep time was 5 minutes, tops. Now, I spend a good 30 minutes looking up recipes, looking in my pantry, trying to figure out what is in season, what I have, what is in my garden (not to mention planning and tending to the garden!!) then I go to the store and spend at least an hour reading the labels, and I buy 15 ingredients so I can make the real food rice a roni equivalent, then I have to think ahead so I can soak the rice, wash, chop, mix, veggies, thaw chicken, cook, bake the bread for the side dish, etc.

    Plus, I generate many many more dishes that require more washing, loading and unloading of the dishwasher. So for me, Real Food cooking takes way more time than convienience foods (you can buy a loaf of bread at the store a lot faster than soaking, mixing, kneading, baking one yourself…)

    So, while I certainly think it is totally worth it, and I love the time spent this way (I really really find it satisfying, as you mentioned) it is way more work and way more time…at least for me!

  7. says

    Awesome post, Kristen! Interesting study about preparation time. For me, the key has been cooking and preparing meals in bulk.

    Despite my interest and commitment to eating real food, I have to say that I’m still not a big fan of cooking. However, I definitely do like it much more than office work. :) I also think that if I had more free time, which is something I’m working on, I’d get more enjoyment out of cooking.
    .-= Vin – NaturalBias

  8. says

    Excellent post – Pollan makes several excellent points, as do you, Kristen! When I started down the “real food path,” I was sure that we needed to find ways to make it easy for people to eat good food, rather than trying to encourage people to spend more time in the kitchen. Now it’s clear to me that we need both of these things to happen.

    Connecting with our food – in our kitchens, gardens, farms, restaurants – helps us make better decisions in general and lead lead better, fuller, healthier, more meaningful lives.
    .-= Lee

  9. says

    I love the way you wrote this piece. You’re one of those bloggers who obviously lives what they write about, and it becomes obvious in the details:

    “Yet I’d take it one step further. I’d say that having given up the craft of cooking, we feel its loss. If we can no longer produce something authentically beautiful in our kitchens, we’ll at least watch others do it. And — as with all drama — it will be cathartic. It will fill a void, purge an instinctual need.”

    I feel the satisfaction of having learned something from you today. Thank you.
    .-= DanielthePoet´s last blog post …Mojofiti, the Language Barrier, and the Tower of Babel =-.

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