“For is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for people you love?” Bestselling author and journalist Michael Pollan writes about his, and our, relationship with food in a poetic cadence, sending an ode to history and the years of evolution that have been shaped by what, where and why we eat. Based on Pollan’s “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” Netflix brings his culinary stories and insights to screen in “Cooked,” a four-part documentary series that ties food to the core of our civilization and humanity.
Each episode of “Cooked” focuses on one of the four natural elements — fire, water, air and ground — and explores the universal impact that it has had on both biology and human nature. Continuing the stories of subjects in Pollan’s book, the documentary series takes on “food” from a global perspective, featuring individuals from countries like India, Morocco and Peru. While what we eat is so often categorized by culture and regional cuisine, “Cooked” is able to paint a picture that shows the act of feeding, in all its variety, as simple. “We are a product of cooking,” Pollan narrates, arguing that the very act of heating up our food is what made us human from the start. “Fire,” the first episode of the series, primes the audience to explore humanity through the lens of cooking as a group of aboriginal hunters sets fire to a deserted landscape. It burns, catching from shrub to shrub, but however foreign their way of hunting might seem, “Cooked” effectively shows that the simplest natural elements connect us all at our most basic need.
From economics to chemistry, “Cooked” is able to clearly articulate the complicated systems in preparing food without losing its audience in the process. Covering an impressive range, Pollan effortlessly transitions from detailing the microflora composition of “designer cheeses,” products of modern fermentation that favorably alter human immune systems, to discussing the sociological implications of Sunday family dinners. The series presents food as a relationship, not a product, and recognizes the complexity of the topic without entitlement or blame.
Simply put, the series calls for a cooking renaissance. It does not push a political or activist agenda down the throats of its viewers, nor does it scream of boycotting corporations that infiltrate our minds and bodies with high fructose corn syrup. “Cooked” doesn’t forcefully rally for some monumental change in society, but rather, hopes to reconnect us with nature. Pollan explores the time-consuming, complicated and beautiful relationship between humans and food, as sweeping shots of desert landscapes and exquisite close-ups of bubbling stew show that humanity simply could not exist without the primal act of mixing water and ingredients and then heating it up. The docu-series is soft-spoken and light, and while it fails to capture an unwavering and undivided focus, it succeeds in gracefully maneuvering through the technical aspects of cooking as well as backing out to a cultural lens. Instead of lecturing people back to the kitchen, “Cooked” lures them back in.