Hello and welcome to Kitchen Catastrophic Reviews, an off-shoot of Kitchen Catastrophe Quick Tips. Normally, our quick tips analyze facets or facts of food culture. The Reviews are meant to tighten our focus to a specific product, whether a movie, show, cookbook, or maybe even kitchen tools. (If I can find a way to stretch that out to insane lengths.) Today’s review is of the Netflix Documentary series “Cooked”.
I wanted to do this for a couple reasons, which I’ll explain right off the bat. Firstly, I wanted to lay a quick ground rule about the idea of me reviewing stuff, which is a Patreon reward, with some basic examples. This whole series runs three and a half hours. THAT’s the kind of series I can easily review for the site. You want me to knock out something like that? No problem. On the other hand, I can’t feasibly do a review of say, ALL of Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives”, because that would take 210 HOURS to watch. If I watched the show as a 9-to-5 job, it would take over a MONTH to finish.
And a month is way too long to spend in Flavortown, muchacho. Out of bounds.
The second major reason was to have a brief talk about the state of food television. (We’ll get into it in a second.) And, finally, the third reason was: I wanted a sense of surprise. So far, both of the things I’ve reviewed, I had definite opinions going into: I already liked the American Craft Cookbook, and Street Food Around the World got reviewed solely because of how intensely the first 5 minutes upset me. With “Cooked”, I had only watched the first 2 episodes, but I remembered being quite taken with the first one especially, and liked what the second one added. So, does the show stick the landing? Let’s find out! But first, Jon complains about the state of things like an old asshole.
Things were better in my Day, damn it!
I actually don’t know if that’s true, or even what “my day” would constitute here, but I was motivated to review a Netflix series over a real television series, for one main reason: most food-based TV channels have NO GODDAMN IDEA HOW TO SCHEDULE. That may seem a bold claim, but here are the three main models I’ve encountered in food TV:
1. The reasonable, but restrictive, schedule. This one I see a lot on Create TV. Create TV has, by my informal count, something like 10-12 cooking shows. And they show 4-5 of them in a block in the morning, and a mostly different block later in the evening. They switch which shows show up in which block every month or so. This provides a real sense of variety, and timing, but it prevents you from really getting into a specific show. ABC (as far as I know) only has one cooking show, they show it midday, and they’re done. This is my preferred method, as a TV viewer.
2. The WALL. I see this one mostly on the Food Network, where, and this is literal fact, they were running 14 hours of Chopped the Tuesday before I wrote this. I counted on the guide. 14 of the next 24 hours were going to be Chopped. Some days, it’s 6 hours of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. (which, as noted, forms a mere 2.8% of Guy’s oeuvre) Normally, they run it that if the new episode is that night, then that day gets the wall. This one lets you get your binge watch on, and connect to the show, but it can also be really daunting and off-putting. You’ll also see this in what I call “Flagship” shows. Travel Channel, for instance, only has 2 cooking shows, but they’re real proud of them, so they’ll show 4-5 hours every other day or so. I like this one the least, since it speaks to, well, a laziness, or rights problems. I know for a fact that Food Network has something like 15-20 shows currently airing, why do you think we want 12 hours of Beat Bobby Flay today?
Though his smug face does make me want to see it get beat for hours.
3. Lastly is the Special event. This is a thematically tied-together WALL. Like, CInco De Mayo is going to have Mexican themed episodes mixed in with travels shows to Mexican destinations on Create. Or Valentine’s day is all cakes, chocolate, and VALENTINE’S episodes on Food Network. This one I’m mostly fine with. Even program schedulers need their easy days, you know? And as long as they mix it up a little, I’m fine.
However, none of those are particularly conducive to reviews: the first one keeps the show too divided, the second one has no guarantee of sticking to one season, and the third becomes super tied to the theme, which could be good for an analysis based on that, but doesn’t necessarily show each program at its best.
Hence my affection for using Netflix as a review platform: I can track the evolution of the show, the start and finish, and, of course, I can pause it if something happens, like a UPS delivery, a phone call from a family member, or me spilling milk on myself like an idiot and having to clean it up.
Now that we’ve wasted half the article talking about NOT the show, let’s get down to Brass tacks.
Your Goose is Cooked!
First, let’s talk about the star: Michael Pollan is kind of a big name in certain food circles, despite looking like the bastard son of Voldemort and the BFG.
Of course, black and white are always the MOST flattering kinds of pictures.
He’s a big food author, writing books about complex topics, that are typically rather….controversial. We’ll get to why later. One quick fun fact about him personally: he’s actually Michael J Fox’s brother-in-law! That’s not a joke. This dude presumably has Thanksgiving with Teen Wolf.
Now, the show itself: Cooked is an…interesting program. It follows an easy and definite arc through its four episodes, though personally I think the last one goes a little wonky. Michael himself lays out the structure during the first episode: each section of the show (based on his book of the same name) discusses a specific aspect of the history of cooking around the world, each corresponding to one of the classical elements (fire, water, air, and earth.)
Now, Fire is a very strong opener, in my opinion. Firstly, it evinces that this show has some great cinematography. Colors everywhere, good movement, this show just LOOKS good. Fire lays the foundation of the show, and discusses some interesting scientific theories, all to underscore Michael’s core thesis of the entire show: Cooking is something important to humanity. It’s a connection to our families, our homes, our nations, even our biological selves. Michael speaks out against the level to which we’ve industrialized our food production, while simultaneously arguing against mass adoption of vegetarianism. His discussions are intercut with scenes shot with an Aboriginal tribe in Australia, who discuss the importance of fire and fire cooking, and of a North Carolina pitmaster, and his personal history.
Personally, that Pitmaster is what really makes it for me. Ed Mitchell is a cheerful man, almost a loving caricature of the “old southerner”, tossing out words like “grudgements”, and joshin’ with his helpers. But he tells the story of his first barbecued hog, and how it served as his passage into manhood, and it helps to underscore the emotional stakes here: food, and its preparation, has meaning.
Here's a picture of Ed, beating Bobby Flay.
The episode focuses on the idea that Fire is the first step of cooking, maybe of our evolution to human, and it’s the great communal unifier.
Water, then, proposes the next step of human, food, and cultural evolution, in the form of the idea of cooking in pots. Using water to meld and marry flavors, and to soften foods. Here, the discussion is intercut a lot with scenes from Mumbai. And where before food was creating a community, here, we see it providing for one: stay-at-home moms getting paid to cook for young professionals, community kitchens serving the poor, etc.
Here’s also where, to me, a bit of dissonance creeps in: while Michael talks about the importance of simple foods, of cooking, and of a need to resist industrialization, while his guest speakers bring up the ideas of industrialized food pushing itself into our homes and kitchens, and stealing our agency for their profits, they also go to a Nestle lab in India, and show how Nestle is attempting to make essentially Indian Ramen.
Seriously, that wasn't a joke.
The dissonance comes from the fact that, well, the Nestle guys don’t act like assholes. They have actual kitchens, where they’re making real foods in order to get the flavors of the noodles right. They talk about adding vitamins but keeping the flavors balanced. They legitimately seem like they’re trying to do a good job, but literally every other person has been casting them as the villains. Maybe that was the point, that while from the outside we can see the damage this industrialization has done, inside it all seems very acceptable, but if so, that point isn’t made very strongly.
Next is Air, and it discusses the idea of fermentation, with a predominant focus on breads, and their relationship to yeast and so on. The nutritional value of bread is discussed, and the idea that bread is the first civilized food: bread can’t work without multiple parties. You need farmers, and millers, and bakers, in order to get any sort of wide-spread bread production. It ties the idea of bread with that of society, pointing out just how many revolutions have started simply over the price of bread. It talks about the facts of bread economies, like how Morocco imports wheat from Jordan, and the Ukraine. Fire may have united the community, but it is bread that unites the world. But it’s also dividing it, as they analyze how the modern, single-strain yeast has changed how bread ferments, and how white flour is so nutritionally dismal compared to whole-grain. He talks about how the gluten-free craze is likely more a matter of having reactions to badly made breads, not to the gluten itself.
Why do we never have gluten balloon fights?
Lastly, he does Earth, where he once again studies fermentation, but this time, on a longer scale, discussing vinegars, cheeses, beers, and chocolates. And this episode…is my least favorite. Despite the number of foods I love being on the list, they’re pared with some choices that were off-putting to me. The idea of fermentation as preservation is brought up, the idea of heavily fermented foods being regional identifiers, and…the idea of cheese being emblematic of the promise of Heaven.
That last one may seem weird, but when you realize a major speaker in this episode is a microbiologist and NUN, well, it makes more sense. Personally, this one was a little too hard-science for me, with microscope shots of kimchi bacteria, the “life after death” analysis of cheese, and so on. Also, by this point, I’d already watched 3 hours of the same ideas, so I was probably just burning out.
Here’s the two biggest problems with the show, and Michael's books, in a nutshell: it’s preachy, and it’s problematic. If you’ll allow me to don my official liberal attire:
I actually had the glasses, mustache, and flannel already.
Michael talks about some important and interesting stuff, but he has a sort of blindness to some vital components. In Fire, he talks about the importance of buying sustainable foods, which he demonstrates by cooking a whole pig, after meeting both the farmer, and the butcher. My basic research suggests that pig cost him anywhere from $200 to $400. Now, sure, it provides something like 50 pounds of meat, meaning it could feed 30 people with weeks of leftovers, but maybe “An entrée that costs 2 weeks pay” wasn’t the best example.
Further, the idea of it being food companies/bureaucracy that causes so many problems just gets HAMMERED. I don’t think there’s a single episode that doesn’t include at least three to five minutes talking about some problem that they lay at the feet of food companies or under-informed regulation.
Personally, I still really like Fire, and Air. Water’s fine, and I just wasn’t a fan of the second half of Earth. Maybe if you break it into 2 viewings, it’ll be more enjoyable. Overall, I give the show a four out of five. Yeah, it has problems, and I didn’t like 1/7 of the run time, but hey, overall, I think it’s got some nice shots, some good ideas, and a solid foundation.
NEXT TIME: SUPPOSEDLY WE’RE GETTING ANOTHER GUEST WRITER. SO I WILL BE AS SURPRISED AS YOU ARE.