With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Michael Pollan is the author of four New York Times best sellers, and his newest book is Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. He is the Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and lives in the Bay Area.
Cooking has always been a part of my life, but more like the furniture than an object of scrutiny, much less a passion. I counted myself lucky to have a parent — my mother — who loved to cook and almost every night made us a delicious meal. By the time I had a place of my own, I could find my way around a kitchen well enough, the result of nothing more purposeful than all those hours spent hanging around the kitchen while my mother fixed dinner.
Historically, national cuisines have been remarkably stable and resistant to change, which is why the immigrant’s refrigerator is the very last place to look for signs of assimilation.
Memory is the enemy of wonder, which abides nowhere else but in the present. This is why, unless you are a child, wonder depends on forgetting — on a process, that is, of subtraction. Ordinarily we think of drug experiences as additive. It’s often said that drugs “distort” normal perceptions and augment the data of the senses (adding hallucinations, say), but it may be that the very opposite is true — that they work by subtracting some of the filters that consciousness normally interposes between us and the world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, who as a lifelong gardener really should have known better, once said that a weed is simply a plant whose virtues we haven’t yet discovered; that weed is not a category of nature but a human construct, a defect of our perception. This kind of attitude, which comes out of an old American strain of romantic thinking about wild nature, can get you into trouble. At least it did me. For I had Emerson’s pretty conceit in mind when I planted my first flower bed, and the result was not a pretty thing.