As usual, Michael Pollan has something interesting to say on the topic.
First, we have learned to see that food is not a ghetto, it is a door. You can use food to talk about the environment. You can use food to talk about culture. You can use food to talk about politics. And people took a good hard look at how their food was being produced, and they didn’t like what they saw. They didn’t like the way chemicals were being used on apples, and they didn’t like the fact that we were feeding cows to cows. But what’s driving it now is not just fear but pleasure—people have found that food gives them a lot, it gives them things that they aren’t getting elsewhere in their lives.
I think it’s interesting that this strikingly powerful interest in all things having to do with food coincides with a progressively more mediated, digitized life. We spend our time in front of screens. We don’t exercise our other senses very much. And food is this complete sensory experience. It engages all five senses. It’s a sensual pleasure. And it is also—and I think this is a very important part of the food movement—really a communitarian movement.
I think Pollan is partly right.
In contemporary life, we are certainly becoming less engaged in the physical world and more wrapped up in the whole online experience. But our digitized lives are not lacking in sensory experience. There is certainly plenty of visual and auditory beauty to be found online. Granted the sensations of touch, smell, and taste are left out of the online experience. However, I’m sure,as you read this post, in the back corridors of Google or Apple, computers that produce lovely aromas, rub our backs and are equipped with straws from which we sample the world of flavor are being designed.
When these start appearing under the Christmas tree we will lose our interest in cooking?
I think not.
But Pollan is nevertheless correct in pointing to cooking as an antidote to an excessively digitized life. The problem with the online experience is not sensory deprivation. Instead, it is a kind of passive activity that does not invite us to engage with the world around us. When flitting between websites and social media, we are guided by our own intentions and interests; there is no world to offer resistance that demands a wide range of skills, exertion, self-transcendence, perseverance or commitment. (I’m speaking of entertainment, not work activity that must be done online, which can of course be challenging.) The whole person is not involved and the sense of being guided by something not ourselves, beyond our capacity for full control is less salient.
By contrast, cooking engages a full range of human capacities. It is an inherently meaningful activity in which we strive for excellence by being guided by our ingredients, the limitations of our equipment, the laws of nature, and most importantly the demands of those who will eat our food.
The culture of the table is a place where family and friends come together, where a variety of social dramas are enacted, where we are in dialogue with our community, culinary traditions, our own imaginations, and ideals of a good life in a context in which the hard surfaces of a world pushes back on us and imposes demands we cannot ignore with the click of a button.
It is that engagement with a physical world that we seek when cooking.