Over the years, we’ve seen many best-selling novels adapted into movies—Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Room, et cetera—but rarely do we get best-selling non-fiction turned into documentaries. So when Netflix announced its new docu-series Cooked, I was excited to see Michael Pollan’s latest book adapted into a show, but also intrigued by how the creators would possibly interpret Pollan’s in-depth look at food preparation into a short, four-part documentary.
If you had never read Cooked, your ultimate conclusion might be they did it hurriedly. But if you’re a small farmer, and especially one who has read the book, you may see it differently. Your summary of their interpretation may be “beautifully.”
The show follows the same premise as the book: It takes the four basic elements—Fire, Water, Air and Earth—and turns each one into an episode on how it relates to cooking. In “Fire,” for instance, Pollan discusses the role cooking by flame has had on human evolution, traditio and, community.
“When we learned to cook was when we became truly human” he says, introducing the episode.
The next episode, “Water,” takes a look at our use of the clay pot, the importance of its invention, and our general, and somewhat tragic, lost connection to food preparation. Pollan delves into bread-making in “Air,” and likewise, into gluten intolerance and how perhaps fewer people may suffer this affliction if the gluten we were consuming was seeing a proper fermentation. The series digs further into fermentation in “Earth” by taking a look at the making of cheese, kimchi, beer and so on—and the elegantly complex microbiology behind it.
It is admittedly a lot for a short documentary and does sometimes come off feeling as cramped as that last paragraph. But any screen adaptation of a book is a lot. Rarely does a movie do the book full justice. In this series, for instance, you meet some of the characters from the book but not all. You touch on some ideas, but not every. There are compromises one must take in translating a book onto the screen—ideas you simply can’t fit into a film. For that reason, shows, movies and documentaries should never be considered an alternative to the work that inspires them. Or put another way, Cooked the series is not a replacement for Cooked the book. Rather, it’s a lovely and tuneful overture, and one that farmers might find valuable to their work.
It is hard to ignore the agriculture here. Yes, many farms and farmers are visited throughout the series, but food’s relationship to farming is more profound than that. Cooked is farm-to-table, farm-to-factory, factory-to-factory, before farming, after it, all at once. In the “Fire” episode, you don’t just get the typical machismo-fueled celebration of gluttony that barbecue is so often betrayed as on television. You see its historical context and it’s importance to the community. You see where the hogs come from, where they go, and how the act of cooking them brings communities—and races and ethnicities—together.
It always enriches what you do to have a cultural understanding of your craft—farming is no different. For that reason, Cooked the series offers a unique and broad perspective not just on cooking or farming, but on food as a whole. If it then sparks in you a desire to dig deeper, there is a book to help satisfy that curiosity—to give you an even brighter illumination of what we as farmers ultimately do: create raw ingredients for the ancient and community-binding act that is cooking. But of course, if it’s the busy season and you just need a good show to watch, Cooked can do that, too.