The argument made by “Cooked” is that the act of cooking is a part of the foundational fibers of ecosystems and civilizations.
This documentary is based on the book by legendary food writer Michael Pollan, and like the book, it ventures through styles of cooking across the globe. It also focuses on Pollan’s own experience to learn how to cook different foods.
The book’s four parts are divided according to the classical elements of fire, water, air and earth. Pollan’s learning coincides with these elements. Barbecued pig connects with fire, pot roast with water, bread with air, and beer with earth.
The focus is still on a global scale. The opening shot is of a patch of the Australian outback being burned by a couple of indigenous Murri women. After the fire burns out, they find burrowing lizards that have left their homes. It is revealed later that their hunting style is not destructive, but crucial to the survival of the ecosystem. Without the Murri’s hunting, newer plants would be unable to flourish.
In the air segment, the age-old trope of bread being equal to life is used. In Morocco, a woman kneads flour and water together to form a crude loaf. It is a metaphor for how life and work coexist with each other. The woman’s younger son looks at her with confusion. She answers the unasked question: Why? And answers it’s impossible to live without bread. Replace “bread” with “work” and the answer is the same.
The artistry in filmmaking hits similar notes in the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” in which the process is portrayed as the creation of a landscape painting by a master. In the water segment, onions and parsnips are dropped into boiling water, where they dance in harmony before being interrupted by the beef. Soon the pot has turned into an orgy of flavors and nutrients until it becomes a stew.
In both the book and documentary, cooking is intertwined with humanities, biology, anthropology, geography and other disciplines. The broad art of cooking is condensed as being a ritual of religious importance.
It also stands as a warning to younger generations who treat cooking with the dangerous attitude that intervention in food production is unnecessary. As processing grows to an industrial scale, health is put into jeopardy. In India, a family orders takeout food four times a week, causing a fractured family unit.
Yet home cooking is viewed by others in India as a duty to preserve culture. The film shows how workers in India are brought home-cooked lunches every day by bike-riding delivery boys. The work is hard, but the people cooking see it as a necessity.
In “Cooked,” a home-cooked meal is never just the result of vegetables and meat coming in contact with heat. The personhood of the cook is ingrained into the fibers of the culture. Not just the cook’s emotion, but also his or her ethnic background, pains and pleasures, and history.
The film’s key argument is this: To not cook is to destroy a person.
“Cooked” is currently streaming on Netflix.