“Cooking,” the food writer Michael Pollan says, “situates us in the world in a very special place, facing the natural world on one side and the social world on the other. The cook stands squarely between nature and culture, conducting a process of translation and negotiation.”
I began cooking rather late in life, after misbegotten college years as a Birds Eye vegetarian and a couple of decades of bachelor life, when the most nutritious thing in my refrigerator was usually the light bulb. I finally stepped up to the stove after a life-altering trip to Thailand, where I learned that a fresh, hot-salty-sour-sweet meal could be diced, sliced, spiced and wokked quicker than it took for the pizza to be delivered.
But I only learned the truth of Pollan’s statement about the role of the cook, the interpreter who explains nature to culture, when I found myself with a family to cook for. When I could go to a farmer’s market in the morning, pick out fresh-caught striped bass and dirt-dusted kale, and then serve it for dinner to my wife and children that evening. Somehow, in the years since, food has become much more than just food. As Pollan puts it, “There’s something magical that happens when people eat from the same pot.”
A magazine issue is in many ways a communal meal as well, a common table we invite you all to gather round. And that’s certainly true of this one, our second annual food issue, in which most of the words and pictures we’re serving up are about savory things to eat.
Now that you’re all here, let’s dig in. The first course is the primal story of fire, and anthropologists’ new theory that cooking was the crucial activity that shaped the evolution of the human brain (“The Mind on Fire,” by Jerry Adler).
We keep the flame alive with stories about the hottest pepper in India (“Burning Desire,” by Mary Roach) and the greatest taste sensations that the famed food critic Mimi Sheraton has on the tip of her tongue (“10 Epiphanies”). Why does Mimi like what she likes? We chew on a version of that question in a scientific examination of taste, something we all feel strongly about but which it turns out few of us can explain (“Accounting for Taste,” by Tom Vanderbilt).
In the end, we pull up a chair and listen in as Michael Pollan himself enjoys a free-range dinner conversation with fellow food writer Ruth Reichl. They talk about the state of the American table, from the 1950s to today, as well as Pollan’s latest book, Cooked , and the curly tale of his barbecue-loving pig, Kosher.
Since the theme of our issue is food, it only makes sense that our Phenomenon section is all about water (fresh, not bottled).
We hope you enjoy it. Oh, and don’t forget to save room for dessert (“Yeasts of the Southern Wild,” by Roy Blount Jr.).