How this happened.

photo by coral von zumwait for O Magazine
I first heard of Michael Pollan before The Botany of Desire came out in 2002.  Someone at Chez Panisse had an advance copy of it and it got passed around from cook to cook, and eventually to me.  I devoured it, and started avidly following his career.  Next came Power Steer, the story that changed the meat-purchasing policies at the restaurant and far beyond, and of course The Omnivore's Dilemma.

This guy was saying things I could get behind.  I, along with pretty much everyone else in my corner of the food world, was thrilled to finally have someone on the national stage speaking so eloquently about the things I spent my days and nights pondering.  For the first time since Wendell Berry, we had a calm, studied representative out there drawing people's awareness to the issues we'd devoted our lives to.

For several years after graduating college, every spring I considered applying--or applied--to graduate school.  I'd always assumed I'd be an academic, and nearly enrolled in graduate school twice.  I wasn't really picky about what I wanted to study.  It was more about just returning to school so I could put off having to face real life.  At various points in time I considered an MFA in poetry, a PhD in English, an MSc in Biodiversity and an MA in journalism.  Like I said, I wasn't picky.

Eventually, I reached a point where I realized it might not happen for me, mostly for financial reasons.  So I asked Michael if I could simply audit his class called Following the Food Chain at the Graduate School of Journalism at Cal.

He said no.

Practical professor that he is, he said I was the lowest priority person on his list, after all of the paying GSJ students who wanted to take the tiny seminar, all of the grad students in other programs at UC Berkeley, and the undergraduates.  Community members like me were basically at the bottom of the barrel.  But as a consolation prize, I could come to the first day of the class.  In the unlikely event that a bunch of enrolled students dropped out of the class and no one else showed up to fill the spots, I could then audit.

No dice.  Over 200 people showed up, all thinking the same thing as me.  Michael tried to manage the chaos by asking us all to write on an index card why we wanted to take the class.  I have no idea what I wrote on there, but I filled it out, stayed for the class, and left knowing there was no hope for me to get in.

A couple of days later, I recounted the whole story to my friend Sarah, then a grad student in Architectural History at Cal.  It was obvious how bummed out I was.  She looked at me, totally confused, and asked, "What the heck is wrong with you, Samin?  Don't know know anything about academics?  You have to show him how badly you want this and point out to him all of the ways in which he would be a fool to NOT let you in.  This class is about your LIFE'S WORK!  Write him a letter and tell him everything you'd bring to the class precisely because you're NOT a grad student, but a COOK deeply involved in everything he's teaching about."

Figuring I had nothing to lose, I did exactly that.  And it worked.  He shrugged and said, "Okay, you're in."

Taking that class was one of the two or three best things I have ever done for myself.  It was tiny--I think there were twelve of us in there--and I forged relationships with many of the writers and journalists who comprise my tightly-knit group of literary friends here in the Bay Area through that class.  Most of my officemates, beach buddies, dear friends, and colleagues in this writerly part of my life came to me as a result of that class.  And then, there's also Michael.

Michael, who allowed me to browbeat him into letting me into that class, into forcing us to take a field trip to Cannard Farm, into turning my turn to make the weekly snack into a three course meal, has been a teacher, guide, mentor, willing guinea pig, and friend to me for the last seven years.

When in 2009 Michael came to me and said "I'm going to write a book that looks at cooking from all angles, and I'll need a guide.  Would you like to be it?"  I was ready with a big, fat YES.

We started cooking together on Sundays, sometimes shopping together at the farmer's market on Saturdays, sometimes using leftovers or vegetables from the garden or mushrooms he'd foraged, and always naturally drawing the rest of the family into the kitchen.  Each of us quickly found his or her place in the order of things--Michael as the eager student, me as the mess-making teacher, Judith as the keeper of order, and Isaac as the quality-control-know-it-all.  After a long afternoon of cooking together, we'd sit down to a lovingly prepared meal.  One of my favorite dishes from the whole experience was something we cooked that first time with porcini mushrooms Michael had found in Bolinas the day before--we simmered the trimmings in chicken stock and made a really tasty soup that we ladled over spinach, and then floated duck fat croutons piled with saut√©ed porcini on top.

We quickly realized cooking for half a day yielded way too much food for just the four of us, and soon Sundays became an excuse for dinner parties with people who, more times than not, ended up joining us and lending a hand in the kitchen.

I did my best to build our lessons around concrete themes, from browning to layering flavors, to specific chemical reactions, to various cuisines of the world, to seasonal ingredients available to us for fleeting moments throughout the year.  We cooked paella in the fire pit, roasted whole pork shoulders (and a couple whole hogs!), we cooked grains and meats and all manner of vegetables and fruits, we made mistakes and fixed them, and we had lots and lots of fun.  We cooked everything we could dream up and shared it all with wonderful people.  I couldn't have imagined a better job.

Michael quickly picked up on my obsession with Salt, Fat, Acid, and Heat and I told him of the book I'd dreamt of writing at the ripe old age of twenty.  He encouraged me to write a four-part curriculum for cooking classes and start teaching.  So I did, and eventually, he encouraged me to turn it into a book proposal.  So I did.  And now I get to share what I shared with Michael with the whole rest of the world.

When Michael wanted to learn about bread, I took him to meet Chad Robertson.  When we went in to observe the bakers at Tartine, I was so inspired by them I asked if we could collaborate sometime and Tartine Afterhours was born.  This experience has given me so much.  It's insane.  Some might even call it MAGIC.

I can't even begin to explain how wonderfully surreal it is to be captured in print by my mentor, teacher, and friend, who also happens to be a bestselling author and international authority on the subject to which I have devoted my life.  But what I can do is share with you one of my favorite bits of the WATER chapter, where I am the main character, teaching him about cooking in pots.  If you have ever met me--and even if you haven't--it'll be immediately apparent that Michael managed to get the exact right balance of my intensity, silliness, mischievousness and enthusiasm down on the page:
As usual, Samin had a white apron tied around her waist, and the thicket of her black hair raked partway back.  Samin is tall and sturdily built, with strong features, slashing black eyebrows and warm olivey-brown skin.  If you had to pick one word to describe her, "avid" would have to be it; Samin is on excellent terms with the exclamation point.  Words tumble from her mouth; laughter, too; and her deep, expressive brown eyes are always up to something.

As honored and excited as I am to be one of the main characters of this book, my favorite parts--the ones that make me cry--have nothing to do with me.  The introduction (which you can read or listen to here) and the conclusion include some of the most articulate, timely, and sensitive arguments for cooking and eating together that I have ever read.  Just as when I first discovered Michael's writing, I feel an ineffable joy at the fact that there is someone brilliant out there advocating my values, arguing for all of the things in which I so deeply believe.  The only difference is that now, that someone is practically family.  

Today is the publishing date for Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation Michael's seventh book.

You can buy it from any of these fine retailers, or, better yet, your local bookstore.  Read it and let me know what you think!
Barnes & Noble
Books Inc.

Here's MP on the Colbert Report last night.  Hilarious.
Here's a great interview with him and Adam Platt in New York Magazine.
Here's another great interview about how Wendell Berry has inspired his work.
Here's a super informative Cooking FAQ and list of resources on Michael's website.
And here's a list of his book events across the country and beyond.

In case you are interested, I put together a list of cooking resources and will continue to add to it as time goes on.  And I also updated my Amazon.com store (full disclosure, if you buy anything after clicking on an Amazon.com link I post, I make a small commission on that purchase) with all sorts of basic, useful, and luxury kitchen items and books.  

1 comment:

  1. This is so inspiring! Just about a year ago I decided I wanted to focus myself more on food, and took a bit of a turn in my career to accomodate my growing passion for teaching and being in the kitchen. It's been a slow transition and I'm often overwhelmed when figuring out where to go and what to do next, but it's very helpful to see how other people I admire have built their own paths. Thank you for this. I can't wait to read the book!