"Is Michael Pollan a sexist pig?" wonders the title of a recent Salon piece by Emily Matchar, which is an excerpt of her just-released book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity. The Salon headline turns out to be mainly a lunge for clicks—the excerpted passage only glancingly concerns Pollan, and it has nothing to say about his new book Cooked, which clearly hadn't come out when Matchar was writing hers.

But both Matchar in her essay and Pollan in his new book raise important questions about gender, cooking, and what we might as well follow Matchar in calling the "new domesticity"—issues I didn't get to in my own recent review of Cooked.

Matchar—quite accurately, I think—places women at the center of the the budding movement to challenge industrial food. Women, she writes, are "disproportionately represented in the unique-to-the-twenty-first-century worlds of artisan food businesses, urban homesteading, food activism, and food blogging."

Most of her piece amounts to a nuanced, sympathetic critique of the new domesticity. Pollan emerges as her foil when she defends feminism against the charge that it drove women out of the kitchen and led to the decline in cooking. Pollan came perilously close to making that argument in a 2009 New York Times Magazine essay, the seed that germinated into Cooked.

In that piece, Pollan declared Betty Friedan's 1963 opus The Feminine Mystique the "book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression." That's an overreach—a little like calling James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, also published in 1963, the book that taught African Americans that racism sucks. These works illuminated and helped articulate the  rebellions against the racial and gender status quos of the era, but they didn't generate them.

And of course, cooking does become drudgery when you're forced to do it whether you want to or not—and it was the power relations around the act of cooking, not cooking itself, that drove Friedan's ire.

Even Julia Child, born in 1912, grew up with servants in the kitchen and scant memories of her mother whipping up dinner.

To be fair to Pollan, he offers a revised reading of Friedan's impact on cooking in Cooked. He does write that "second-wave feminists like Betty Friedan depicted all housework as a form of oppression"—still conflating a critique of the power relations that surround housework with a critique of housework itself. But he continues: "[T]he food industry—along with falling wages of American families, which is what drove most women into the workforce beginning in the 1970s—probably had more to do with the decline of cooking than feminist rhetoric."

At another point, he adds: "For the necessary and challenging questions about who should be in the kitchen, posed so sharply by Betty Friedan in the Feminist Mystique, ultimately got answered by the food industry: No one! Let us do it all!" That's well said.

Yet Matchar does level a charge against Pollan that sticks: that he bases much of his analysis of the US cooking scene on history tinged with nostalgia. Throughout the book, Pollan acts as if everyone was cooking until a generation or two ago. "Most of us have happy memories of watching our mothers in the kitchen," he writes. At another point, he wants to know why food-centered TV shows became so popular "at the precise historical moment [i.e., the present] when Americans were abandoning the kitchen." Matchar delivers a history lesson:

In Colonial America, kitchen work was viewed as a lowly chore, often farmed out to servants (who, needless to say, did not spend a lot of time exulting in the visceral pleasures of pea shucking). In the 1800s, middle-class women supervised immigrant kitchen maids (or slaves), while pioneer women and rural housewives sweated over wood fires and heavy iron pots.

In other words, as Hanna Raskin makes clear in her well-researched Seattle Weekly review of Cooked, class power has long exempted a large swath of the population from having to get their hands dirty in the kitchen—and not just men, but women, too. Here's Raskin:

Although 1870 represented the pinnacle of the domestic-service industry, as measured by the percentage of working women employed by it, the national reliance on hired help hadn’t faded decades later. In Domesticity and Dirt: Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920-1945, Phyllis Palmer cites a 1937 Fortune survey showing "70 percent of the rich, 42 percent of the upper middle class, 14 percent of the lower middle class, and 6 percent of the poor reported" hiring help.

While reading Raskin, I remembered I had made similar points about Pollan's nostalgic view of the history of cooking back in 2009, in response to his Times Magazine piece (see here and here). I had just happened upon a great 1989 Terry Gross interview with Julia Child, whom Pollan lionizes as a paragon of a golden age when cooking mattered and Americans practiced it regularly. From my second 2009 post:

In the interview, we find out that Child herself didn’t grow up cooking. She says: "I grew up in the teens and '20s, when most people had—middle class people—had maids or someone to help." She reveals that her mother cooked seldom, and then only two dishes: Welsh rabbit (a kind of cheese sandwich) and baking-soda biscuits. As for herself, "I didn't do any cooking then at all."

So even Julia Child, born in 1912, grew up with servants in the kitchen and scant memories of her mother whipping up dinner—although, to the 1960s-era audience of her television show, live-in cooks were likely much less common than they were during Child's 1920s childhood, because the cost of labor had risen over the decades. But the point stands: People with sufficient means have long been able to opt out of cooking. What I wrote back in 2009 still sums up my thoughts today:

Pollan was right: people do need to revalue the craft of cooking, to embrace it as a quotidian pleasure, not a mere chore. But if we manage convince them of that, we'll have achieved something new, not returned to a lost past.

While I think Matchar is right that it's women who are driving the new push to liberate the kitchen from the food industry's grip, men, too, are participating heavily in the new domesticity. And Pollan's brilliant, flawed book—as I wrote in my review, it's a fantastic read—will likely attract yet more men into the realm of domestic production. And if it does, a so-called "sexist pig" will have helped create a broad-based, nonsexist cooking culture here in the Fast Food Nation.

Back in early 2012, the US Department of Agriculture seemed on the verge of approving new genetically modified crops from agrichemical giants Monsanto and Dow. The two companies were pushing new corn and soy varieties that would respond to the ever-expanding problem of herbicide-tolerant superweeds by bringing more-toxic herbicides into the mix—and likely ramping up the resistance problem, as I explained at length in a post at the time.

Even some mainstream ag scientists were alarmed at the coming escalation in the war against weeds. Scientists at Penn State University—not exactly a hotbed of alternative ag thinking—delivered a damning analysis of the novel crops, which would be engineered to withstand not only Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, but also the highly toxic old ones 2,4-D (Dow's version) and Dicamba (Monsanto's).

Yet in August, the USDA again signaled that approval would be imminent—and by the end of 2012, people who follow ag regulatory issues were telling me that the USDA would almost certainly approve the crops over Christmas break, timing the decision in an effort to minimize the inevitable uproar.

But then Christmas came and went with no announcement—leading Dow to issue a January press statement about how the unexpected delay meant it could not sell its new product to farmers for the 2013 growing season. Yet the company remained confident about the prospects for approval in time for planting in 2014—it told the trade journal Delta Farm Press it "expects all approvals will be in place for sale in late 2013," in time for its novel seeds to be used over a "broad geography" in 2014.

But on Friday, the USDA essentially trampled on those expectations—it announced it was delaying approval of the crops until it could generate full environmental impact statements (known as EIS's) on them. The move effectively means that the crops won't be planted in fields next year, either, a Dow spokesperson told Bloomberg News.

This stuff makes the ethanol industry profitable—and boosts the E. coli in your burger.

Back in 2007, amid a boom in US corn-based ethanol, researchers at Kansas State University released a sobering study involving distillers grains—the mash that's left over after corn has been fermented and distilled into ethanol. As various government programs ramped up ethanol production—and with it the price of corn—the livestock industry was increasingly turning to distillers grains as a cheap corn substitute. But the Kansas researchers found that the stuff seemed to cause a spike in a particularly dangerous-to-humans form of E. coli in the cows' guts.

"Distiller's grain is a good animal feed," the study's lead researcher said in a press release. But its tendency to boost the potentially deadly E. coli 0157 strain "is likely to have profound implications in food safety."

The US Department of Agriculture, which is responsible for monitoring the safety of meat products, acknowledged the problem from the start. The USDA's then-undersecretary for food safety, Richard Raymond, told the Des Moines Register in early 2008 that he thought distillers grains were one of several factors behind the massive spike in recalls of E. coli 0157-tainted beef that had occurred in 2007. And he also telegraphed the department's strategy for responding to the threat: inaction. Here's the Register:

Last week, the European Commission voted to place a two-year moratorium on most uses of neonicotinoid pesticides, on the suspicion that they're contributing to the global crisis in honeybee health (a topic I've touched on here, here, here, and here). Since then, several people have asked me whether Europe's move might inspire the US Environmental Protection Agency to make a similar move—currently, neonics are widely used in several of our most prevalent crops, including corn, soy, cotton, and wheat.

The answer is no. As I reported recently, an agency press officer told me the EU move will have no bearing on the EPA's own reviews of the pesticides, which aren't scheduled for release until 2016 at the earliest.

All of which got me thinking about other food-related substances and practices that are banned in Europe but green-lighted here. Turns out there are lots. Aren't you glad you don't live under the Old World regulatory jackboot, where the authorities deny people's freedom to quaff  atrazine-laced drinking water, etc., etc.? Let me know in comments if I'm missing any.

1. Atrazine
Why it's a problem: A "potent endocrine disruptor," Syngenta's popular corn herbicide has been linked to a range of reproductive problems at extremely low doses in both amphibians and humans, and it commonly leaches out of farm fields and into people's drinking water.
What Europe did: Banned it in 2003.
US status: EPA: "Atrazine will begin registration review, EPA's periodic reevaluation program for existing pesticides, in mid-2013."

2. Arsenic in chicken, turkey, and pig feed
Why it's a problem: Arsenic is beloved of industrial-scale livestock producers because it makes animals grow faster and turns their meat a rosy pink. It enters feed in organic form, which isn't harmful to humans. Trouble is, in animals guts, it quickly goes inorganic, and thus becomes poisonous. Several studies, including one by the FDA, have found heightened levels of inorganic arsenic in supermarket chicken, and it also ends up in manure, where it can move into tap water. Fertilizing rice fields with arsenic-laced manure may be partially responsible for heightened arsenic levels in US rice.
What Europe did: According to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, arsenic-based compounds "were never approved as safe for animal feed in the European Union, Japan, and many other countries."
US status: The drug giant Pfizer "voluntarily" stopped marketing the arsenical feed additive Roxarsone back in 2011. But there are still several arsenicals on the market. On May 1, a coalition of enviro groups including the Center for Food Safety, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit demanding that the FDA ban them from feed.

3. "Poultry litter" in cow feed
Why it's a problem: You know how arsenic goes inorganic—and thus poisonous—in chickens' guts? Consider that their arsenic-laced manure is then commonly used as a feed for cows. According to Consumers Union, the stuff "consists primarily of manure, feathers, spilled feed, and bedding material that accumulate on the floors of the buildings that house chickens and turkeys." The "spilled feed" part is of special concern, because chickens are often fed "meat and bone meal from dead cattle," CU reported, and that stuff can spill into the litter and be fed back to cows, raising mad cow disease concerns.
What Europe did: Banned all forms of animal protein, including chicken litter, in cow feed in 2001.
US status: The practice remains unrestricted. US cattle consume about 2 billion pounds of it annually, Consumers Union's Michael Hansen told me last year.

4. Chlorine washes for poultry carcasses
Why it's a problem: As the US chicken industry has sped up kill lines in recent years, it has resorted to heavier use of chlorine-based washes to "decrease microbial loads on carcasses," the Washington Post recently reported, quoting a previously unreleased USDA document. As I've noted, the USDA is preparing to release new rules that would speed up kill lines still more as well as allow companies to douse every carcass that comes down the line with antimicrobial sprays, "whether they are contaminated or not." According to the Post, poultry workers face a "range of ailments" to the practice, including "asthma and other severe respiratory problems, burns, rashes, irritated eyes, and sinus ulcers and other sinus problems."
What Europe did: The EU not only bans the practice, but refuses to accept US poultry that has been treated with antimicrobial sprays.
US status: As stated above, the USDA is preparing to roll out new rules that will increase the practice.

5. Antibiotics as growth promoters on livestock farms
Why they're a problem: Antibiotic use has surged on US animal farms in recent years—and now accounts for 80 percent of all antibiotic use. Meanwhile, meat sold in US supermarkets is rife with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
What Europe did: In the EU, all antibiotics used in human medicines are banned on farms—and no antibiotics can be used on farms for "nonmedical purposes," i.e., growth promotion.
US status: The FDA is floating new rules that would ban antibiotics as growth promoters—but the regulation would be voluntary.

6. Ractopomine and other pharmaceutical growth enhancers in animal feed
Why it's a problem: Fed to an estimated 60 to 80 percent of US hogs, ractopomine makes animals grow fast while also staying lean. Unfortunately, it does so by mimicking stress hormones, making animals miserable. The excellent food safety reporter Helena Bottemiller looked at FDA documents and found that between its introduction in 1999 and 2011, the drug had killed 210,000 pigs—"more than any other animal drug on the market." Pigs treated with it, she found, suffer from ailments ranging from hyperactivity and trembling to broken limbs and the inability to walk. (Beef cows are fed similar drugs, as are turkeys.) Traces of these pharmaceuticals routinely end up in our meat—and according to Bottemiller, their effects on humans are little-studied.
What Europe did: Europe not only bars its own producers from using ractopamine, it also refuses to allow imports of meat from animals treated with it—as do China and Russia.
US status: Rather than trying to rein in ractopamine use, the Obama administration is actively seeking to force Europe and other nations to accept our ractopamine-treated pork.

7. Gestation crates
Why it's a problem: The sows that breed the hogs confined in US factory farms spend nearly their entire lives stuffed into crates "so small the animals can't even turn around or take more than a step forward or backward," the Humane Society of the United States reported. An undercover HSUS investigation of a sow facility run by pork giant Smithfield in 2010 found, among other horrors, this:

The animals engaged in stereotypic behaviors such as biting the bars of crates, indicating poor well-being in the extreme confinement conditions. Some had bitten their bars so incessantly that blood from their mouths coated the fronts of their crates. The breeding pigs also suffered injuries from sharp crate protrusions and open pressure sores that developed from their unyielding confinement.

What Europe did: Banned them, effective this year.
US status: Pork giants Smithfield, Cargill, and Hormel have pledged to phase them out; several fast-food chains including McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and Subway have promised to stop buying from suppliers who use the crates; and nine states have banned the practice, HSUS reported. But the practice remains widespread, and as industry flack Rick Berman recently put it, a large swath of the pork industry "has no plans to stop using standard sow housing."

On Monday, the European Commission voted to place a two-year moratorium on most uses of neonicotinoid pesticides, which are a widely used class of chemicals suspected of contributing to a severe global decline in honeybee health.

In the wake of Europe's decisive action, the US Environmental Protection Agency dithered. Well, it did release a joint report with the US Department of Agriculture on Thursday, generated from a "National Honey Bee Health Stakeholder Conference" the two agencies held last fall. The report fingered no single culprit behind colony collapse disorder, the name for the steep annual bee die-offs that have been stumping beekeepers since 2006. Instead, it pointed to a "complex set of stressors and pathogens," including poor nutrition (mainly from loss of flowering weeds due to increased herbicide use), viruses, gut parasites, and, yes, pesticides. But it includes a summary of a presentation by USDA scientist Jeff Pettis noting that "several studies" have shown that low-level exposure to neonics make bees more vulnerable to the common gut parasite Nosema. (Pettis himself is the coauthor of one of those studies.)

Yet, as Natural Resources Defense Council senior scientist Jennifer Sass put it in a Thursday blog post, the joint EPA/USDA report limits itself to "recommendations about best management practices and technical advancements for applying pesticides to reduce dust," while avoiding "recommendations that would reduce the overall sales and profits for chemical makers."

Nor does the report express much urgency; it promises an "action plan [that] will outline major priorities to be addressed in the next 5-10 years."

In the United States, neonic-treated crops cover a land mass equivalent to as much as twice the size of California.

Meanwhile, the European Commission's decisive action came amid what the Guardian called a "fierce behind-the-scenes campaign" to stop it from Syngenta and Bayer, the Europe-based chemical giants that market them. The move was prompted by a January report by the European Food Safety Authority, which identified "high acute risks" for bees from exposure to neonic-treated crops like corn and sunflower. And studies from independent researchers implicating neonics in declining bee health have mounted.

Even before the decision, France, Italy, Slovenia, and Bayer's home country, Germany, had all suspend use of the chemicals pending more research on bee health. Now neonics will face severe restriction in all 27 European Union countries for two-year period starting December 1, 2013, during which time the commission will continue its assessment of their impact.

The move trains a harsh light on the EPA, which approved the chemicals based on what its own scientists have called flawed research and is currently reviewing them in light of the threat to bees and other pollinators. Earlier this month, an agency spokesperson told CBS News that the review would take five years—meaning that they'll continue to be used widely on farmland in the US during that period. As I reported a while back, neonic-treated crops cover between 150 million to 200 million acres of farmland in the US each year—a land mass equivalent to as much as twice the size of California.

I contacted the EPA to ask whether the EC decision might speed the agency's timeline on reassessing neonics and their threat to bees. The response, in an emailed statement: "At this time, the data available to the EPA do not support a moratorium." The time frame for completing the reassessment remains in place, the statement added, with this caveat: "If at any time the EPA determines there are urgent human and/or environmental risks from pesticide exposures that require prompt attention, the agency will take appropriate regulatory action, regardless of the registration review status of that pesticide."


Back in August 2011, the agribusiness giant Cargill recalled a stunning 36 million pounds of ground turkey tainted with antibiotic-resistant salmonella that had come from a single processing facility in Arkansas, a failure that eventually sickened 136 people and killed another. The company shut down the plant, tweaked its process (mainly by adding to and "intensifying" its system of spraying meat with antimicrobial fluid), and quickly reopened it. Within a month, the company had to recall another 108,000 pounds of ground turkey from the same plant, because it was infected with the same strain of superbug salmonella.

Have things gotten any cleaner in the world of Big Turkey since those events? Cargill says it has cleaned up its act, but recent research suggests that ground turkey still has an antibiotic-resistant-pathogen problem. The latest evidence comes from Consumer Reports, which has just published the results of testing it did on 257 samples of ground turkey picked up from retailers around the country, produced by a variety of processors, including Cargill. CR contacted Cargill with the results, and got the following response:

"As we've publicly stated over the past year and a half, no stone was left unturned in our efforts to determine the originating source of salmonella Heidelberg associated with the ground-turkey recalls, yet to this day we do not know the origin of the bacteria linked to outbreak of illnesses," said Mike Robach, vice president of corporate food safety and regulatory affairs for Cargill in Minneapolis. He provided a long list of steps that Cargill has taken since the outbreak to make its ground turkey safer.

Even so, the results of Consumer Reports' tests won't make you eager to order that next turkey burger: "More than half of the packages of raw ground meat and patties tested positive for fecal bacteria."

Overall, 90 percent of the samples tested by CR researchers carried at least one of the five bacteria they looked for—and "almost all" of the bacteria strains they found showed resistance to at least one antibiotic. The two fecal-related bacteria strains—enterococcus and E. coli—showed up the most frequently:

Consumer Reports

What's more, those bacteria tended to be superbugs—that is, resistant to at least one antibiotic:

Consumer Reports

You'll note from the above charts both good and bad news about salmonella, the source of that 2011 Cargill outbreak. Happily, salmonella was rare in the meat CR tested—just 12 samples contained it, or 5 percent of the total. Unhappily, though, the salmonella they did find tended to be of the superbug variety—eight of those samples carried salmonella resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics. And there's evidence of lingering problems at that Arkansas plant of Cargill's—one of the multiresistant salmonella strains came from there, CR reports.

Consumer Reports also tested samples of ground turkey labeled "organic," "no antibiotics" and "raised without antibiotics." (Under USDA code, meat labeled organic must come from animals that were never treated with antibiotics.) The bacterial strains that turned up in these products were much less likely to be antibiotic-resistant.

Consumer Reports

The Consumer Reports study comes on the heels of a troubling analysis of Food and Drug Administration meat-testing data performed by Environmental Working Group. Every year, the FDA randomly selects samples of meat from retailers, tests them for resistant bacteria, and publishes the results in a manner that's nearly indecipherable (try it yourself—latest report, released in February, is here). EWG slogged through the results (report here) and found that 81 percent of ground turkey samples contained traces of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

All of which shines a harsh spotlight on the FDA's "voluntary" approach to curbing antibiotic use on farms. Between 2003 and 2011, antibiotic use on US livestock farms soared from 20 million pounds per year to 30 million pounds—a jaw-dropping 50 percent leap. These facilities now suck in 80 percent of the antibiotics consumed in the United States. The great bulk of these drugs are used not to treat sick animals, but rather to make them grow faster and keep them alive until slaughter under tight, filthy conditions.

Meanwhile, there's the US Department of Agriculture's imminent plan to slash the number of inspectors it places on poultry-industry kill lines (chicken and turkey) while simultaneously allowing those same kill lines to be sped up.

Michael Pollan

Having largely abandoned the home kitchen, Americans have embraced the "reality" of TV cooking. We now spend less than 60 percent of our food budgets on groceries for home consumption a third less than we did a half century ago. And when we do eat at home, there's a lot of box opening and microwaving. Time spent cooking has plunged over the past 40 years. According to a 2010 study (PDF) by University of Utah researchers, the time women spend cooking dropped from over 90 minutes per day to 60 minutes per day between 1975 and 2006. And men didn't pick up the slack—their kitchen time hovered around 20 minutes over that period. Meanwhile, cutthroat cooking contests featuring celebrity and would-be celebrity chefs have soared in popularity, as have old-school cooking-demo shows. 

What gives? Why abandon the practice and embrace the spectacle? In his new book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan ventures an answer. We've also abandoned other traditional household pursuits like making furniture or clothes, he notes, but "we're not watching shows or reading books about sewing or darning socks or changing the oil in the car." Our flight from the kitchen has left a void, an itch we can't scratch; unlike other happily discarded activities, cooking "retains an emotional power we can't shake, or don't want to." And so time we once spent doing the act, we now spend watching it.

That pull, he says, emanates from the depths of human history—from the African savannah, circa 1.8 million years ago. Leaning on the work of Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangam, Pollan claims that cooking, which frees up and concentrates nutrients, probably led to the expansion of the early human brain and sent us down the path that led to civilization. Something so central to the human project cannot be discarded lightly, Pollan insists.

This is a just-so story, of course; there's no way to judge its truth value. But by linking the rise of food TV with the decline of cooking, Pollan has hit upon a powerful correlation, and he marshals impressive evidence of drastic consequences: the expansion of waistlines and the deterioration of health.

Pollan's fascinating and charismatic guides range from the storied North Carolina whole-hog pitmaster Ed Mitchell to the Connecticut "cheese nun" (and Ph.D.-holding microbiologist) Noella Marcellino.

Pivoting off this central insight in Cooked, Pollan has written two different books that exist in some tension. One is a lavish, rollickngly told account of Pollan's recent culinary education, his path from pedestrian cook to the sort of fellow who maintains a sourdough starter for bread and makes his own beer. The other is a cri de coeur about our exile from the kitchen and an attempt to lead us—men and women alike—back. "My wager in Cooked," he writes, "is that the best way to recover the reality of food, to return it to its proper place in our lives, is to master the physical processed by which it has been traditionally made."

The first is an unmitigated triumph. As a longtime cooking nerd, I consumed Cooked like I do a plate of pasta with clams: that is to say, voraciously. Pollan organizes his narrative around four cooking styles correlated to the elements of pre-science Europe: fire (barbecue), water (braising), earth (fermentation), and air (breadmaking). For each, he chooses fascinating and charismatic guides, ranging from the storied North Carolina whole-hog pitmaster Ed Mitchell to the Connecticut "cheese nun" (and Ph.D.-holding microbiologist) Noella Marcellino.

Each of them pops vividly to life on the pages of Cooked, and Pollan places them in an enticing background of deftly researched history, science, and philosophy—and then takes their lessons into his home kitchen for a test run. His legendary chops as a science writer are on full display. Here he is on a loaf of bread, lovingly coaxed from a homemade sourdough starter, as it cooks in his oven:

I closed the oven door gently to make sure I didn't deflate the risen loaf while it finished baking. I needn't have worried. By now, the starches in the dough had "gelatinized"—stiffened enough to formalize the matrix of gluten, which had itself stiffened. During the early moments of baking, the cells of the matrix had ballooned under the pressure of gases expanding in the heat. At least for the first six to eight minutes of oven time, new alveoli continue to form, since the yeasts keep working until the temperature reaches a lethal 130 F. During this period, provided there remain enough sugars to feed them, the rapid flush of heat provides one last, climatic burst of fermentation.

Leave it to Pollan to turn the baking of a bread loaf into steamy drama.  

Engrossing as they are to read about, none of these adventures are practical on a Tuesday evening after a long day at the office while the kids are screaming for dinner.

Incidentally, Pollan's terrific bread section offers a possible explanation for the recent rise of "gluten intolerance" and the general bloated feeling one gets from modern bread. Today's loaves are pumped with fast-acting industrial yeasts and never undergo a lengthy fermentation, Pollan writes. But in that increasingly rare process, "the organic acids produced by the sourdough culture also seem to slow our bodies' absorption of the sugars in white flour, reducing the dangerous spikes in insulin that refined carbohydrates can cause." No wonder I feel fine after eating naturally leavened bread.

But as a clarion to lead the masses back to the kitchen, Cooked falls a bit flatter. True, it inspired me to want to expand and deepen my own kitchen practices—it left me eager to launch my own sourdough culture and rekindled a decades-old ambition to brew beer. But I've been a passionate home cook for 25 years, and worked in restaurants before that. What about the unsaved? By the time Cooked is cooked, Pollan has roasted a whole pig, been scolded by his private kitchen tutor, a Chez Panisse chef, that the dice on his mirepoix for his daube simply won't do (not fine enough), and produced a credible boule under the tutelage of the baking wizard who runs San Francisco's celebrated Tartine. Engrossing as they are to read about, none of these adventures are practical on a Tuesday evening after a long day at the office while the kids are screaming for dinner.

I put the book down wondering if such exertions might, to some, confirm precisely the attitude that Pollan is at pains to dismiss: that cooking is a luxury, a spectator sport, not a daily practice.  

But this quibble doesn't take away from the overall achievement of Cooked. Other writers—Mark Bittman, Suzie Middleton, Tamer Adler—specialize in demonstrating that anyone can cook great from-scratch food without too much fuss or expense. Still others, like Tracie McMillan, have demonstrated the brutal economic realities that undergird our flight from cooking (as with Pollan's other books, labor and class don't register in Cooked). What Pollan has done is written a brilliant set of narrative essays on what it means to transform the raw into the cooked—among the most riveting in English since those of MFK Fisher.

Umami dearest: a little miso pushes this dish over the edge.

At the end of the week, my stock of perishable foods consisted of the following items: a bunch of kale, two knobs of gorgeous, purple-skinned kohlrabi, and a fat pork chop. The veggies were leftovers from the previous weekend's farmers market run; the chop was an impulse buy after lunch at a new Austin butcher shop/salamuria called Salt and Time, where they buy whole animals from local farmers, break them down, and put the results to various uses: everything from sandwich fillings to cured sausages to a magnificent case of expertly cut steaks, chops, and the like.

Disclaimer: I don't eat a lot of meat, but I think pastured animals play a critical role in sustainable agriculture. And when I do indulge, I love to buy it from skilled butchers sourcing directly from nearby farms. I have made the economic case for locally owned butcher shops here and here.

Okay, back to the kitchen. My challenge late one recent weekday evening: how to turn these staples into a fast, delicious dinner. My first thought was a stir fry—just cut everything up, sear it off, and then nap it with a quick, soy-sauce-based sauce. But cutting up that beautifully rendered pork chop seemed silly—like taking a scissors to a Picasso canvass to make it fit a tight space. So I decided to sear the pork chop whole and stir fry the veggies as a side dish.

I decided on an East Asian flavor palate—ginger, rice vinegar, and soy sauce. Fermented soy products like soy sauce deliver that ineffably deep, savory quality known as umami. To ramp up the umami factor, I turned to the ultimate fermented soy product: miso, a jar of which had been languishing at the back of my fridge.

Kohlrabi tastes a lot like broccoli stem—a high compliment, in my view.

Miso-Glazed Pork Chop With Stir-Fried Kohlrabi and Kale
Serves two

2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 knuckle-sized chunk of fresh ginger, peeled with a spoon and chopped
A few whole peppercorns
A good pinch of dark-brown sugar
A robust pinch of crushed red chili flakes
1 tablespoon of rice vinegar
2 tablespoons of soy sauce (my favorite is the sublime Ohsawa)
1 large thick-cut, bone-in pork chop, which will be a half or two-thirds of a pound
Some freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch kale
2 bulbs of kohlrabi
A little cooking oil, such as peanut or sunflower
1 cup water or stock
1 tablespoon miso

First, make the marinade. Pound the first five ingredients in a mortar and pestle until reduced to a coarse paste. Add the vinegar and pound and stir the mixture. Do the same with the soy sauce. Dump the marinade into a container not much bigger than the pork chop. Add the chop, turn it a few times with a tongs to fully coat it, and then let it sit in the fridge. (The chop can marinade for a few minutes, while you prep the veggies, or up to an hour or so.)

Preheat the oven to 400.

Now prep the veggies. Stack the dry kale leaves on top of each other and roll them lengthwise into a cylinder. Slice them crosswise into half-inch strips, stems and all, down to where the leaves end. (This last bit is controversial; most people remove the stems. I find that if the kale is fresh, a bit of stem adds a nice crunch.) Now rotate your cutting board 90 degrees and slice the kale strips again, again in half-inch increments. Place in a bowl and set aside.

Trim the kohlrabi of stems and tough parts. Slice each bulb in half, and place the halves on the cutting board, cut-side down, and slice them thinly into crescents. Cut those crescents in half. Set aside.

Get two heavy-bottomed skillets going over medium on the stovetop: a small one for the chop, and a large one (or a wok) for the veggies. Add a little cooking oil to each. While they're heating, remove the chop from the marinade, scraping away the chunks with a butter knife. Reserve the marinade in the container, including any chunky bits from the chop, and add a cup of water to it. This will become the base for the miso glaze.

Dry the chop well with paper towels or a kitchen towel that will be set aside for washing before any other use. (This step, while annoying, is critical for properly brown the chop—wet meat will turn a dull gray instead of caramelizing.)

Let it get good and brown—the caramelization adds to the dish's umami.

Give the chop a vigorous lashing of fresh-ground pepper on both sides, and place it on the smaller, now quite-hot skillet. Let it sizzle.

Now add the chopped kale to the larger, also-hot skillet or wok. Toss the kale in the hot oil until it starts to wilt, add a few dashes of soy sauce to the pan, and turn the heat down to low and cover. Let the kale steam in the covered pan until tender. This won't take long.

When the chop is beautifully browned on the bottom, turn it over. Let it go a minute or two on the stovetop, and then place it in the hot oven. For a thick-cut chop, finishing in a hot oven is a great way to ensure the meat is properly cooked without scorching.

Meanwhile, when the kale is done, set it aside, and return the skillet or wok to medium heat. Add a bit more oil, then add the kohlrabi. Tossing often, let it sauté until it's starting to brown and is tender, but still retains a bit of crunch. Now add the cooked kale and half of the watered-down marinade. Add a half-tablespoon of miso, and stir until the miso has become incorporated and the marinade has reduced to a glaze.

By now, the pork chop should be done. I shoot for medium—no rawness, but a touch of pink inside. At that point, the chop should feel firm but springy to the touch. You can also cut into it to take a peak.

Remove the chop to a plate. Pour off any excess fat from the skillet—careful, it will be smoking-hot, Add the other half of the watered-down marinade to the hot skillet, and stir with a wooden spoon to dissolve any caramelized bits on the bottom. (This is known as "deglazing the pan.") Add the other half tablespoon of miso and stir to incorporate. Let the meat rest another minute or two, and then dump any juices that have accumulated on the plate into the skillet, stirring to incorporate. This is your miso glaze. Cut the chop in half, placing each on a plate. Divide the veggies onto the two plates. Drizzle the miso glaze over each chunk of pork, and serve. A bit of brown rice would be a welcome addition as well.

This dish goes well with malty, slightly sweet beers—think the German alt style—or simple lagers. For wine, look to dryish, zippy Rieslings or Gruner Veltliners.

The Obama administration is on the verge of dramatically scaling back the US Department of Agriculture's oversight of the nation's largest chicken and turkey slaughterhouses—while also allowing companies to speed up their kill lines.

Currently, each factory-scale slaughterhouse has four USDA inspectors overseeing kill lines churning out up to 140 birds every minute. Under the USDA's new plan, a single federal inspector would oversee lines killing as many as 175 birds per minute. That would mean there are three fewer inspectors for a production line running 25 percent faster. (The line rates at turkey slaughterhouses are, for obvious reasons, slower, but would also be sped up under the new rules).

After the idea was floated last year, it was met by massive pushback from food safety and worker advocates, who argued that the combination of more speed and fewer inspectors would lead to dangerous conditions for both consumers and workers.

Since then, the proposal has been caught in the federal rulemaking process. But on April 10, the administration released a prospective USDA budget indicating that the agency plans to implement the new rules by September 2014. And in testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture on April 16, Vilsack said the rules would be finalized "very soon," declaring that the plan "will allow the poultry industry to continue to be profitable, and allow us [the USDA] to save some money as well."

Indeed, according to a 2012 statement, the department expects to save $90 million over three years by firing inspectors. Meanwhile, the USDA calculates that by increasing kill line speeds, the plan will save the poultry industry more than eight times as much, or $256.6 million each year. That windfall would accrue mainly to four large companies—Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride (now mostly owned by JBS), Purdue, and Sanderson. Together, they slaughter nearly 60 percent of the chicken consumed in the United States. (Another four companies, led by Butterball, slaughter 55 percent of turkeys.)

The USDA insists that the new system will improve poultry product safety. In his recent testimony, Vilsack said his department expects the new system will prevent "somewhere between three and five thousand foodborne illnesses" per year. Interestingly, Vilsack's numbers are less optimistic than other recent claims from department officials: Just a year ago, Alfred Almanza, administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, wrote that the plan would "help prevent an estimated 5,200" from getting sick.

The USDA is right that poultry product safety could stand improving. In an analysis of the Food and Drug Administration's latest tests of retail meat, Environmental Working Group found that 81 percent of ground turkey and 39 percent of chicken wings, breasts, and thighs tested contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

How would speeding up the kill line and removing all but one inspector improve this dreadful situation? Under current rules, multiple USDA inspectors monitor the kill line for "visible defects"—feces, bruises, blemishes, blood, and the like. But the department insists that's time poorly spent, focusing on the outward cosmetic appearance of the carcasses—quality control issues that the USDA argues should be the slaughterhouse's responsibility. Under the new rules, company employees would instead be in charge of visually inspecting the line and removing defective birds. To control pathogens, the poultry plants would be allowed to conduct "online reprocessing"—that is, dousing all the bird carcasses that pass through the line, "whether they are contaminated or not," with water laced with chlorine and other antimicrobial chemicals. Beyond that, the lone USDA inspector would randomly select 20 to 80 birds per shift to test them for defects. That would represent a tiny fraction of the birds processed over the course of an eight-hour shift; in a single hour, a kill line operating at the new high speed would spit out more than 10,000 carcasses.

Since the late '90s, the USDA has been running a pilot program testing the rules at 20 slaughterhouses, and claims that the results have been sterling. But last year, Food & Water Watch used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain six months' worth of recent inspection documents from participating slaughterhouses. The results, as I reported at the time, were alarming, and don't suggest that the factories' own employees are effectively inspecting the birds.

Here's Food & Water Watch:

Company employees miss many defects in poultry carcasses. The inspection category that had the highest error rate was 'Other Consumer Protection 4' for dressing defects such as feathers, lungs, oil glands, trachea and bile still on the carcass. The average error rate for this category in the chicken slaughter facilities was 64 percent and 87 percent in turkey slaughter facilities. In one turkey slaughter facility, nearly 100 percent of samples found this category of defect.

From March to August 2011, 90 percent of the defects found by the USDA inspectors involved "visible fecal contamination that was missed by company employees." Yuck.

You don't have to resort to FOIA to question the USDA's claim that the new system will cut down on illnesses from eating poultry: In its publicly available 2011 evaluation of the pilot program, the USDA found that finished birds at pilot facilities were more likely to test positive for salmonella. And 2 of the 20 pilot facilities—a Tyson factory in Clarksville, Arkansas, and a Golden Rod Broilers one in Cullman, Alabama—failed the USDA's latest test for salmonella standards. According to Food & Water Watch, that 10 percent failure rate—granted, drawn from a small sample size—is higher than the industry's overall rate.

If the USDA is making shaky claims around food safety, it's not making any claims on worker safety, over which it has no mandate. In his House testimony, Vilsack didn't have much to say on the topic: "We've attempted to address those [worker safety] concerns by suggesting that this gives us a chance to study that issue."

But the new rules would force workers to wield sharp knives and make repetitive motions at a kill line that, with 35 more birds going by each minute, would running significantly faster. Tragically, the federal agency that might have something to say about those conditions, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), doesn't. As a fresh, devastating report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on poultry workers shows, slaughterhouses exist in a worker protection limbo:

Despite OSHA's responsibility to ensure worker safety, it has no mandate to regulate processing line speeds to protect workers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the only agency that currently regulates line speeds. But the USDA's regulations are designed to guard against contamination of the product, not to protect workers from hazardous conditions.

Even under current line speeds, workers are regularly harmed. Citing OSHA figures, the SPLC reports that 5.9 percent of the poultry workers are injured each year, 50 percent more than the national average. And the report shows that workers routinely face intimidation and might think twice about reporting an injury. Here's the SPLC, describing current conditions on kill lines:

The processing line that whisks birds through the plant moves at a punishing speed. Over three-quarters of workers said that the speed makes their work more dangerous. It is a predominant factor in the most common type of injuries, called musculoskeletal disorders. But if the line seems to move at a pace designed for machines rather than people, it should come as no surprise. Plant workers, many whom are immigrants, are often treated as disposable resources by their employers. Threats of deportation and firing are frequently used to keep them silent.

The Obama administration has clearly expressed the benefits of its new plan: minor savings for the government, major savings for Big Poultry. Testifying before Congress last year, Cass Sunstein—then serving as the famously regulation-averse chief of Obama's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs—hailed the poultry slaughter proposal as an example of the administration's will to unburden industry of "cumbersome, outdated" regulation. The costs, though, don't appear to have been reckoned with adequately, if at all.

As investigators and rescuers move through a destroyed fertilizer factory in West, Texas, it makes me think about just what nitrogen fertilizer is, and why we use so much of it.

Nitrogen is one of the nutrient elements plants need to grow. Every apple or ear of corn plucked represents nutrients pulled from soil, and for land to remain productive, those nutrients must be replenished. Nitrogen is extremely plentiful—it makes up nearly 80 percent of the air we breathe. But atmospheric nitrogen (N2) is joined together in an extremely tight bond that makes it unusable by plants. Plant-available nitrogen, known as nitrate, is actually scarce, and for most of agriculture's 10,000-year-old history, the main challenge was figuring out how to cycle usable nitrogen back into the soil. Farmers of yore might not have known the chemistry, but they knew that composting crop waste, animal manure, and even human waste led to better harvests.