‘Cooked’ gives sharp pangs of guilt, not hunger

Michael Pollan’s new series, “Cooked,” explores food through four elemental categories: fire, water, air and earth. The four-part docuseries is available for viewing on Netflix.

Michael Pollan is food-shaming us again, this time in a four-part Netflix docu-series. It’s a gentle sort of shaming, and informative, but unless you’ve previously been converted to Pollanology through his books (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”) or his other screen appearances, you’ll come away feeling mighty guilty about what you eat.

The series, now available for viewing, is called “Cooked,” and it’s based on Pollan’s 2013 book of the same title, in which he explored food past and present through the four elemental categories: fire, water, air, earth.

He and the episodes’ directors (Alex Gibney, Caroline Suh, Ryan Miller and Peter Bull) flesh out his musings with trips to a baker in Morocco, a cheese-making nun in Connecticut, hunters in Australia and more.

It’s a long-view history lesson in how innovations that we take for granted transformed the human species. Cooking with fire relieved us of the chore of chewing raw food for hours, among other things. The invention of pots that could withstand flame made it possible to cook with liquids, to mix things in soups and stews.

“It opens up a whole new palette of possible flavors,” Pollan says, “and suddenly you have the birth of cuisine.”

And then there’s bread (the subject of the “Air” episode).

“Bread requires a civilization,” Pollan says. “You need people to grow the grain. You need people to harvest the grain. You need people to mill the grain and shape the dough, and it’s a cooperative venture.”

This is Michael Pollan the food historian, but Michael Pollan the crusader is always hovering, ready to remind us how far we have wandered from our culinary roots. In one way or another, each of these episodes mourns our detachment from our food and how to prepare it.

Pollan’s messages are important to hear and are engagingly presented in this series. Still, there’s a disconnect that’s never addressed. The world’s poorest people have to devote long hours to basic subsistence, and the world’s relatively well off have the luxury to indulge in artisanal cooking.

Yet applying his ideas across the whole range of human circumstances is a trickier subject than this pretty series wants to tackle.