We may have come full circle in our intelligence in America: We’ve become so smart that we’re stupid; we’ve learned so many new things that we no longer remember the most basic and important things.
I was listening to an interview on NPR’s Science Friday with the writer Michael Pollan, who is one of my favorites and who is touring for his new book Cooked. He talked of these amazing ways in which the bacteria in our guts transform the food we eat. They are aided, or inhibited, by the way we cook and ferment and otherwise prepare our food before we put it into our mouths. Fascinating stuff. Smart.
Yet on the heels of these elucidations came the stupidity. Pollan talked with intrigue of learning to bake bread while writing his book. He cooked over fire and also played with fermenting cabbage. These processes were so novel to him; he spoke with child-like effulgence.
I thought: Only children should be speaking like this. In Lesotho, by the time you’re a teenager you’ve got these things down. All of my students in Lesotho made their own bread. The boys slaughtered pigs and roasted them over a fire built right next to the principal’s office. And in Lesotho, a girl’s prospects of being married go down if she can’t make a good motoho, a traditional fermented drink. One day the teachers at Ngoana Jesu Secondary School ridiculed the chief’s daughter when she brought a gift of motoho for the staff that wasn’t up to par.
At school, the students raised these pigs and then slaughtered and cooked them up.
And here is Michael Pollan, professor at the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, winner of many food-writing awards, called a “foodie intellectual” by The New York Times. He is 58 years old.
Nevertheless, I wanted to pardon Pollan. He may write about food, but he is after all only a journalist. He’s not claiming to be an expert of any kind. Next, however, Science Friday went on to interview Dr. Robert Hutkins, professor of food microbiology at the University of Nebraska.
“Would it be fair to call you a pickle expert?” the interviewer asked.
“Well, I guess I’m an expert in fermented foods, and a pickle is a fermented food, so I guess that’s fair enough.”
Interviewer: “Could you walk us through a recipe for a fermented pickle, for someone who wants to try this at home?”
Dr. Hutkins: “So I have to tell you that I’ve not done this myself. So with that caveat, you know — and actually, I would probably recommend sources online that you could find to do this.”
Wait, wait, wait. Did the doctor of fermented food really just say he has never made fermented food? But how . . . ? Why? Hasn’t he skipped a step? He can explain all of the workings of the microorganisms involved in the fermentation process, but he has never actually made it happen?
Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he has fermented other foods, just not pickles. Still!
Where are we as Americans when our National Public Radio interviews our country’s best authors and they tell us stories about learning to do things that children in poor countries do every day? And then we listen to doctors of food who have never made food?
How is it that our knowledge has not been built in a more linear fashion, where we learn the basics — like how to cook food — and only then do we learn the molecular details about what happens to the food when we cook it and eat it?
Makes me wonder if we’re studying the wrong things these days, or at least learning things in the wrong order.