The Anthropologist's Kitchen

Courtesy Netflix

A new Netflix show by America’s busiest documentarian explores the building blocks of cooking: earth, air, water, and fire. 

Alex Gibney is a documentary filmmaker of ravenous and eclectic appetite. In 2015 alone, he released three acclaimed films on widely different subjects: Sinatra: All or Nothing at All; Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine; and Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. What Gibney’s docs have in common is a fascination with the beginnings of things—how these phenomena came to be. That far-reaching inquisitiveness informs his four-part Netflix series, Cooked, an anthropological look at traditional world cuisines. 

“I love origin stories,” says Gibney, who produced the series and directed one of the episodes. “There’s something fundamental about cooking that is hardwired in us and, indeed, accounts for how we evolved.” The program was made in collaboration with best-selling author Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and is loosely based on his 2013 book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Each episode examines one of the four elements traditionally used to render raw ingredients more digestible and delicious: fire (think grilling), water (braising), air (bread baking, which requires aeration), and earth (fermentation, from soilborne microbes). 

Throughout the series, Pollan prepares meals based on these elements, sometimes with the help of Chez Panisse’s Samin Nosrat and other chefs. But Barefoot Contessa this ain’t. Cooked examines far-flung societies that still prepare foods that could be described only as premodern—sometimes nauseatingly so, as in the case of masato, a fermented Peruvian beverage made from the saliva of women who collectively chew yucca root and spit it into a vat. 

For “Fire,” Gibney traveled to the desert of Western Australia to film the fire-worshipping Martu tribe’s tradition of roasting monitor lizards directly over hot coals. “The meat was very tough,” recalls cinematographer Maryse Alberti. “I hid behind my camera and spit it out, but my sound recorder had to swallow.” Gibney describes the taste of lizard as “kind of like [red] snapper and chicken. And that is not necessarily a good mix.” He notes, however, that the ancient cooking process is enjoying a renaissance. “A writer and foodie that I know was telling me that the latest thing in gourmet meat cooking is to do precisely what the Martu do—place it directly on the coals.” 

It’s odd to hear the filmmaker who slow-roasted Scientology talking so intently about barbecue, but there is an unmistakably Gibneyesque quality to Cooked. Throughout the series, the benefits and pleasures of home cooking are juxtaposed with excoriations of Big Food. “Over time, we’ve allowed our essential humanity to be sucked out of us by corporations whose mission is to create this value-added food,” Gibney says. “Michael is saying we need to get back to what defines us, which is cooking.”