01x04 - Earth

Episode transcripts for the TV miniseries "Cooked". Aired February 19, 2016.
"Cooked" explores different methods of cooking and their evolutionary and cultural impacts on humankind. Based on the 2013 book of the same name.
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01x04 - Earth

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Michael: All cooking is transformation, and in that sense, it's miraculous, it's alchemy.


But of all the different transformations we call cooking, I think fermentation is the most miraculous and the most mysterious.

And that's because it doesn't involve any applied heat at all. This is food and drink made strictly through the action of bacteria and fungi. Microbes, most of which come from the earth, they perform all the transformations that normally we need heat to make happen.

You know, I don't think people realize as they walk through the supermarket, or, indeed, into the far reaches of their own refrigerator, how many fermented foods are there. It's the ketchup and the hot sauce, it's the, uh, the sake, it's the kombucha, it's the beer, it's the salami, it's the prosciutto. You know, all the way to chocolate.

A third of the food in our diet are fermented.

In most cases, we have no idea.

(theme music playing)

(motor whirring)

(people speaking Spanish)

Pedro in Spanish: The yuca is a root that develops underground, and, well... One of its derivatives is masato, which is a regional beverage. Our ancestors used to harvest and drink it, and that is why we are cultivating the yuca in the same way.

Michael: You know, we've been fermenting for a long time, but one of the most desirable and probably earliest ferments is the fermentation of, uh... of alcoholic beverages.

I mean, people have been questing for alcohol as long as they first stumbled on it, probably in a piece of rotted fruit, uh, or a split coconut.

And you need sugar water, essentially.

Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the yeast that's responsible for making any alcoholic ferment, needs sugar. So, we plundered nature for sources of sugar that we could turn into alcohol.

And there are ways of doing it, still common in the Amazon, that are ingenious.

(lively music playing)

(rooster crows)

Michael: One of the most, probably one of the earliest, crudest alcoholic beverages is made by, uh, taking a starchy root called yuca or cassava, and chewing it. And this is done collectively, a bunch of people will chew and spit into a vat. And lo and behold, something very interesting happens. In our saliva are enzymes, amylase enzymes, that break starches down into sugars.

(in Spanish) And if you try to prepare masato by just crushing the yuca, and not chewing it, it will not mature well.

It smells so bad you cannot drink it.

On the other hand, when it is chewed, you get a tasty masato.

Chewing will ferment it.

(in Spanish) I wonder how our grandmothers figured out how to do this.

But this is what they taught our mothers, and our mothers taught us.

Michael: But the secret ingredient is saliva. And saliva is doing the job of, uh, of the enzymes.

Michael: One of the things that's incredible about fermentation is that people mastered this long before they understood how it worked.

I mean, that they were learning how to corral and direct and channel the energies of microbes without knowing what a microbe was. To them, it must have seemed like magic.

(speaking Spanish)

And indeed it is.

It's this cold f*re that can transform things, from one state into a very different other.


You know, it's generally assumed that the creation or discovery of agriculture was about feeding us, it was about food.

Um, but it may well be that it was about alcohol, uh, and there is a "beer before bread" hypothesis held by some anthropologists that suggests that the real motivation for settling down and growing grain may have been motivated by the desire to have fermentable crops, plenty of them. 'Cause if you think about collecting grain in the wild, it's a really painstaking process. Whereas fields of barley or fields of other grain that you could make alcohol from would be very appealing.

And there is some circumstantial evidence to suggest that it may have been alcohol that came first.

Isaac and I, my son, started brewing beer several years ago, when I was starting to learn about fermentation, and we did it from kits that we bought at the brew store and that was great and we made beer and it was drinkable.

But we discovered that there was a person of our acquaintance, the father of a friend of Isaac's, who had gotten very serious about brewing.

Shane McKay: This is crystal 16, crystal 120.

And when we mash it, it's getting the sugar out of this.

Michael: Mmm-hmm.

That's what we're gonna be doing.

This is a barley mill, known as the barley crusher...

Michael: Shane McKay happens to be one of these kind of obsessive hobbyists. And he's made himself into a very good, uh... amateur brewer.

So, when he offered to let us brew with him, we thought it was too good an opportunity to pass up.


There you go.

So, basically we're trying to boil all the sugars and flavor out of this, right?

Shane: Yeah.

So, you want the right amount of water in there.

Too little and it's too thick, but if you have too much water, it's too thin and the enzymes get diluted and they don't do their work.

And if you taste this now... it's sweet.

Michael: Yep.

But in an hour, it'll be really sweet.

This is so much more intricate than how Isaac and I started out.

Remember when we started? We did it in the kitchen.

It was like the Duncan Hines of beer-making.

Well, it was funny, because when we were doing it... we'd never, you know, we'd never done it before and we didn't know what to expect. And we were just, like... banging pipes together... (chuckling) ...and funneling liquids through other liquids, and cooling things down and heating them up and cooling them down again.

But then, the moment when we were like, "Oh, we actually..."

Like, "This might work a little bit..."


Was the next morning when we go down and look at the carboy and there's just this city of activity.

Michael: The word "ferment," which means to boil, is really kind of appropriate.

Because this liquid that was just kind of inert is suddenly bubbling.

So, if you look closely, you can actually see the bubbles forming, you can see them coming up to the surface.

It really is a lot of very tiny little bubbles.

You know, this will continue until the sugar is used up.

The yeast's taking that sugar and turning it into alcohol, which we want...

Michael: And that coming to life of something that had appeared d*ad, how else would you explain that as a gift from the gods?

And which, indeed, we thought it was.

Dionysus is the god of fermentation, not just alcohol, but of this whole process of transformation.

And this completely crosses cultural lines, the notion that fermented foods are sacred. In fact, ancient peoples across South America, Mayans, Aztecs, Olmecs, all had rituals dedicated to one of our most treasured ferments... chocolate. When you think about chocolate and how it exists in our culture, we have these bars of chocolate and we have chocolate drinks and we have candies. We give each other chocolate on Valentine's Day, Easter, Christmas, even. So, we've adopted chocolate into our modern rituals as well. Chocolate's a big part of our culture.

And we think of it as this Western candy that, you know, is ours.

But in fact, it's the product of this rotten bean from the Amazon.


(in Spanish) This fruit is about two months old.

It will be ripe in the fifth month.

This is a cacao tree that's just been harvested.

And we're selecting the ripe ones.

This is how you open a cacao.

Michael: If you get a cacao pod and slice it open, uh, you will find inside some big seeds, but they're surrounded with this kind of mucilaginous, disgusting white, uh, gel, um, that tastes nothing like chocolate. And the beans themselves are just bitter beyond belief. But if you take those beans covered with their slime and let them ferment, uh, an amazing transformation will take place.


(talking indistinctly)

(speaking Spanish)

Carlos in Spanish: The process of fermenting cacao must take place in boxes to allow the temperature to increase. It is also essential to cover the cacao, to ensure the temperature rises. As the cacao is saturated with the pulp, the anaerobic fermentation takes place because there's no oxygen. First, when the temperature rises, the grains don't germinate.

Then on day two, we can see that the mass... the mass is no longer cold.

We're talking four degrees more than the first day.

On the fourth day, the mass has to reach 50 degrees.

And the fermentation continues. More bacteria is formed, and acetic acid is formed. Well, on the seventh day, now, it has a chocolate color.

This means it has reached the optimal fermentation to start the drying process.

If you put the cacao on a thin layer, the humidity comes out, but the acidity remains. This is the importance of the drying stage. Here the fermentation process ends.

Michael: We think of fermented foods as kind of exotic now, but of course they were very important before we had refrigeration.

The way you kept food was...

You had a few techniques, but the main one was you fermented it.

That's how you got through the winter. You fermented food in the fall.

Um, and so the taste of this food was secondary at the beginning.

Kimchi's a great example of a fermentation that is used to preserve food for a very long time.

And in Korea, people in the fall will take their harvest of cabbages and add spices to flavor it, and add salt and then they bury it in crocks in the earth to keep it at a certain temperature. The lactic acid produced by the bacteria is a preservative because it kills the bad bacteria, so they can eat that food all through the year. And not only did the fermentation preserve that food, it actually improved the food.

I mean, it made the flavors stronger and more appealing, at least to Koreans.

Uh, but it also changed the nutrients.

The bacteria in the fermentation are producing vitamin B12, for example. There's lots of vitamin C when you make sauerkraut or kimchi, so you actually end up with a substantially more nutritious food than you had before.

And we have the bacteria to thank for that.

You can't talk about fermentation without looking at the phenomenon of disgust, and, um, a great many ferments are disgusting, at least to one culture.

Andrew Zimmern: Stinky tofu with thousand-year-old egg salad.


Gordon Ramsay: This is an amazing delicacy from Iceland.

It's basically rotten shark.

Now, one, two, three.


Yeah, watch the American guy eat the fermented shark.

Oh, man.

This is probably the single worst thing I have ever put in my mouth.

It seems to me that fermented foods are one of the ways we build cultural identity.

"We're the people who like this food." And it's always an acquired taste.

These are not like the taste of sugar or salt.

This is the taste of decay.

Everything that dies gets broken down. Its ultimate fate is to be reused ecologically. And the earth teems with microbes and microorganisms that will begin to digest any living thing that dies, whether it's a fruit or a human body or an animal body, any kind of biomass. And one of the lead decomposers are yeasts. They're everywhere. And that's why when you start a ferment, like kimchi, you don't have to add any microbes. They're there.

Ben Wolfe: We're looking at a cabbage leaf from kimchi in a petri dish. Fermentation is what we like to call "delicious rot."


So, just like a log rotting in a forest is being broken down by the microbes slowly over time, a wheel of cheese, you know, a link of salami, all these things are rotting. And what we're doing is we're using variables like salts, we're using variables like time, we're using other variables like moisture to control that rot.

Michael: Rachel Dutton and Ben Wolfe are both microbiologists with an unusual interest.

They're studying the ecology of the cheese rind.

Rachel: We spend most of our time on cheese, but there are all of these really interesting communities in other fermented foods.

Kimchi has a slightly different set of microbes than the cheese we were looking at.

So, we're gonna take a little bit of this juice from the kimchi and try and get a look at it under the microscope.

It's a wonderland of...


...lactic acid bacteria.

I love it.

Ben: Probably some kind of plant cell, or maybe even some of the spices that were added, and then all these small little rods that are floating by, um, those are the bacteria, the lactic acid bacteria.

Rachel: So here's another cluster with a lot of plant material and...

Ben: Excellent.

Rachel: ...red pepper, oils.

It's just amazing, this whole world that is alive in the food.

Ben: These are microbes that originated in a farm field.

Rachel: Yeah.

Ben: And you're eating them. You're amplifying them.

It's like you're photocopying them, growing them up over and over again as you create this environment, and then you eat them.


So, you know, this is a native, amazing process that happens and has been happening for hundreds of years.

Rachel: Yeah.

Michael: Humans have been using and working with and being victim of microbes for a very long time before they knew what was going on. It was Louis Pasteur who identified microbes, bacteria and yeast, and gave us the germ theory of disease, the idea that there were certain diseases caused by certain bad bacteria.

Although Pasteur's understanding of bacteria was more nuanced, what we took away from his work was this germophobia... uh, that most of us grew up with. The idea that because germs could k*ll you and carry diseases, all germs were bad. But in fact, a great many germs are incredibly beneficial and important, and we couldn't live without them. But the legacy is just fear of bacteria and I think it has taken us this long to reconsider that. One of the biggest surprises to me, learning about cooking, was how much I came to love bacteria (chuckles)

And fungi to some extent.

And one of my teachers in that... in learning to love bacteria, was Sister Noella.

(nuns singing in Latin)

Michael: And she is a nun and a microbiologist at an abbey in Connecticut.

(nuns continue singing)

Sister Noella: I'm Sister Noella Marcellino, and I've been in the abbey for 42 years and I have a doctorate in microbiology.


Sister Noella: Well, the motto of Benedictines is "or a et labora," pray and work.

And that really sets the tone and the rhythm of our life.

(cows mooing)

We have a 500-acre farm. We have a beef herd, a dairy herd.

nun clicking tongue: Come on, let's move up.

And we try as best we can...

Come on.

...to grow our own food.

Come on, Firelily.

Michael: "The Cheese Nun," as she's known, makes a version of a French cheese called Saint-Nectaire. Sister Noella's cheese is a raw milk, uncooked, natural rind cheese made strictly according to ancient techniques that have been practiced in France for hundreds of years.

This is Bethlehem cheese and it's about ten days old, and we're looking at these fungi.

Michael: My first impression of Sister Noella was a woman decidedly more earthy than spiritual. But I soon came to see that, for her, the miracles of Christ were many, and could be witnessed in the unlikeliest of places.

What I'm doing right now is making a wet mount.

It's a quick way to look at... especially fungi.

People would say, "Why aren't you studying theology as a nun?"

But for me... and I think for many of us, as Benedictines, in seeing creation the way we do, you have to enter it in a very specific entrance point, which for me is microbiology.

Then I stand back. I'm not afraid of science.

I stand back in wonder at this creator.

(bell tolls)

I think sometimes people think a cloistered community is closed off from the world. You see we have a grille.

We are separated, but we are not closed off.

Come on, girls!

Come on.

Sister Noella: When you first come in, you have a chance to try many things, to see if there's something you've never had a chance to do and perhaps you're good at it.

So for me...

I fell in love with a cow named Sheba, and milked her, and then started making cheese, and that was something that I discovered would become very important in my life.

Michael: Learning how to make cheese from Sister Noella reveals the process at its most elemental. Her method and approach are so old-world, that she has no need for commercial bacterial cultures. She relies only on raw milk, rennet, salt, and naturally occurring bacteria and fungi.

Sister Noella: This is starting to cool off on top, you know?

Sister Takeri: Yeah.

Sister Noella: So I think we should add some more water.

Sister Takeri: You have to have a surprisingly tough body for it.

I mean, I do all kinds of things that would be considered... huge, hard labor, but then this is actually...

It takes a lot more of a certain kind of strength of the body.
Michael: One disadvantage of learning from Sister Noella is that her approach is so labor-intensive and outside of the mainstream, that it really doesn't represent how most cheese is made today.

Sister Noella: Michael Pollan, he did very well.

We weren't too hard on him.

He has bigger hands, too.


But I think he saw that it was labor-intensive.

I could never have dreamed of this technique, unless...

(chuckles) Lydie had taught me.

We were trying different cheeses in our dairy, from a book, and we really weren't happy with them.

So, I was praying for an old French woman to come and teach me how to make cheese.

Two days later, a young French woman came.

Her name is Lydie Zawislak and she was from the Auvergne.

And she shared with me a recipe that her grandmother taught her. In the Auvergne, for centuries they used a wooden vat to make Saint-Nectaire. And she felt the wood was critical to that process. So, basically they would take, uh, the morning milk... they would not add lactic acid cultures, but they would add rennet, coagulate the milk, break up the curd. You're separating curds and whey. It's as simple as that. And the environment of the barrel, she said, "Keep it like the cow's body." That's what she told me.

What amazed me is that you can pick it up. This was liquid milk a few hours ago.

Michael: So, she starts making her cheese. It's delicious. She gets really good at it, and the health department takes a look at how she's doing it and says, "We've got to shut you down.

You can't make cheese in wooden barrels."

Now, you have to understand, if you're the average sanitary engineer or health department person, wood is your enemy, because bacteria can hide in wood.

Stainless steel, you love stainless steel.

But this recipe said use wood and raw milk in the cheese, and this is milk that hasn't been pasteurized, which can be dangerous if it's not handled properly.

If you're gonna make cheese, you have one of two options to assure its safety.

Number one, you can either pasteurize the milk intended for cheese-making, or you can age the cheese that you make for 60 days.

Michael: Like many Pasteurians, microbiologist and food safety expert Cathy Donnelly had her own conversion experience when she first encountered Mother Noella's raw milk cheese.

(chuckling) I did refuse to try it.

Looking back on that now, how rude of me, but, um, but again, you know, I was worried about listeria and that surely looked like a cheese that could harbor Listeria.

Sister Noella: In the late '80s, uh, there was an outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes in California that k*lled many people.

It was in a soft Mexican cheese... and what had happened was some raw milk was added to pasteurized milk.

So at that point, the inspectors in every state had to go to each place and see what are they doing in these dairies.

Nathan Myhrvold: There's some very serious illnesses that can be, uh, transmitted through milk. I'm not talking about just a little bit of spoilage, "Oh, the milk went sour."

I'm talking about some really nasty pathogens.

Michael: Because it contains lots of sugars and proteins, milk is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. In the 19th century, as cities grew, milk became one of the main ways that diseases like tuberculosis and typhoid were spread. It's not really surprising that milk was so badly contaminated then. In the days before refrigeration, milk couldn't be shipped in from the countryside. Instead, cows were brought to the city. They were crammed into dark, dirty cellars and milked by poor people who were forced to live in similar conditions, conditions that were ripe for the spread of infectious disease. The reason we first began pasteurizing milk is because raw milk was k*lling lots of people.

Pasteur showed that heat would k*ll these microorganisms, and that's the basis of pasteurization.

Sister Noella: As cheese-making became more industrialized, especially after World w*r II, and for safety factors, many cheesemakers, most, pasteurized their milk, so they're destroying the microorganisms in the milk, then they're adding back pure cultures, commercial cultures of bacteria.

Michael: Starting with a clean slate has its advantages. The cheesemaker can decide which bacteria to introduce, and there will be few surprises. That's why blank slate ferments are now the rule, and not only in cheese-making. Most brewers and winemakers work the same way. However, some say that the gain in control of the process comes with a loss, a loss of the complex flavors that you get when you rely on wild microbes.

When you take enormous care, you can have unpasteurized milk that's perfectly safe, and there's people who argue it's better.

People have been making unpasteurized milk cheeses for a very long period of time. They're delicious. In France, no one tries to outlaw unpasteurized milk cheeses.

France firmly believes the best way to assure the safety of food products is very strict hygiene.

And so, when you go to France and you watch cheese-making, and you go into processing plants, they're meticulous.

You know, the French understand, number one, if you want to make a good-quality safe cheese, you have to start from the best milk possible.

What do we do here in the United States?

Well, milk that doesn't meet the standards to be pasteurized to go into fluid is called "manufacturing-grade milk," which is destined for cheese-making.

So, just a totally different approach.

Sister Noella: Any way you look at it, you have to start with clean milk. Every step of the way, you have to be careful.

Pasteurization is not a panacea for food safety.

So, after there was a listeria outbreak in the Mexican cheese, the state inspectors, they saw that we had a wooden barrel and they wanted us to replace it with a stainless steel barrel, which we did.

Lo and behold, very soon, we started having E. coli in our cheese. I, at the time, was taking Introductory Microbiology at UConn Waterbury.

And as one of her class projects, she does an experiment for the health inspector.

And she gets a batch of milk, um, from her cows, raw milk, and she puts half of it in the wooden barrel and she puts half of it in a stainless steel vat.

And something really remarkable happens.

We were surprised to see that, um, in the cheese made in this little wooden vat, the E. coli went down... and in the stainless steel it just stayed the same.

We're not gonna see bacteria, of course, because they're just too small.

But we get an idea of the texture.

You can tell that there's a lot going on there.

Michael: The lactobacillus that are living in the wooden barrel, they go to work digesting the lactose and transforming that milk. And they turn the lactose into lactic acid. And the acid in the milk kills the E. coli.

So, this kind of folk recipe, using this wooden barrel, was actually making the milk safer.

And that, in a sense, the people of the Auvergne for hundreds of years have been practicing a kind of folk microbiology, uh, learned strictly by trial and error.

Um, and, um... (clicks tongue)

The health inspector was convinced and he backed off, and she continues to make her milk in this wooden barrel.

(nuns singing in Latin)

(speaking indistinctly)

Michael: Though the transition from milk to solid curd is dramatic to watch, it's the second fermentation in the cheese cave where the cheesemaker cultivates the microbes that create the flavors of a mature cheese.

Rachel: What you do with that fresh cheese can lead to this huge diversity in flavor, in texture, in aroma, in appearance that you have in the wide world of cheese.

Ben: So, one thing you can do is you can heavily inoculate that cheese. Add a lot of mold to that cheese and that becomes a bloomy rind cheese.

And that'd be a Camembert or a Brie, are two really great examples of bloomy rind cheeses.

This cheese is made from pasteurized cow's milk and the name "bloomy" comes from the fact that as this fungus, Penicillium, grows during the aging process, it blooms, it becomes really fluffy, and the cheesemaker actually has to pick it up and pat it down, um, throughout the process to control the growth.

Another thing you can do is you can wash the surface of the cheese.

As the cheese is aging, it's washed repeatedly over and over again with a salt solution, usually about two times a week, depending on the cheese.

And it creates this very disturbed, sort of constantly mixed system that encourages the growth of these particular microbes.

And examples of wash rind cheeses would be Limburger, um, and Taleggio, these sort of stinky, often orange, or sometimes pink cheeses.

Rachel: Often with these cheeses, you actually get the cheese kind of liquefying, because all of the protein is being completely digested inside the cheese.

Ben: And that's happening right there.

Rachel: Yeah, so it's, like, super ooey-gooey.

The final thing that you can do is not a whole lot.

You sort of just let the cheese sit on a shelf, and you flip the cheese occasionally to make sure it has proper drainage, but you don't really do anything dramatic to the outside of the cheese.

Sister Noella: People used caves because it could get a cheese close to the earth. And the microorganisms were in the earth and they grew on the cheese.

This is alive.

So, it's hard to control and it's going to be the environment that controls it.

So, you have to spend a lot of time observing, smelling.

And I smell, by the way. (sniffs)

You just have to smell everything.

If you have smelled a strong cheese... especially a cheese that has Brevibacterium, you might think it's dirty socks. It's the earth.

You don't really want to talk about what cheese reminds you of because it reminds you of these earthy places even in our own bodies.

The bacteria that makes a stinky cheese stinky is in the same family as the bacteria that is between your toes or under your, in your armpits.

Um, it's B. linens, Brevibacterium linens.

So, when people talk about, um...

You know, the French describe...

(stutters) They love stinky cheeses, and they say that it has the smell of "pieds de Dieu," you know, "the feet of God," which is a weird way to compliment something, you know.

"It smells like foot odor, but foot odor of a really exalted kind." (laughing)

That's what they're saying. Um...

It's not an accident.

Some people love the smell of B. linens, others find it offensive. And still others are repelled and attracted to it at the same time, captivated by what might be called the erotics of disgust. Disgust is one of the primary human emotions, an instinctive reaction to something that offends our sense of taste and could be dangerous.

Cheese reconnects us with a very earthy side of life, and about decay and decomposition.

It's this sense that we're eating decomposition, break-down products. You could call it death.

To me, it's a taste of that, but a promise of something delicious.

So, I think it's almost a subconscious way of being prepared for death and facing our own mortality.

And for me, that analogy of... really, a death, a decomposition... creating this wonderful flavor, it's a promise of something better.

I experience that over and over again when I look at cheese, when I smell cheese, and when then I look at the microbial ecology of cheese.

That's the wonder for me, that it's a promise of life beyond death.

What I'm doing right now is just...

I'm looking directly at the surface of the cheese using a portable, handheld microscope.

When we first decided to look at the development of the rind using an electron microscope, we didn't know if it would work. But we took samples of the cheese throughout the ripening process.

So, on the left screen, we're looking at images from my light microscope, magnified 40x.

And on the right, we're looking at images we obtained with our study using an electron microscope.

So, this is 500x the surface of our cheese at day zero. Just looks, kind of, nothing going on, it sort of looks like the moon. This is what appeared 48 hours later. And these were yeasts that were embedded in that cheese rind. What we saw was that it was really the microorganisms that developed the rind. This was amazing to us because this would just be day four. At this moment, what we see on the cheese, to the naked eye, are white hairs. These microorganisms are eating the byproducts of the population before. Then they die off and... for me, it's an incredible analogy of what happens in terms of generations, of nurturing the next one.

Ben: If you've had the opportunity to look at a field go from a field to a forest in New England, it's very similar to what's happening on a cheese rind. As soon as a farmer abandons a field, really early on there's a bunch of weedy species that get in there and they grow really quickly and take up the space. And in cheese, that'd be the yeasts and some of the early colonizing bacteria. And what happens then is they set the stage for later colonizing organisms. And if you can imagine standing in that field for 50 years, you'll see it go from weeds and sort of herbaceous plants to some shrubs and some really small trees and eventually it'll become a forest. And if you look at Mother Noella's cheese, you'll see a very similar progression from these early colonizing microbes to sort of a middle stage, where you get some of the mold starting to come in, and eventually that really old scraggly-looking cheese is very similar to a fully-developed forest.

And then, during that process, it's not just happy interactions.

It's w*r and peace on these cheese rinds.

So, microbes are helping each other, they're changing the environment to allow other microbes to grow. They're also fighting with each other. They need similar kinds of foods, and in some cases when they're fighting for food, they produce compounds that hurt their neighbor. So, it's really a nuanced, dynamic process that changes over time.

Rachel: You know, if you make the analogy to a field becoming a forest, that happens over maybe a hundred years or so. On cheese, it happens in about two months. So... (chuckles)

Um, as biologists, if we're interested in understanding what are the interactions between species that have to happen to allow you to form a complex ecosystem, we can do that on a much shorter timescale.

Michael: The advances in microbiology that have allowed us to sequence human DNA have also revealed a previously unknown universe of microbes living on and around us. This discovery represents a vast shift in our understanding of human health, with fermentation both inside and outside the body at its core.

Ben: Just like these fermented foods have their own collection of microbes or microbial communities, we ourselves, our own bodies, are microbial landscapes. So, on the palm of my hand, in-between my toes, in my gut, where I'm digesting food from lunch right now, there are microbes and they are part of the human microbiome.

Michael: Microbiologists were surprised to discover that nine of every ten cells in our bodies belong not to us, but to microbes, most of them residents of our gut. But the complexity of the gut microbiota is supremely difficult to comprehend.

Rachel: What we're usually trained to do as microbiologists is isolate an organism from its environment and study how it behaves. But microbes in the human microbiome can be very difficult to grow outside of the human body.

So, the work in my lab really started as a way to try and use cheese as a model ecosystem.

Ben: And we're learning much more about who's there, in terms of the microbes that do colonize us, and also what they can do.

Michael: We're learning that what goes on in the gut influences our mood, our stress levels, and things like that may be mediated by bacteria. These creatures we were taught as kids to fear and detest may be essential to our well-being. There's no question that the w*r on bacteria that inadvertently was launched by Pasteur has saved millions of lives. It's helped conquer many infectious diseases.

But I think it's safe to say we've kind of gone overboard in the w*r on bacteria, and we have created what is literally an antibiotic culture. Everything from hand sanitizers that are ubiquitous, to giving our kids antibiotics at the drop of a hat, to giving antibiotics to most of the food animals we eat.

Rachel: Antibiotics have been a huge help for treating diseases, but they also completely disrupt our microbial ecosystem, um, in the human body.

Sister Noella: So, there's a lot of research going on at this point. How can we keep the diversity or also reintroduce it through foods and then other techniques?

Ben: And so now we're seeing another cultural shift in how we perceive microbes. Are the microbes in fermented foods a source of microbes for the human microbiome? When we eat that jar of kimchi or that salami or that cheese, what happens to all those viable, those living microbes that are in those foods? Are they interacting with our gut microbiome? Are they changing our gut microbiome?

The French just published a paper describing potential designer cheeses, where you can imagine creating a cocktail of microbes on a cheese that may, in some way, affect your immune system beneficially to help reduce inflammation, for example.

So, you can imagine this is sort of the future we're going, in terms of thinking about the link between food microbiomes and our human microbiome.

Michael: We're coming around to the astonishing realization that we have to think about not just feeding our cells, but feeding all those other cells that we move through life together with.

When you look at food, whether it's kimchi or chocolate, it's not just a thing, it's not just a product. It's a relationship with other species in nature. And it's far too easy to forget that now.

The food chain is so long and so opaque, and kimchi comes in a jar, bread comes in a wrapper, but all these things involve these quasi-miraculous engagements with the natural world. Human ingenuity over tens of thousands of years, learning how to transform the gifts of nature into these achievements of culture.

And that's what cooking is.

We are very much creatures of the flame. We are a product of cooking. These transformations go really deep.

Michael: Smells really good, eh?

Shane: It sure does.

All right, so...

all: Cheers!

To Mama's Boy, as Isaac has labeled the beer.

Oh, is that Mama's Boy?

Yeah, I think so.

What do you think?

I like it, I like it.


Cheers. To Mama's Boys.


Michael: So, I wanna just wrap up by reading a quick passage.

"As you can gather by now, I think that, um... to cook or not to cook is a consequential question.

Though I realize that is putting the matter a bit too bluntly. Cooking means different things at different times to different people. Seldom is it an all-or-nothing proposition. Yet even to cook a few more nights a week than you already do, or to devote a Sunday to making a few meals for the week, or perhaps to try every now and again to make something you only ever expected to buy..."


"...even these modest acts will constitute a kind of vote.

A vote for what, exactly? In a world where so few of us are obliged to cook at all anymore, to choose to do so is to lodge a protest against specialization."

Thank you, dear.


Have a nice day.

Thank you.

"Against the total rationalization of life.

Against the infiltration of commercial interest into every last cranny of our lives. To cook for the pleasure of it, to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption."

Oh, yeah, man.

man: Oh, yeah.

Michael: "Cooking has the power to transform more than plants and animals. Cooking, I found, gives us the opportunity so rare in modern life to work directly in our own support and in the support of the people we feed."

(all speaking Spanish)

Michael: "In the calculus of economics, doing so may not always be the most efficient use of an amateur cook's time. It is beautiful even so. For is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for the people you love?"

Thank you very much.

Thank you.

(theme music playing)
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