Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
Michael Pollan is not a newcomer to the food writing arena. With critically acclaimed books like In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and An Omnivore’s Dilemma, he has helped North Americans re-evaluate their relationship with food and nutrition offering profoundly simple advice such as “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” to demystify what should never have become this complex in the first place. His recent release, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Pollan examines four processes by which food is cooked or, put differently, he examines this act of transformation in which nature becomes culture. Through his culinary journeys he unravels the truly complex nature of humans’ relationship with food, the socio-cultural, scientific and even political ramifications of cooking, encouraging his readers to think much more deeply about the effects of this seemingly simple act. In Cooked Pollan offers a compelling look at why it is necessary, more now than ever, to cook: for general personal health, to take part in improving the food system making it more sustainable, to achieve some measure of self-sufficiency in the overwhelmingly dependent consumer society, as well as larger philosophical questions concerning humans’ role in the natural world.
Cooked documents Pollan’s experiences acting as an apprentice to four culinary teachers who teach him to cook by the four elements: fire, water, air and earth. He goes to North Carolina to learn how to make succulent slow roasted pork from old school barbeque pit masters, a chef trained at Chez Panisse teaches him how to cook with liquids, Tartine bakery’s Chad Robertson tutors him in the intricacies of using air to convert flour and water into a loaf of bread, and he studies the role of fermentation in brewing, pickling and cheese-making. Using these seemingly everyday activities—grilling, braising, baking and fermenting—he weaves together stories both large and small, intertwining his personal experiments in the kitchen with the life stories and lessons of his fascinating culinary masters including Ed Mitchell, a well-known BBQ master with a checkered past, Sister Noëlla, a nun with a Ph.D. in microbiology who is a raw-milk cheese guru, and Chad Robertson, a surfer turned baker with a cult-like following. Pollan has also included four recipes as appendices (slow-roasted pork shoulder, Bolognese sauce, whole-grain bread, and sauerkraut) with the caveat that they are merely a set of guidelines that will deliver results if their practitioner is faithful but also encouraging personalization.
That Pollan has spent years thinking and writing about food is evident. Well-versed in the intricacies of the subject, his descriptions are both poetic and precise, vividly evoking the techniques, smells, flavours and textures he describes. He depicts the best bread he ever tasted as a “big country loaf shot through with holes the size of marbles and golf balls—easily more air than bread. It had a tough hide of a crust, very nearly burned, but held a crumb so tender, moist, and glossy it made you think of custard.” But he doesn’t limit himself to this arena and Cooked is about so much more than food: it examines just what it is that makes us human. Pollan’s sources are indiscriminate, in the best possible sense. He has an astonishing ability to synthetize information from a variety of disciplines, looking at food through a myriad of different lenses‒historical, ethical, political, scientific, cultural‒to explore the deeply ingrained importance of cooking to civilization at large. For example, he cites Scottish writer James Boswell who in 1773 stated “no beast is a cook” intimating that cooking is one major distinction separating humans from animals. Similarly, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in The Raw and the Cooked in 1964 that cooking, as a metaphoric activity “establishes the difference between animals and people.” Pollan then goes on to describe the “cooking hypothesis”, posited by evolutionary scientists, which argues that by providing greater nutrition and energy, cooking allowed our brains to develop and our digestive tracts to shrink, literally changing our biological nature and separating us from other primates. Pollan is truly gifted in condensing broad concepts concisely and getting to the heart of the matter. Perhaps most importantly he explains why you should care so that you actually do.