Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

by Michael Pollan

Hardcover, 2013




New York : The Penguin Press, 2013.


Pollan explores the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen. Here, he discovers the enduring power of the four classical elements--fire, water, air, and earth--to transform the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink. In the course of his journey, he discovers that the cook occupies a special place in the world, standing squarely between nature and culture. Both realms are transformed by cooking, and so, in the process, is the cook.

Media reviews

His eye for intricacy is well-suited to unpacking a sophisticated scientific or cultural phenomenon, but that same talent turns a description of actual cooking into a tediously reported, many-paged affair. It’s too bad, because Pollan’s premise is absolutely right: getting into the kitchen does solve a lot of society’s ills. But if anything, this book is more likely to turn people away from the kitchen. Like the Food Network, it may actually make cooking seem more, not less, complicated than it needs to be.
2 more
Paragraph by paragraph, he’s still a joy to read, conveying the deep satisfaction of, say, experimenting to achieve a sourdough bread that’s wholesome but still airy. Yet the richness of his engagement with cooking refutes his own nostalgia. Judging by Pollan’s own kitchen, for those with the will and the resources, the world of cooking has never been as golden as it is now.
Wall Street Journal
For all the exoticism of this book's adventures, Mr. Pollan does not stray far from familiar ground. Simple but true: food becomes "literally more wonderful (and wonderfully more literal)" when we remember that who we are and what we eat are parts of the same world.

User reviews

LibraryThing member JenneB
So as background, let me tell you a little bit about the day I started/gave up reading this book.
I woke up in my tiny (494 sq ft) 1920s-era house in a walkable urban neighborhood. As I went outside to water my vegetable garden and take out the recycling, I saw my neighbor had returned my pie plate (I'd brought him the leftovers of my contribution to a pre-thanksgiving potluck) and also left me a mason jar of homemade spiked cider. Then I walked up the block to the coffee cart on the corner, where I got some organic pour-over coffee and homemade banana bread. By the time I got home, my taxi had arrived, so I loaded in my vintage 1970s carry-on that I got for a dollar at the Thursday Club rummage sale (a copy of McSweeney's Lucky Peach magazine in the side pocket) and went to the airport. I got on the plane, pulled out my iPad, and opened the eGalley of this book...which is all to say that

1) I am bougie as shit

2) if anyone should be the proper audience for this book, it is me

and 3) despite all that, by about page 8 all I wanted to say was:

Shut up, Michael Pollan.

*Disclaimer: I think Michael Pollan is great. I think slow food is great. I think local artisans and organic farms and healthy eating and sustainable everything and all of that is great. SO GREAT!!

But I am tired of being told, okay? I GET IT.
… (more)
LibraryThing member NellieMc
Really good book - only four recipes but boy did he do a lot of research and thinking. The premise is looking at cooking with fire, water, air, and earth by really exploring one recipe (pit BBQ, braising, bread, & fermentation, e.g. beer, cheese, and pickles)- but mostly it's how getting back into cooking will help you reawaken your connections - with people, the environment, yourself. The philosophy is easy to take, but really thought-provoking. I so wish I could write like that.… (more)
LibraryThing member fyrefly98
Summary: Cooking, some people have argued, is what truly makes us human, what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. And cooking is a process of transformation, of turning raw ingredients into food. In Cooked Pollan looks at the four basic processes of cooking, which he equates to the four fundamental elements, and asks what they say about our history, our culture, and our relationship to the natural world. In "Fire", he looks at the art of Barbecue - not grilling, but of cooking a real animal (often whole) over a real fire. In "Water", he moves into the kitchen and takes on the pot-dish: braising meat in liquid. In "Air", he takes up baking in a quest to understand what makes the perfect loaf of bread, and in "Earth", he deals with the microorganisms that make beer and other fermented foods (including cheese, sauerkraut, and others) possible.

Review: Even though I really enjoyed The Botany of Desire, I'm still a little wary when it comes to Pollan's work. (Even though I agree with what he has to say, he can come off as kind of lecture-y at times, and I don't like feeling bad about what I eat.) But Cooked seemed like it would be right up my alley - I love microhistories, I love foodie and cooking books, and I love science, so a microhistory of cooking that throws in some of the science of food? I was on board.

And again, as was the case with The Botany of Desire, I was pleasantly surprised. I won't claim that there were no lectures, but they're mild, based on common sense and things I was already trying to work on anyways, and interspersed with a lot of interesting information. I mean, I know I should cook more and eat out less. But rather than badgering me about that, Pollan went and did it, and enthused about how great it was for the length of a book, and that passion is infectious. (Although I think he sometimes doesn't take into account that while it's easy for him to bake bread with long, slow rises or braise a tough cut of meat for hours, that sort of thing doesn't work quite as easily for someone who doesn't work from home. I had the same problem with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, actually. Writers! Your schedules are not like ours!) But all the same, it was a reminder that I do enjoy cooking, that it's a very satisfying activity, and that even if it does take more time than ordering a pizza, it is time well spent all around.

(He did manage to make me feel guilty in the bread section, though. I bake bread - I really enjoy baking bread - so I'm sort of doing it right. But I totally buy into the "white flour industrial complex," plus I use fast-acting yeast rather than a sourdough starter. I'm a Philistine, clearly. But at least now I understand the chemistry of why my bread is different if I use the white whole-wheat flour.)

Pollan reads the audiobook version of this book, and I definitely recommend it. His delivery is very friendly and laid-back, but you can definitely hear the enthusiasm in his voice, which really helps in terms of selling the tale he has to tell.

So am I going to go out and barbecue a whole pig anytime soon? No. Am I going to start making my own cheese or fermenting my own cabbage? Also no. I'm probably not even going to start braising meat all that often. (But I might start a sourdough culture. Damn guilt.) But what this book has done is to make me more aware of what I'm eating, and who has cooked it, and made me think a bit every time the answer is "not me" - an answer which I am doing my best to reduce. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Recommended for people who like cooking, or those who don't like cooking themselves but want to know more about its history, its effect on human evolution, and on our culture.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Betty.Ann.Beam
He made many valid points throughout the book relating to evolution and sociology. Many of which I had never considered. Although I enjoyed the book, I would suggest sampling this as a audiobook. In print form, it's just too long. Many readers won't have the patience to continue reading this in book form. I did enjoy it overall and am hoping to read THE BOTANY OF DESIRE in the future.… (more)
LibraryThing member St.CroixSue
Pollan does not disappoint in this fascinating and inspiring piece of food writing. He flawlessly combines science, human evolution, and modern dilemmas with respect to how our species interacts with food. I loved listening to the author read his work. .
LibraryThing member dickmanikowski
Being a big fan of Michael Pollan, I was really looking forward to this highly touted book. It took some months before I was able to lay my hands on a copy of it at my local public library. Unfortunately, the copy I got was part of the HITS collection--one week loan period with no renewals. And I foolishly (and predictably) allowed myself to get distracted by another book during that single week. The end result was that, when I returned the book to the library today, I had only made my way through about two-thirds of this wonderful and information-dense book.
Pollan does a marvelous job of interweaving fact, fable, and passion about food. His contention is that it is cooking (as much as language) that separates man from the lesser beasts. Classically, he structures the book in four broad areas corresponding to the four elements identified by Aristotle: 1) fire (the earliest form of cooking was roasting pieces of animal flesh over open flames); 2) water (a much wider set of culinary techniques became available once the invention of pottery and metalworking allowed man to cook with water and other liquids); 3) air (bread, which quickly became so essential to the rise of human culture that we still hear it alluded to as the staff of life, only became possible when man accidentally discovered the wonderful activities of yeast); and 4) earth (fermentation, by which microbial action transforms foodstuffs into items as varied as cheese, sauerkraut, and beer).
In order to better understand the art and science in the transformation of plants and animal flesh into haute cuisine, he informally apprentices himself to four practitioners. One is a pitmaster of whole hog barbecue. One is a fledgling chef who gave him weekly lessons in his home on cooking technique. The third is a baker renowned for his bread. And I won't know who the fourth mentor is until I get my hands on the book again to finish it.
Which I will.
… (more)
LibraryThing member JeffV
I love Pollan's other books. He's always provided good information, the hows and whys to ditch "big food" and embrace more traditional methods of food preparation and dining. This book is all about methods of cooking. When pimping this book on The Colbert Report, Pollan suggested that people would eat a lot less French fries if they made them themselves from scratch. I anticipated the book would follow that line of reasoning -- just as in an earlier book, Pollan suggested reading labels and considering whether you grandmother would recognize all of the ingredients (if not, don't buy it). However, there is a lot less proselytizing this time around, and more out and out indulgence. Polland's obsessions in this book include whole-hog BBQ, home made beer, kraut and kimche, sourdough bread, and cheese. While he discusses the challenges of making truly healthy, and tasty whole-grain bread; trying to make a whole BBQ pig healthy requires a more tangential line of reasoning (that being it's a social, communal activity).

Pollan's affable style makes Cooked an enjoyable read. It's missing the "you gotta read this!" punch his other books have had, but if you're a fan, you shouldn't miss this one. It just won't create too many new fans on its own merits.
… (more)
LibraryThing member nemoman
Pollan assays a history of food through process or its transformation: fire, e.g., barbecue ; water, e.g., braises; air, e.g., bread; and, earth, e.g., fermentation. He illustrates each by focusing on a particular artisan or expert and details his own attempts to master the processes. He adds a rich historical gloss to each, providing insight as to how each changed and furthered human culture. The book is extremely well written and draws you in. My only criticism is that Pollan gets way too technical at times, when for example he details the numerous bacteria transforming milk into cheese. This, however, is a minor grouse considering the book's overall excellence.… (more)
LibraryThing member 4fish
In his latest book, Michael Pollan talks about cooking in terms of the four elements. Looking for the ultimate expression of cooking with fire takes him to North Carolina, where he learns to barbecue a whole hog over a wood fire. In order to master cooking with water, he hires a former student with restaurant chops and Persian roots to teach him the art of slow braised dishes. Cooking with air leads him to several different bread bakers, who all contribute different insights on creating the perfect sourdough loaf. Finally, he equates earth with fermentation, which leads first to the art of making sauerkraut and kimchi, and then to brewing beer. Along the way, he ranges from archaeology to history to philosophy to psychology. He also includes plenty of portraits of the characters he met in creating this book. It made me think about cooking, which is one of my passions, in a new way.… (more)
LibraryThing member zach_mosher
Thought this was a pretty great read. It really outlines the relationship of food to so many things: family, the senses, creativity, the rise of the agro-industrial movement, marketing, psychological well-being, and on and on. I won't soon forget the part where he talks about the best cheeses smelling like the human body. As someone who spends a lot of time in front of screens, cooking is always something I tried to use as leisurely activity, rather than as a burden. And this book tries to get one to look at food as an activity rather than simply as a source of nutrients/calories. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member rivkat
Pollan writes eloquently about cooking with fire (barbeque), water (braises, sofrito, etc.), air (baking bread), and earth (fermentation), arguing that there’s a benefit to despecializing in our cooking instead of letting corporations cook for us. He was most convincing on the “water” section, I thought, because baking bread sounds like a pain and I have no desire to make my own kimchee. There are a lot of discussions of the psychological role of cooking, and how others have thought of it, with a reasonable amount of attention paid to gender and an occasional nod at race, with an apparent detachment from those issues consistent with Pollan’s identity as a white man. Cooking is deeply psychological and fulfilling in this book, but only here as an indicator of one’s relationship with the physical world or occasionally one’s desire to build community—“power” doesn’t really come into his account.… (more)
LibraryThing member 2wonderY
Enjoyed another session with Michael Pollan. Broken out into four sections - Fire, Water, Air and Earth. The section on cheese was particularly fascinating.
LibraryThing member Anne_Green
This is the first of Michael Pollan's books I've read but it won't be the last. It's an in-depth exploration of the process of cooking and its place in human society from its origins to the present day. Pollan takes many perspectives in this book, historical, philosophical, practical, sociological and so on, which is what keeps it interesting.

His introduction sets out his thesis which is to answer a number of questions in regard to food and our relationship with it, for example "...what was the single most important thing we could do as a family to improve our health and general well-being … what is the most important thing an ordinary person can do to help reform the American food system, to make it healthier and more sustainable … how can people living in a highly specialised consumer economy reduce their sense of dependence and achieve a greater degree of self-sufficiency … how, in our everyday lives, can we acquire a deeper understanding of the natural world and our species’ peculiar role in it? There could hardly be more important and pertinent questions.

He decides to look for the answers by going to the kitchen and by experiencing first hand "the dramas of transformation”. The book is divided up into four parts - one for each of the big transformations by which raw material is converted into food - Fire, Water, Air and Earth. As an examination of “cooking as a defining human endeavour” it's a fascinating read, although there were parts that became heavy going, where he seemed to get bogged down somewhat in reporting every detail of his various experiments in culinary creation. But ultimately it's a book worth persisting with despite those passages.
… (more)
LibraryThing member armbrusm
Delightful, thought-provoking, as much fun as Omnivore's Dilemma. Made me want to try some of the techniques and approaches Pollan explores in the book - especially fermenting.
LibraryThing member Bugetta
I wasn't sure about this when I started it but I'm so glad I stuck with it. I enjoyed the way this book was set up - dividing the types of cooking by the four elements and then exploring the history, social history and science behind each one as well as Michael Pollan's attempt to cook in the various ways he discovers. So fire was cooking meat over fire, water was cooking soups and sauces, air was all about bread and earth was about fermentation - pickled vegetables, cheese and beer. I found the parts about air and earth the most interesting, but that's because I enjoyed the science behind them the most and I love bread and cheese. :)

I think anyone who is interested in the history and science of food and cooking would enjoy this, even if, like me, you're not much of a cook.
… (more)
LibraryThing member eclecticlibrarian
Inspiring, but ultimately too challenging for me to adopt much of any of the slow food movement as a single working adult.
LibraryThing member bostonian71
Articulate and thoughtful as always. I have to admit that it took me a couple of tries to get through this book. Pollan’s musings about transformations and the four elements are just too metaphysical for my taste. (This is particularly true of the chapter about barbecue, with all its talk of cooking and fire and primitive man making sacrifices to the gods.) But I did enjoy being a fly for the wall as he tagged along with various people -- especially the cheesemaking nun -- and it was inspiring, if somewhat intimidating, to watch his own efforts to cook more frequently and to do more complicated recipes. I have a feeling I know one of my New Year’s resolutions already ...… (more)
LibraryThing member Rosa.Mill
I managed to get a new copy and listened to this over the course of a couple of days. I learned a lot of interesting things about the history of different cooking techniques and I found the anecdotes about his own experiences really funny and interesting a lot of the time. There were a couple of really really science-y parts particularly in cheese making that were excruciatingly dry.… (more)
LibraryThing member Rosa.Mill
I managed to get a new copy and listened to this over the course of a couple of days. I learned a lot of interesting things about the history of different cooking techniques and I found the anecdotes about his own experiences really funny and interesting a lot of the time. There were a couple of really really science-y parts particularly in cheese making that were excruciatingly dry.… (more)
LibraryThing member edwinbcn
Michael Pollan is firmly established as an author of books about food, partcicularly about the production of food. He is not only characterized as a writer, but also as an activist and lecturer. The early years of Pollan's authorship are a bit difficult to trace. In 1975, he attended the Mansfield College, Oxford University and after taking an MA degree in English in 1981, supposedly, he worked for nearly two decades as an editor and journalist. Some of his earliest essays in the early 1990s demonstrate an interest in natural history, particularly plants, botany, and food, or the intersection of the natural world and culture. While in his early books, Second Nature: A Gardener's Education (1991) and The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World (2001) botany was forefronted, Pollan's recent four books have all focussed on the food industry, particularly man's domination of nature and near destructive influence on the ecology of food yielding crops. Particularly, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals forms the backbone and basis of Michael Pollan's crusade against the food industry. In this book, he describes the origins of human's food, demonstrating how mankind developed food resources from hunting-gathering, through agriculture to agribusiness with industrial characteristics, and how man's domination of nature threatens to destroy our health and the eco system, foreboding an apocalyptic food scarecity scenario. Following the publication of the The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Pollan has published several books, which cab be seen as spin-offs from this book, mostly advocating better food habits, such as In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (2008), Food Rules: An Eater's Manual (2009) and Pollan Family Table (2014). While the former is theoretical, the latter three books are all very practical, containing tips for better eating.

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (2013) is a book that moves back a little bit along the spectrum, to discuss the intersection between culture and nature, in the form of discussing the way humans have prepared and eaten. Like, The Omnivore's Dilemma, the book is divided into four parts, each describing a method of food preparation, symbolized by one of the four elements: fire, water, air and earth. The first part of the book is formed by a more or less anthropological description of "fire pit" hog roasting. This is a fascinating piece of writing of a unique way of roasting meat. By focussing on a single, spectacular type of roasting, Pollan circumvents the necessity of tedious explanation of methods of barbecuing that everyone would be familiar with. Apparently, the type of roasting described by Pollan is sufficiently obscure to be interesting and new to the majority of both domestic and international readership. Unfortunately, the piece is too long, and repetitive. While the original description is great and interesting, a similar case at a different location is included, which, though described in less detail, creates an unnecessary repetition. This clearly seems to be a filler, to lengthen the chapter. The second part of the book describes all forms of stewing, braising and boiling in water. This is the shortest chapter. It is fleshed out with an explanation of umami the fifth taste, with which not very many are familiar.

While everone can imagine the role of fire and water in the preparation of food, the author stretches the imagination of the reader a bit by the next two categories: air and earth. This is not obvious at all. Part three describes the baking of bread, while Part four describes various ways of fermentation. The artificiality of this division is obvious. After all, the function of yeast in bread is also a form of fermentation, while in the fermentation processes of wine and beer, described in Part four, "air" is also formed. However, this is obscured by the author. Part three describes the role of yeast in the production of artisan bread, while Part four describes the role of microbes in the production of wine, beer and cheese.

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation is a very interesting book, that combines background, history and cultural description, with writing about food, and food preparation. The book also contains various DIY recipes, suggesting readers to put into practice. The book is much more optimistic and lighter than The Omnivore's Dilemma.

However, even with regular readers of the work of Michael Pollan a certain fatique with the topic must be noticeable. The division into four parts is strained, as discussed above. Pollan's writing style bears all the typical characteristics of journalistic writing. So, every part is identified by a particular named individual, a person who functions as a kind of anchor, and is described as a grotesque caricature. At the same time, the author places himself in the position of the person who experiences, tastes, smells and tries everything: the eyes and ears of the reader. Both books have a mystifying sub title. In fact, A Natural History of Transformation comes close to having no meaning at all. It is neither "natural history" nor "transformation".

Michael Pollan is not a great thinker or original mind. His books are well-crafted, but bear all the characteristics of paucity in scholarship and lacking a critical and objective mind. Thus, Pollan's view are elitist, driven by commercialism and activism, rather than sound scholarship. Pollan's work is better understood as popular science, and very readable. However, it is hoped the author will soon turn to another topic.
… (more)
LibraryThing member jepeters333
Me chael Pollan explores the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen. Apprenticing himself to a successino of culinary masters, Pollan learns how to grill with fiee, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everythng from cheese to beer. In the course of his journey, he discovers that the cook occupies a special place in the world, standing squarely between nature and culture. Both realms are transformed by cooking, and so, in the proceas, is the cook.… (more)
LibraryThing member Rosa.Mill
I managed to get a new copy and listened to this over the course of a couple of days. I learned a lot of interesting things about the history of different cooking techniques and I found the anecdotes about his own experiences really funny and interesting a lot of the time. There were a couple of really really science-y parts particularly in cheese making that were excruciatingly dry.… (more)
LibraryThing member Rosa.Mill
I managed to get a new copy and listened to this over the course of a couple of days. I learned a lot of interesting things about the history of different cooking techniques and I found the anecdotes about his own experiences really funny and interesting a lot of the time. There were a couple of really really science-y parts particularly in cheese making that were excruciatingly dry.… (more)
LibraryThing member benuathanasia
The first part of this book isn't very indicative of the finesse for writing I know Pollan has. He keeps talking about other people's passion, without conveying it or really feeling it himself.
LibraryThing member addunn3
The author covers four basic methods of cooking: BBQ (fire), Pot (Water), Bread (Air) and Fermentation (earth). Very well written and insightful information. Only complaint I have was the philosophical bits that seemed to lead to nowhere and became a bit of a distraction from an otherwise excellent description of the history of man's interaction with his food.… (more)



Page: 0.2637 seconds