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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.