Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan (New York: Penguin Press, 2013. 446 pp)

Michael Pollan is the author of six previous books, including Food RulesIn Defense of FoodThe Omnivore’s Dilemma, and The Botany of Desire, all New York Times bestsellers. A longtime contributor to The New York Times, he is also the Knight Professor of Journalism at Berkeley. In 2010, Time magazine named him one of the one hundred most influential people in the world.

Michael Pollan: Crusader of Food

Michael Pollan is known as the defender of food, of all things eaten. He wrote the manifesto for eating in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and even a manual in Food Rules. When I picked up Cooked, I expected some of the same, most of the same even. Luckily, I wasn’t given it. Pollan moves far beyond advocacy and moves into the transformational powers of the kitchen. Pollan describes the four elements of wind, fire, water, and earth, and how they transform everyday foods into something magical. Cooking with these elements makes cooking alchemical.

What I love about this book is Pollan’s reason for writing it. In order to improve his family’s overall health, especially that of his teenage son, he decided he needed to spend more time in the kitchen. A tertiary goal was the normal Pollanian one: to reduce the family’s need on large food corporations. I choose to ignore the latter, and focus on the more noble goal of improving his family’s health.

“The premise of this book is that cooking—defined broadly enough to take in the whole spectrum of techniques people have devised for transforming the raw stuff of nature into nutritious and appealing things for us to eat and drink—is one of the most interesting and worthwhile things we humans do. This is not something I fully appreciated before I set to learn how to cook” (11).

The Fallacy of Convenience

Pollan spent three years under a succession of master chefs to learn how to cook with each element. He learned how to grill with fire, cook with water, bake bread, and ferment. Cooked is a how-to-cook book, insofar as each section has a single recipe. There is a recipe for barbecue (it’s really good), for a braise, for bread, and for some fermented delicacies, which I very much want to try.

The sad portion of history that is recounted in the book is the fact that somehow, we left the kitchen. Famed chef, Gordon Ramsay even had a television show on British television called “The F Word“, where he furthered his campaign to get women back in the kitchen. While on the surface it might seem misogynistic or sexist, a sad truth exists, that there has been a mass exodus away from the kitchen toward the false promised lands of fast food eateries and diners. Pollan, in an interview with NPR states the following,

“We kind of assume that women went back to work and there was no time to make a family meal. But it isn’t that simple and it’s a lot more interesting. The corporations were knocking on that door for almost 100 years. And after World War II, when they had invented all these technologies for processing food and making it shelf stable and simulating real foods with fake foods, they really pushed. And they found their opportunity with the feminist revolution beginning in the ’70s. There was this really uncomfortable conversation taking place at kitchen tables all across America. Men and women were trying to renegotiate the division of labor in the household. And then the food industry recognized they had an opportunity. And they said ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ve got you covered. We’ll do the cooking.’ And KFC even took out a billboard with a big bucket of fried chicken and the slogan, ‘Women’s Liberation.’ So I really think we need to go back and finish that difficult conversation. And I’ve had it, you know, with my wife, over who does what in the house, and bring men back into the kitchen. And children, which I think is really, really important … I think the most important thing we can teach our kids for their long-term health and happiness is how to cook.”

The fallacy of convenience brings many away from the kitchen.

Spending Time With The Greats

Seeking to extol the philosophical and scientific basis of one of my favorite activities, it’s refreshing to see a cook step back and ask why. Pollan cooks with fire in its purest form, working with pit masters of the Old South to roast pigs very slowly over a smoldering wood fire. From a guy that has been to the south, you haven’t actually had barbecue until you’ve eaten it there. Cooking with liquids came later when human invented pots, and cooking moved indoors to the kitchen. Pollan spends much time inside with the pot, and works with Chez Panisse chefs on the perfect stews, braises, sauces, and stocks. Air and grain together makes bread (and there’s a great recipe inside); earth provides bacteria and yeasts to perform the alchemy of brewing (my favorite hobby), pickling (I’ve tried it with ill-success), cheese-making, and kimchi/sauerkraut fermentation.

Cooked isn’t a eater’s manifesto, nor is it a recipe book. It’s a journey back to the kitchen, something that America needs. Read the book, you’ll gain the right philosophical framework to spur you forth towards the kitchen. By moving back to the kitchen, you’ll lose an average of 30 minutes a day. But, you’ll also lose a slew of chemicals that shouldn’t be in your body. The time reading Cooked, and consequently time in the kitchen is well worth it.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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