Michael Pollan – Cooked
80. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan (2013)
Read By: Michael Pollan
Length: 13 h 25 min (480 pages)
Started: 26 September 2013
Finished: 09 October 2013
Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? A friend of the family recommended it to me, and I like foodie and food science books anyways.
I’d write a better
haiku but I need to go
bake a loaf of bread.
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.
First Line: At a certain point in the late middle of my life I made the unexpected but happy discovery that the answer to several of the questions that most occupied me was in fact one and the same. Cook.
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