Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, brings us another book that is just as wide in scope and purpose, and yet, the subject of which confronts us every day.
In Cooked, Pollan proposes that “cooking is one of the most interesting and worthwhile things we humans do.” If this isn’t enough, he goes on to elucidate the hypothesis that the very ascent of civilized humans may have been directly tied to the rise of cooking (easier calories = bigger brains), that our modern barbecuing still pays an homage to ritual sacrifices, and that fermented foods may hold some of the fundamental cures to our modern woes, including allergies and gut problems.
Pollan manages to make these big statements in a quiet way, by bringing us into the kitchen with him and introducing each idea in the context of his small, very focused areas of study. The book is divided along the four elements–fire, water, air, and earth–and in each of them, he tackles another realm of cooking, respectively–barbeque, braising, bread, and fermentable foods, such as sauerkraut, cheese, and beer. He chooses this approach because, as he says, “Each element proposes a different set of techniques for transforming nature, but also a different stance toward the world, a different kind of work, and a different mood.”
So, while we are examining the very backbone of ritual and religion, we are also with Pollan as he watches whole hogs tossed onto a decades-old smoker in North Carolina. When he talks about the civilizing influence of cooking things in pots and how that introduced us to new types of food, we are also teasing out the different onion mirepoix-type bases that seem to come up in every single cuisine. (Ah-mazing answer for why this may have occurred–turns out onions and garlic are some of the most potent anti-microbial foods, thus making foods safer to eat. So cool!) We read about the cultural shifts associated with bread while Pollan bakes with a surfing zen master of bread making who works with wild yeasts.
In all, Pollan remains approachable in a way that characterizes his other books. In the same chapter that debates at-home cooking with larger feminist arguments, he also takes a light-hearted trip to the grocery store with his son to prepare for “Microwave Night.” Spoiler alert: The $30 load of microwaved meals they buy ends up taking 40 minutes to cook with all of the family eating at different times. Incidentally, its the same amount of money that Pollan uses to buy the ingredients at a farmer’s market for a classic braise that feeds his family a much nicer meal… with some leftovers.
Pollan’s greatest argument is that, “Cooking has the power to transform more than plants and animals: It transforms us, too, from mere consumers into producers.” When we cook, we can no longer disassociate ourselves from the types of food we eat, where it comes from, and how it’s produced. In this way, Cooked proves to be a stunningly insightful and interesting read (as in, running out to my husband after each page with a new factoid), that will certainly shape my own cooking and activities in the kitchen.
Basically, I’m going to start fermenting more. Get ready for some kimchi folks.
Have you read Cooked yet?
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