Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (Review)

December 22, 2014

Book cover for "Cooked" by Michael Pollan.Title: Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

Author: Michael Pollan

Publication Year: 2013

Pages: 480

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: E-book version purchased from Kobobooks.com

From the cover:

In Cooked, Michael 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. Apprenticing himself to a succession of culinary masters, Pollan learns how to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer.

Each section of Cooked tracks Pollan’s effort to master a single classic recipe using one of the four elements. A North Carolina barbecue pit master tutors him in the primal magic of fire; a Chez Panisse-trained cook schools him in the art of braising; a celebrated baker teaches him how air transforms grain and water into a fragrant loaf of bread; and finally, several mad-genius “fermentos” (a tribe that includes brewers, cheese makers, and all kinds of picklers) reveal how fungi and bacteria can perform the most amazing alchemies of all. The reader learns alongside Pollan, but the lessons move beyond the practical to become an investigation of how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships. Cooking, above all, connects us.

The effects of not cooking are similarly far reaching. Relying upon corporations to process our food means we consume large quantities of fat, sugar, and salt; disrupt an essential link to the natural world; and weaken our relationships with family and friends. In fact, Cooked argues, taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable. Reclaiming cooking as an act of enjoyment and self-reliance, learning to perform the magic of these everyday transformations, opens the door to a more nourishing life.

What I like most about Pollan’s writing is that he works off the assumption that people generally want to know more about food. We might not want to be gourmet chefs anytime soon, but as a reader of his books, obviously I’m interested in learning more about what we as a society put into our bodies, and what place food and cooking serves in our lives.

Unlike in his previous books (The Omnivore’s DilemmaIn Defense of Food, and Food Rules), Cooked isn’t so much about the ethics of eating. Rather, it’s about the history of food and different styles of cooking, exploring the ways in which our meals affect our lives. He travels around learning about different ways to cook – baking and barbecue, for example – and different innovations in food preparation. He also goes back and explores the history of cooking, like when humans started to use fire to prepare meat.

I really liked reading Cooked because it felt like an exploration, a discussion of different ways to eat rather than a judgement on how we eat. If you’ve enjoyed Pollan’s other books, or maybe even if you haven’t, you probably want to give this one a try.

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