12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cooking philosophy at its best
This is a book about much more than cooking that is so gripping that it's hard to put down: hard to believe, but true. Michael Pollan has a great writing style that moves between the particular of the process he is discussing and the general of how this fits into the world as we know it...and explains how we are as we are. In between he tells great stories with lovely...
Published 16 months ago by Charles Lowe
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "When our reader has finished reading this book...
...he will in no way have increased his knowledge". Pollan thus quotes philosopher Gaston Bachelard in a footnote at one point in the book and I was at that point, about a third of the way through this, feeling the very same way about this book itself. Much of it, especially up to then, seems like a creative writing exercise devoid of genuine content, and I was on the...
Published 11 months ago by E. L. Wisty
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "When our reader has finished reading this book...,
...he will in no way have increased his knowledge". Pollan thus quotes philosopher Gaston Bachelard in a footnote at one point in the book and I was at that point, about a third of the way through this, feeling the very same way about this book itself. Much of it, especially up to then, seems like a creative writing exercise devoid of genuine content, and I was on the verge of giving up entirely. It does however pick up thereafter, but it's a shame that the first section, "Fire", discussing hog roast is so dull. The subsequent parts, "Water" (on braising and in particular sugo), "Air" (bread) and "Earth" (fermentation - sauerkraut, kimchi, cheese & alcohol) do discuss the chemistry of cooking more deeply.
Pollan is known for his pithy remark simplifying modern anxiety about food: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." The message of "Cooked" could probably be summed up similarly laconically: "Eat food. Home made. By you."
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cooking philosophy at its best,
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This is a book about much more than cooking that is so gripping that it's hard to put down: hard to believe, but true. Michael Pollan has a great writing style that moves between the particular of the process he is discussing and the general of how this fits into the world as we know it...and explains how we are as we are. In between he tells great stories with lovely anecdotes that make every page memorable. The concept of 'hand taste', as described by his Korean kimchi-making teacher, which ends the book was the most moving story of all, and really helped me understand why cooking is so important to me.
If like me you enjoy cooking and want to understand a bit more about why you like it, this is the book for you. If you like reading about cooking processes without forever having to skip recipes that disrupt the flow then this is for you too (there are four recipes at the end for those who cannot live without some in a book ostensibly on cooking). Finally, this book is most definitely for you if you want to understand how the basic processes that Michael Pollan describes have very much shaped the way our bodies work, and indeed our whole civilisation - it is that far-reaching.
When I look back in ten years time I suspect this will remain one of the books that have most influenced my understanding of what it is to be human.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Long---But Well Worth The Read! So Important.,
A Natural History of Transformation
By Michael Pollan
Long. That’s what nearly all the reviews on Amazon have to say about author Michael Pollan’s latest tome. Well, yes it is crazy-long, but he has a gift for fascinating writing that, in turn, makes for awesome reading and since it’s been mostly below zero degrees in Wisconsin, why not give it a go?
Divided into four very basic concepts of food preparation—fire, water, air & earth—Pollan sets out to make one big huge statement that most all of you already know. We have stopped cooking. Because he has so many relevant points, I’ll be quoting him like crazy. This one sets the stage:
“I began trying to unpack a curious paradox I had noticed while watching television, which was simply this: How is it that at the precise historical moment when Americans were abandoning the kitchen, handing over the preparation of most of our meals to the food industry, we began spending so much of our time thinking about food and watching other people cook it on television? The less cooking we were doing in our own lives, it seemed, the more that food and its various preparation transfixed us.”
Bam! There it is, the theme of his enormous effort, ‘Cooked’, and it unfolds elegantly with history and facts and figures that will hold you spellbound. Pollan not only has a way of researching a subject to the extreme, he also is a totally ‘hands on’ author. He grilled and braised, kneaded and fermented his way through the gamut of culinary offerings that our culture not too long ago, held in such high esteem. It’s time to haul out the Dutch oven and dust off grandma’s cook book. Like so many of his references, this one in particular struck a chord.
“Microbiologists believe that onions, garlic, and spices protect us from the growth of dangerous bacteria on meat. This might explain why the use of these plants in cooking becomes more common the closer you get to the equator, where keeping meat from spoiling becomes progressively more challenging.”
An interesting aspect to consider and yet how many of the most basic of recipes begin with—chopping an onion! Soup, chili, BBQ, pot roast, leg of lamb or a simple vegetable soup, all have their beginnings tied to the simple act of chopping of an onion. Pollan stresses the importance of slowing down. Of rediscovering the art (and joy) of cooking—what could be more intoxicating than a pot of chili burbling away on the stove or a loaf of hand-made bread browning in the oven?
His message is clear and refreshing and important. We’ve become a culture of corporate food. Open and heat and eat. So much of what is offered in our modern day grocery stores is far from food. All he’s suggesting is that we re-visit the stove. That we turn our shopping cart away from bagged, processed foods and rediscover the magic of a simple pot roast or loaf of bread or home-made soup.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughful, fascinating and disquieting,
In an age when we are buying more cookery books than ever, are obsessed by the styling of our kitchens and are spending an inordinate time watching cookery programmes on the television, it is ironic that we are spending hardly any time actually cooking. Instead we rely on processed, or as Pollen calls it 'industrial cooking', as it removes the hard work (reducing cooking to mere heating up) and even allows us to taste many different cuisines and have a huge variety in what we eat. However, the downside to this is that industrial cooking is becoming increasingly linked with the explosion of obesity in the western world.
In the introduction Pollen quotes Boswell calling homo sapiens the cooking animal as that is what differentiates man from beast, although he notes that animals also enjoy cooked meat, scavenging through the remains of forest fires. Is this how man first discovered that cooked meat was easier to digest than raw?
This book explores cooking down to its most basic elements. It is, the author says, a how-to book, teaching us to attempt to master the four physical processes which are fundamental to cooking - fire, water air and earth - the four basic recipes - grilling, stewing, baking and brewing/fermentation. In each section he looks both at ancient and modern practice, for example the traditional hog roasts of North Carolina, and the precision fire grilling of the Basque cook, Bittor Arguinzoniz, who matches not just the heat of the embers but the burning fuel itself to the food he is cooking. He notes common features that can be found world-wide, for example the mirepoix, sofrito and tarka mixtures of chopped vegetables that form the base of food cooked in liquid. All this is interspersed with anecdotes of his own experience, his history and his experiments trying to reproduce the techniques he is researching. The book ends with four exemplar recipes:
* pork shoulder barbecue
* meat sugo and pasta
* whole wheat country loaf
There is an extensive bibliography, a reading list and index.
This a thoughtful and fascinating book and although it is very accessible, it is not a quick read because there is much to ponder and think about. Cooking is, he says, central to our human identity. If this is so, what does the current decline in cooking say about our future?
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and engaging,
I think I've heard the author on the radio once and was aware of his "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." maxim but I've not read any of his earlier work - having read Cooked, I will be looking out for them. This book is brilliant - filled with fascinating detail on the chemical and biological transformation of raw ingredients into wholesome, digestible, flavourful food, it spans the whole history of humanity to tell how we have evolved in response to the way we prepare food, and how many micro-organisms that aid that process have co-evolved with us.
The book's central conceit is to examine the transformation of food by the four elements of the ancient world - fire, water, air, earth - with fire being the traditional southern US style of slow barbecuing a whole pig over the embers of a wood fire, water being what the Americans call braising and I'd call stewing, air being bread making and earth (using bacterial and fungal agents of decay) being a combination of pickling, cheesemaking and brewing - the last of which neatly combines all four elements. It's a clever conceit and works well. In each case the author seeks out experts in the field to learn the techniques and tells us what he finds out along the way.
In addition it is filled with fascinating little tit-bits like the fact that, when presented with an "open bar", chimps will maintain a steady state of permanent inebriation, whereas rats won't generally drink to excess but will have a "cocktail" before eating, a "nightcap" before going to sleep, but then every three to four days have a communal drinking session where they all get totally - well - ratted. That story alone was worth reading the whole book for. Brilliant.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well Researched and Intelligently Put Together,
This book is quite a personal narrative by the author and draws to a major extent on his own experiences and anecdotes he has picked up along the way. As is observed quite early in the book, cooking is a defining human activity since we are the only species which cooks - homo sapiens could be viewed as the cooking human. Cooking is not just a matter of sustaining ourselves, but it is a very social activity and has developed and changed as society has developed and changed.
The author goes on to consider his subject by division into the four ancient elements, Fire, Water, Air and Earth which is a novel way of approaching the subject of cooking. He looks at how our current approach to cooking has come about, sometimes for economic reasons, sometimes social, sometimes purely practical. All this narrative is peppered with anecdotal examples of people involved in the process of food preparation.
This is not a recipe book, although there are plenty of ideas to pursue should you so wish and there are, at the end, four representative recipes, one for each of the elements. There is a suggested bibliography for further reading together with suggested sources which the author has drawn upon which may inspire you to read further on the subject.
This is an extremely well researched book, which has been thoughtfully and intelligently put together to make it into an interesting compendium. It will certainly make you think more about what, where and why you are eating.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Read it, and be amazed!,
Cooked is an admirable stab at having the reader reconnect with food through, of all things, cooking. At times laboured, but never less than spirited and well researched, Cooked - as Pollan's somewhat exhaustive introduction sets up -- is a wake-up call on the fact that too many of us don't eat cooked food, but the engineered result of food processing. And while it would be possible to come away after 10 pages with the feeling Cooked is going to be some paean to 'the good old days', Pollan then sets out to remind the reader of the magic that is cooking.
Cut into four sections, denoted by the elements - fire, air, earth and water (roasting, baking, vegetables and boiling) -- each part acts as a history/process overview, invariably set against the author's experience in, say, learning to bake bread for himself.
At times Pollan slips a little too far down the rabbit hole and the detail gets dense, but stick with Cooked and what evolves is the kind of story of how mankind discovered the processes of food preparation which, if they were aspects of a fictional movie shown to aliens, would have viewers marveling at the brilliance of life as we know it. In short: Pollan reconnects us, through revelation, with the kinds of insight into our daily meals which, in the end, shows just as far we've been tempted into eating rubbish by the commercial food industries.
Cooked could possibly do with a revision: Pollan's introduction is too dense, gives too detailed an overview of what he then goes to explore in the main book, to the extent that, the intro done and starting on the first chapter, we already know 'the butler did it'. However, plough on, and the book is a treasure trove of the kind of knowledge and stories that really does (albeit gently) shame us into realising we've somehow traded in our humanness and connection with our ancestors for little more than convenience and a few minutes saved, standing in front of a microwave instead of getting our hands into the soil of our very - magical - existence.
To conclude: a fab book; a bit heavy on the detail from time to time, but, in the spirit of Pollan's mission, a much more satisfying meal for its inclusion.
15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A deep meditation on alchemy in the kitchen,
Michael Pollan is a philosopher and mystic of the mundane, in my book. Some philosophers and mystics begin from the ineffable and the intangible and whirl you around in concepts almost impossible to get a handle on.
By contrast, Pollan is like another favourite writer of mine who performs the same trick, - Sharman Apt Russell Hunger: An Unnatural History. Both start with the quotidian (Bread, potatoes, barbecued pigs, roses and the like) and expand outwards , opening them out to reveal worlds - anthropology, evolution, economics, psychology, desire, history, chemistry, biology, physics, feminism, capitalism, poetry, metaphor, the interconnectedness of all................I could spool on, endlessly, the big concepts Pollan (and Apt Russell) connect, by starting on the basic stuff of matter - food, shelter, and weaving it all together
In this book, he examines something so basic, cooking - and indeed the lack of it, in the `developed' Western world. Something which once created social bonds and community disappears as we spend more time in front of screens, eating `convenience' ready meals which have not been made by anyone we know.
Almost the first gauntlet which Pollan throws down is the one which asks, `just what is it which makes us human, and different from `dumb beasts?' And as the things which formerly we thought of as `human' - for example, language, empathy, ability to problem solve, are increasingly shown by animal behaviourists to occur in other species - he concludes `we are the cooking animal' - and perhaps controversially suggests that from cooking all else of our developed, intelligent humanity, flowed
That sounds a ridiculous statement - except when it is put together with the fact that cooking not only tenderises sinewy animal muscle, softens and makes available resistant plant fibres - but means we no longer have to spend most of our waking hours chewing, in order to get at nutrients. Even more usefully the chemical changes produced by cooking releases nutrients more easily, in an easier to assimilate form. More calories available for less expenditure of calories. Less work for the gut (and the jaw) and a higher yield of glucose for the brain.
This book compares cooking to alchemy - and indeed, he breaks his chapters down to the poetic and alchemic four elements of fire, water, air, earth.
At the beginning of each section of the book, are different displays of circle logos. Don't miss these - they are actually quite profound in terms of visually, what they are saying about the inner nature of each cooking process. Pollan thinks like a mystic!
Fire, the first, the earliest cooking - the `dangerous' primitive cooking of the hunt (and still, today, men are more willing to take charge of the `mysteries of the `barbie' then to move indoors to the deeper alchemy of the kitchen)
Water - the next major step, the more mysterious, more advanced `inside the home' cooking - which needed to wait for the development of cooking vessels - this became what was seen as `women's work' - cooking in a liquid. No longer the fire directly heating the food, fire tamed to heat liquid which heats a more complex possibility of flavour, not to mention a greater complexity of chemistry, as this is cooked in combination with that, that and that.
Air - the mysterious agency when our `cooking' gets done by some other transformational agent - yeasts, enabling us to finally access the nutrients in grain (as we evolve to an agricultural society) - the alchemy of yeast, grains and breads. In this section he almost for me rounds the journey of the book. He reminds us again of the evolutionary advance cooking represents - a way of processing what is, or what might be, edible, in order to make more of its nutrients available, so giving us the advantage towards greater health and wellbeing. Traditional bread making, whereby WE are able to get at the seed potential, the embryo for the germination of new seed.
And then, as he reminds us, we score a fatal own goal - moving from the health giving 'processing' of cooking itself, to OVER processing whereby we strip what is nutritious, producing a substance quickly (the commercial white bread loaf) that not only has no nutritional value at all, but is in fact detrimental to health. This then has to have other, synthetic forms of what WAS nutritious in the first place, added back in. The contrast between mankind's initial discovery of how to utilise the goodness of whole grains - time an integral part of the process, allowing slow fermentation to break down and transform proteins, fats and carbohydates - and modern breeding of strains of wheat which are easier (quicker) to process, fitting modern machinery, but are less rich in nutritional value, is clear.
The final chapter, `earth' continues the process with preservation through the fermentation process without 'cooking' - salting, pickling, cheesemaking, brewing - or, as Pollan much more evocatively subtitles this section - Earth - Fermentation's Cold Fire. Indeed, he takes his conceit further, what we are seeing, in fermentation is the move from life to death - the grape, once perfectly ripe, begins to decay, break down, and ferment to wine; the milk soured into yoghurt or cheese; the cabbage into sauerkraut. Or, put another way
" these transformations depend on the fermenter's careful management of rot, on taking the decompositions of those seeds and fruits and fleshes just so far and no farther"
I could go on - and on - and even more on about the delights of this book, but really, yours is the journey to make.
If you don't much enjoy cooking, this might inspire you to connect with its mysteries (though its not `a cookery book') if you love cooking, you will feel like some entrant into ancient mysteries as you engage with your next kitchen assignment
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The hearth is in the kitchen,
Who would have thought that a book about different ways of cooking (fire, water, air and earth) could be inspiring, moving, gripping and thought-provoking. It also helped me understand why we love cooking in my family.
My mother will love the emphasis on the family as a place of nurturing and the importance of food preparation.
The book takes a project approach to cooking without detailed recipes - a new way of introducing cooking. This could be a great basis for a course for young teenagers - cooking's not about being either a celebrity chef or being tied to the kitchen. There's a more exciting way of thinking about it. This book could start something really significant.
Michael Pollan makes sense of so many thinks I've thought of but never researched myself. The section on the "body" smell of cheese is fascinating. It may put you off cheese, but only if you don't already love it.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Transforming nature into culture,
In "Cooked" Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma", embarks on an investigation into the various ways humans transform the products of nature into food. Taking as a starting point the elements fire, water, air, and earth, Pollan focuses on 'grilling with fire, cooking with liquid, baking bread, and fermenting all sorts of things'.
So Pollan travels to North Carolina to sample and cook whole hog barbecue (this chapter had me salivating throughout...), has lessons in home cooking and, by contrast, organizes a depressing ready-meal family dinner, tries to bake the perfect sourdough, and meets a pickle evangelist (just one of many colourful characters who populate the book).
Pollan is a genial guide and his writing is often very funny. I didn't think a hundred pages on whole hog barbecue, for example, would hold my attention, but the mixture of personal experience, cultural history, politics, and science, means that "Cooked" slips down very easily.
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Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan (Paperback - 3 April 2014)