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A Foodie Manifesto; Eloquent and Profound
on 28 December 2014
As a foodie, I was dimly aware of Michael Pollan, including his famous adage, 'eat food, not too much, mostly plants,' before picking up Cooked, but had read none of his previous works. I was therefore somewhat surprised by its content. Cooked was billed as a treatise on the science underlying cooking; an exploration of the everyday miracles which occur when one takes a heap of raw and mostly unpalatable ingredients, and transfigures them into a delicious meal. Whilst this theme is present, however, it is surprisingly marginal. Cooked is nothing less than a magisterial overview of food and cooking in human culture; ranging across its mythic and evolutionary significance to the ills of the modern-day food industry. It is a hugely ambitious work, and largely a successful one.
Pollan is a gifted non-fiction writer; his prose clear and fluent, passionate without being preachy, entertaining without being trite. He draws out some fascinating themes. His critiques of the food industry are dead-on, especially a wonderful section on the farce of 'convenience' foods. And his admiration for the artisans of the food industry - from professional chefs to amateur cheesemakers - shines through on every page. It is easy to maintain one's own enthusiasm for this lengthy book, when Pollan's passion for the topic is infectious.
Cooked's conceit is to address, roughly, barbeque, stews, baking and fermentation under the headings Fire, Water, Air and Earth respectively. Water was the section with the most everyday utility for me, dealing with a staple cooking method, including some fascinating science, as well as invaluable advice. Air inspired me to try breadbaking, with occasional success, whilst Earth was intriguing, but of little utility. I learned from this section, if nothing else, that fermentation is as much engineering as art, and requires a substantial investment of time and capital before yielding results.
The reason for the qualified praise for Cooked thus far is its first and most problematic section, Fire. It is by far the book's weakest; frankly, it is overlong and dull. It is here that it feels as though Pollan's enthusiasm runs away with him; resulting in a hundred pages or so of pure self-indulgence. Fire is concerned with barbeque; the fairly simple act of slow-cooking meat over an open fire. Here the book makes huge digressions into not only the Southern culture of barbeque, its history and regional nuances, but overreaches into the mythic connotations of cooking with fire. It would be problematic anywhere in the book, but at the outset, it is extremely disheartening.
I can only urge readers struggling through Fire to press on, or skip ahead, for the section proves an anomaly. The rest of Cooked is of much greater interest and discipline. Occasionally, one sees flashes again of Pollan getting carried away; especially in his enthusiasm for small-scale artisanal cooking over the industrial variety, and his belief in the health virtues of live-culture produce (which remain unproven, and feel faddish here). His grasp of the basic science, too, at times seems a little shaky.
Overall, however, Cooked is excellent work of food writing, and highly recommended to any reader with an interest in the topic. Whilst long, it is densely-packed, always entertaining, and occasionally profound. It can segue into self-indulgence, and certainly is not a balanced analysis of the issues involved, but Pollan has nevertheless successfully produced here a foodie manifesto. Such is Cooked's passion and eloquence, only a flinty-hearted reader could remain unmoved by its rallying cry for a healthier attitude to food, and a reassertion of its role at the centre of human wellbeing.