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Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation Hardcover – 23 Apr 2013
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It's not often that a life-changing book falls into one's lap ... Yet Michael Pollan's Cooked is one of them. One it's impossible to read and not act on ... Embrace bacteria, cook thoughtfully and slow, and taste some of the most luscious food you've ever eaten, this powerful book says. And do it for the people you love as well as the invisible soldiers inside you who are fighting to keep you strong. Cooked is a book of revelations for today's hungry human animal. Be changed by it (Sunday Telegraph)
In Cooked, Pollan continues his campaign to get us to eat properly and pleasurably by making meals from scratch ... a warm, thoughtful narrative in which Pollan encounters everything from a surfing baker who makes the perfect sourdough to a cheese-making nun. This is a love song to old, slow kitchen skills at their delicious best (Kathryn Hughes Guardian BOOKS OF THE YEAR)
[A] rare, ranging breed of narrative that manages to do all ... In Pollan's dexterous hands, we get the science, the history, the inspiration, ultimately the recipe. What feels like all of it. It doesn't hurt that he also happens to be very funny (Boston Globe)
Pollan's book is many things, among them a memoir of learning to master the absolute basics of culinary creation: fire, water, air and earth. As Pollan chats with cheesemaking nuns and discovers Walt Whitman's views on composting, he reminds us that cooking used to be all about connection - with the world around us, with other times and cultures, and with those we cook for ... this book [is] both approachable and rewarding (Hephzibah Anderson Prospect)
As in The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan is never less than delightful, full of curiosity, insight, and good humor. This is a book to be read, savoured, and smudged with spatterings of olive oil, wine, butter, and the sulfuric streaks of chopped onion (Outside)
Pollan eloquently explains how grilling with fire, braising (water), baking bread (air), and fermented foods (earth) have impacted our health and culture ... Engaging and enlightening (Publishers Weekly)
A thoughtful meditation on cooking that is both difficult to categorize and uniquely, inimitably his ... Intensely focused yet wide ranging, beautifully written, thought provoking, and, yes, fun, Pollan's latest is not to be missed by those interested in how, why, or what we cook and eat (Library Journal)
Having described what's wrong with American food in his best-selling The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), New York Times contributor Pollan delivers a more optimistic but equally fascinating account of how to do it right ... A delightful chronicle of the education of a cook who steps back frequently to extol the scientific and philosophical basis of this deeply satisfying human activity (Booklist)
[Pollan] explores the same way a naturalist might, by studing the animals, plants and microbes involved in cooking, and delving into history, culture and chemistry ... he describes the remarkable transformations that take place in the humble saucepan ... Side by side with Mr Pollan the naturalist is the author as activist ... his book is a hymn to why people should be enticed back into the kitchen (Economist)
About the Author
Michael Pollan is the author of Second Nature, A Place of My Own, The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defence of Food and Food Rules. He lives in California.
Top customer reviews
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.
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.
Surprisingly easy to read, as well.
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.
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