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on 4 June 2013
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.
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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.
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on 24 November 2015
I don't usually bother with book reviews, as it's so down to personal taste, but this is a thoroughly good book - well written and packed with interesting ideas and theories. I learnt far more than I ever expected to from a book that I thought was 'just' about cooking.

Surprisingly easy to read, as well.
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on 6 March 2014
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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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I have reviewed a number of cookbooks for Amazon Vine, some have been very good and some very poor. This book is very hard to put into any category as it is not a run of the mill cookbook. The book is not a traditional cookbook with lots of recipes and beautiful pictures. It does not have a plethora of recipes, which can be used for all occasions. What this is, is a book that contains a cooking philosophy and looks at cooking with Fire, Water and Air and Earth. I am sorry but I did not like the way it is written, which bored the pants off me. I am happy to learn how to use these means of cooking properly, but the book is written in such a dull way. I am sure some will find what the author has to say, very interesting.....but I did not.

My advice is too be very careful buying this book. If you want to read the philosophy of the author and are happy to put up with lengthy and sometimes dull prose, few recipes and no pictures, then you will enjoy this tomb of a book. If you are looking for an exciting, colourful cookbook full of recipes that can be used to feed a family then this book is not for you. Personally I would not normally buy this book as it is not my kind of read.
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VINE VOICEon 21 May 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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.
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on 14 August 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This a wonderful book that I never thought I'd ever read....a philosophical look at food and the cooking of it.

In a culinary world that is severely jaded by celebrity chefs and mind-numbing TV cookery programmes Pollan manages to restore some faith-and for me interest- in the whole culinary process. He writes clearly and nearly every page has something of interest on it. I think this book is a triumph, as it transcends the mundane world of ingredients and technicalities [and the current faux glamour of cooking and cuisine] and in the process gets back to basics whilst remaining consistently fascinating. Can't ask for much more from a book of any sort really, can you.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
'At a certain point in the late middle of my life I made the unexpected but happy discovery that the answer to several of the questions that most occupied me was in fact one and the same. Cook.'

Pollan points out that cooking is a defining human activity, citing amongst others, an anthropologist called Richard Wrangham, who argued that 'by providing our forebears with a more energy dense and easy to digest diet, it allowed our brains to grow bigger (brains being notorious energy guzzlers) and our guts to shrink.' He points out that people in the US now spend only about 30 minutes a day preparing food and generally spend more time watching other people prepare it on TV. People have turned into grazers eating most of their food whilst doing other things and not at meal times. Pollan decides that 'the best way to recover the reality of food - to return it to its proper place in our lives - is to master the physical processes by which it has traditionally been made.'

He uses the four Elements to explore different ways of cooking, to philosophise, explore the science and culture, and, for each element he apprentices himself to some masters in the field:

In Fire he goes back to the basics of cooking pigs over an open fire - because man first cooked with open flame. The great pit masters insist on wood rather than charcoal and Pollan's descriptions of learning to cook their way and to cut up the meat is completely enthralling. He clearly had a sensory and emotional response to cooking meat over flame.

In Water he explores pot cooking; boiling and braising. He apprentices himself to a chef and starts to enjoy spending his Sundays doing batch cooking for the week ahead and finding that it helps his family relationships. This section is also good on the whole outsourcing of our cooking that has taken place in the last thirty years and its impact on communal eating.

In Air, it's baking and about using the wild yeast in the air rather than commercial yeast. He also explains how cooking grains release nutrients and allowed us to move from being hunter gatherers to farmers.

In Earth, he delves into fermenting, cheese making and brewing. In an anti-bacterial world he makes a strong case for the importance of gut bacteria - 'most if not all the important chronic diseases may have a similar etiology. Though none has yet dared use such an ambitious term, several scientists across several disciplines appear to be working toward what looks very much like a Grand Unified Theory of Diet and Chronic Disease.' Eating more natural food helps feeds the bacteria we need to stay healthy.

Perhaps one of the reasons why this book resonated so much with me is that I came to a very similar conclusion five years ago and now cook pretty much everything from scratch, moving away from take-aways and ready meals almost completely and feeling much better for it. I was buying them mainly because I had felt I had no time to cook and and also because I was rejecting the traditional female role in the kitchen. Pollan argues that the huge move to eating industrially processed food at home was driven less by feminism, and more by big business capitalising on feminism, as women entered the workforce in increasing numbers in the 1970s and everyone feeling increasingly time pressured ever since. ''Feminism rightly demanded a renegotiation of the domestic division of labour, a very uncomfortable process for millions of us, and the industry seized the opportunity to say, 'Stop arguing! We've got you covered. We'll do the cooking so you don't have to argue about it any more.' And we all leapt at the 'solution'."

This book provides a compelling argument that it's worth investing some time in cooking for the benefits that accrue to health and well being as well as waistline. Pollan argues that the correlation between obesity and not cooking is greater than the correlation between obesity and low incomes. The overall effect of the book is inspiring - I defy you not to take some action once you're read this, maybe to try baking your own sourdough bread, eating some fermented food, to pledge to experience some real whole hog roast barbecue if you are ever in the southern USA or maybe just to stick a casserole in the oven.

He used to be known as the man who came up with "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." With this book he adds the advice "If you can, cook it yourself."

I found Cooked both important and engaging. Highly recommended
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VINE VOICEon 27 November 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Another one of those books which fulfills a need in me for cookbooks that read like novels. Just a joy to read, makes your mouth water in parts, and is fascinating too. A great book for anyone who loves food, food, food.
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VINE VOICEon 15 May 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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.

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