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.
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.
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.
'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
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?
on 1 May 2016
The author, writes about cooking. He is not a cook, nor a food scientist, in fact the only connection he has with the subject is that 'he is an author who teaches how to write about cooking' !!! so ALL the knowledge and observations he imparts, are 2nd hand at best.
Written in a Woody Allen style - the author starts into a story, then digresses, witters on about something else only vaguely connected (padding?) then tacks on some 'facts' which may or may not be plausible - these 'facts' are only there to back up whatever pet theory the author is trying to substantiate.
I ended up skim reading through many paragraphs, because they were irrelevant and boring. In some places his facts were so obviously wrong that it questioned everything else claimed (Apparently Barley is hardly of use to modern Humans.... which may surprise Brewers & Whisky distillers). And Pollen claims that 'The British' largely eat roast meats, disdaining the sauces and more refined stews & ragu of the rest of Europe.
Shame really - it sounded so good on Radio 4, but that was the 'fermentation' excerpt.
...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."
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
on 13 November 2014
I bought this book for myself, finished it and passed it on to my daughter, but then had to get another copy as I couldn't bear to be without this book. I have to keep re-reading the section on the making of the Saint-Nectaire cheese - one of the most awe inspiring and profound things I've ever read. It made me stop and think a What IS that! in response to the description of the fascinating system of micro-organism processes taking place to produce - a cheese. Just stopped me in my tracks and I haven't stopped thinking about this since. I wasn't going to read the section on the pit- masters as I am veggie, but I did and was very glad I did, so much I didn't know. The entire book is very informative, inspiring, and very enjoyable. I can't recommend this book too highly, the appreciation of all our food and the love of cooking is there for everyone, and I find this book a continuous source of inspiration. Thank you, Michael Pollan.
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.