Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
Michael Pollan (2013, The Penguin Press)
In Cooked, Michael Pollan once again displays his great range as a writer. He’s interested in life on all scales, from the large – how long it takes to cook a whole hog – to the minuscule – how many generations of yeast give their lives for a loaf of bread. His view of time is wonderfully deep, as well: our hominid ancestors started roasting meat perhaps two million years ago, but cooking in pots arose much more recently, along with agriculture. And modern life, especially the last fifty or sixty years, is bringing changes to our relationship with food that merit contemplation.
From a certain point of view, cooking is what makes us human. Pollan cites the anthropologists who hold that this is literally true. “Taken as a whole, cooking opened up vast new horizons of edibility for our ancestors, giving them an important competitive edge over other species and, not insignificantly, leaving us more time to do things besides looking for food and chewing it.” Evolution being what it is, this was a one-way ticket. We are no longer physically capable of thriving without cooking food to make its energy more available to our outsized brains.
Pollan is interesting in connecting our modern experiences and methods with their ancient roots, so he structures his exploration on the ancient elements of fire, water, air, and earth. This conceit finds its firmest ground in the Fire section, in which he apprentices himself to some men who cook whole hog barbecue in North Carolina. Their art involves plenty of standing around, so Pollan picks up some good stories, and enough of their craft to roast a pig in his front yard fire pit, as a heroic and celebratory feast.
The ‘Water’ section, on the other hand, is humble and contemplative. The subject is ‘pot food’, meat or poultry braised in liquid (including wine or stock). “More often than not, onions constitute the foundation of these dishes, usually in combination with a small handful of other aromatic but equally unprepossessing vegetables, including carrots, celery, peppers, or garlic.” This is where Pollan, having found that he can produce meals on a Sunday afternoon that he’ll be glad to see again as evening meals during the work week, proposes a counter-revolution to the middle aisles of the grocery store, where the Food Industrial Complex holds sway.
Pollan goes into baking bread with the same hands-on spirit, becoming fascinated by the capturing of Air in rising dough. The search for the perfect crumb and crust leads him into apprenticeship with bakers, and into the study of enzymes, bacteria, and yeast; there’s a lot going on in the humble loaf of bread. “To compare a loaf of bread with a bowl of porridge is to realize how much of bread’s power, sensory as well as symbolic, resides precisely in those empty cells of spaces. Some 80 percent of a loaf of bread consists of nothing more than air. But air is not nothing.”
And so to Earth, and further into the microbial world of beer, cheese, and sauerkraut. The small miracle of fermentation is that when we first feed the micro-organisms, they become capable of feeding us. (There are moments in the process that I think I’d rather read about than see, or smell, but Pollan is always ready to go there.) “Fermentation, like all the other transformations we call cooking, is a way of inflecting nature, of bringing forth from it, above and beyond our sustenance, some precious increment of meaning.”
As he reminds us over and over, it’s the meaning of the table, where nature meets civilization, where we sustain ourselves with both food and fellowship. The ‘slow food’ movement does not need to be the province only of restaurants; we can have it right at home. Pollan says, “Eating and drinking especially implicate us in the natural world in ways that the industrial economy, with its long and illegible supply chains, would have us forget.” Brewing beer and baking bread help us remember what the world, and we, are really made of. Reading ‘Cooked’ will make you want to do more of it.
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