Review: Cooked by Michael Pollan

Author: Michael Pollan
Title: Cooked
Format/Source: eBook/library 
Published: January 2013
Publisher: Penguin
Length: 480 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I Read: ‘New’ Pollan boo
Read If You’re: Interested in the art/history of cooking
Quote: “Elation, effervescence, elevation, levity, inspiration: air words all, alveolated with vowels, leavening the dough of everyday life” (258).
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

I didn’t pay much attention to this book when it was first released either because A) I thought I’d heard everything Pollan could say on the subject of eating or B) a book about cooking didn’t pique my interest too high. Well, touché – A) This isn’t a book about eating and B) I’ve become much more interested in cooking since graduating and fending for myself in a foreign country.

How was it that some burning coals and a single oak log had turned something you would never think to eat – dead pig – into something you couldn’t wait to eat? (95)

 When I read about food, I usually read books concerned with sustainability, health, or taste. In Cooked, Pollan focuses on the history and practice of cooking. Therefore, Cooked makes a lighter read than his other works. No need to fret about our health or the future of our species – let’s just explore and enjoy cooking for itself. History, philosophy and a helping of science (particularly in Part VI, about fermentation) fill Cooked’s pages. The topic lends itself to more poeticism than Pollan’s previous works, as he romanticizes the act of cooking and ruminates on its long history.

Gazing into the flames of a wood fire is mesmerizing; the flames seem to take control of your thoughts, deflecting them from any linear path. Gaston Bachelard, the idiosyncratic French philosopher, claims that philosophy itself began in front of the fire, flowing from the peculiar reverie that a fire inspires. (117)

 Pollan explains how cooking gave us more free time by allowing us to spend less time digesting (66). While I always how agriculture gave us more free time, I hadn’t considered how cooking did the same. He suggests cooking played an important role in our species’ development by allowing us to divert energy from chewing to thinking (67). He doesn’t dwell long on this theory, but I like the idea!

The above being said, health inevitably crops up in parts of the book that contrast commercial and home cooking. For example, Pollan questions the use of commodity pork in Joneses’ traditional, slow cooked barbecue (58). Pollan wants “…to pinpoint the precise historical moment that cooking took its fatefully wrong turn: when civilization began processing food in such a way as to make it less nutritious rather than more” (24). Doesn’t that just sound absurd?! I can’t comprehend it. It really all does come down to money (and I suppose a great deal of marketing). Frozen PB+J, are you kidding me? But then, just a few lines after the frozen sandwich mention, market researcher Harry Balzer argues “Take-out from the supermarket, that’s the future.” (196). Ehmmm….yup, the future’s here, I’m in that group. ^^; If I don’t have the time or creativity or desire to cook (whatever is the day’s excuse), I feel better getting a rotisserie chicken or a custom made sandwich from Safeway than going eat. But for me, that’s the key – such meals aren’t replacing home cooking. They’re replacing going to a restaurant, ordering in or eating Pizza Pops and carrot sticks.

Another significant example of how food processing has taken ‘its fatefully wrong turn’ is in the commercial bread chapter. Frozen PB+J is pretty absurd, but commercial bread takes the cake because it’s something so many people eat on a daily basis (discussed in Part III, Chapter II).  Pollans writes, “I had probably never really experienced the full potential of whole-grain wheat” (280) and I doubt I have either. Adding it to my ‘to eat’ list! 

Thousands of years on, we still haven’t discovered techniques for processing food as powerful, versatile, safe, or nutritious as microbial fermentation (313).

The final part of the book, “Earth”, explores fermentation. While my interest wandered during some of the scientific discussion* , I did find the overall section very enlightening. I’ve never considered the variety of fermented foods, nor really how they come to be.

But then it occurred to me that, in fact, all four elements were represented in the beer-making process. The barley is first cooked over a fire; the grain is then boiled in water; and the beer, after fermentation, is carbonated with air. Beer is the complete four-element food. Which, I realized, is exactly the sort of insight you would expect beer to sponsor. (393)

I cringe to admit I didn’t think of the privileged position one must find themselves in to be able to enact Pollan’s recommendations until I read Bee Wilson’s review for the New York Times. Thoughts of all the free time I’ll have to cook when I return to Canada preoccupied my mind. I’ve been interested in food and cooking for about four years, but university commitments prevented me from ever indulging that interest (so I tell myself…). That ‘free time’ I’m imagining comes from not being a full-time student or employee. This is not a place one wants to find themselves in for a lengthy period of time – indeed, for me, it’s a transition stage. Who knows how I’ll feel about taking a couple hours a day to cook when I once again find myself in university or with a full time job (though I like to think once I’ve learnt to really enjoy ‘slow cooking’, I’ll divert time from other activities to be able to cook more during busy times).

It seems to me that one of the great luxuries of life at this point is to be able to do one thing at a time, one thing to which you give yourself wholeheartedly. Unitasking. (202). 

Then again – okay, so some people are short on time because they’re forced to work all the time but some people are like me, ‘short on time’ because they want to do so many things and can’t focus on just one. “When chopping onions, just chop onions” (189). I should hang that in my kitchen! I admire and try to adhere to the principles of Buddhism and meditation but I still rush around far too often. Maybe cooking will be the thing that grounds me. I suppose this is the angle Pollan comes from, but given his careful acknowledgment of gender politics throughout the book, he might have acknowledgment how one must have some privilege to engage in the kind of cooking he advocates.

Each of the different methods I learned for turning the stuff of nature into tasty creations of culture implies a different way of engaging with the world, and some are more sympathetic than others. (411)

 The Bottom Line: Love food but are tired of reading about issues like sustainability or health? Just want to read about cooking? This is the book for you.

Further Reading: 

*Whenever I read a big food book, my mind tends to wander around this part – about 75% into the book. Is it because I’m tired of a big book or is it because the books are structured so that the sort of parts that don’t’ interest me come in at 75%? It’s a chicken or egg question, maybe.