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Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation Hardcover – April 23, 2013
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If you are already a Michael Pollan fan, you appreciate his meticulous attention to detail in his research and his lucid prose. I swear, this guy could take the most complicated subject on the planet and make it accessible to his readers. In Cooked, I think he has reached a new peak in his powers of synthesis and observation.
Cooked is divided into four parts, analogous to the four elements described by the ancient Greeks: Fire, Water, Air and Earth. Of these, it was the section on Earth (fermentation) that really made me sit up and take notice. He brings up so many important points about how our Western diet fails us every day, making our lifespans shorter and our health more precarious.
In its way, Cooked is as important a book about health and nutrition as Diet for a Small Planet was when it first appeared in the 1970s. This book will make you think, give you tools to improve your health, and explain how cooking a meal from scratch in your own kitchen becomes an act of rebellion.
So worth your time and the purchase price.
The book first discusses using fire and water for cooking. It covers topics such as the Maillard reaction, which gives food flavor, and the way a stewpot acts as a second stomach, in a sense, predigesting foods and opening up their nutritional value.
I found the final section of the book, on fermentation, the most interesting. Fermentation ("cold fire") uses microorganisms to digest foods partially and to create flavors. The book highlights several key fermented foods – in particular, bread, wine, and cheese – and discusses various aspects of the fermentation process.
First, considering bread, fermentation allows us to readily use grasses for food and reclaim much more solar energy. The book suggests that ~90 percent of the energy in food is lost at each step of the food pyramid; thus, being able to eat grass directly is a major triumph of the agricultural revolution. Of course, nowadays, we have taken this fantastic process even further and essentially industrialized grass in the form of white bread -- taking out much of the original nutrients, including fiber, and then putting different nutrients back in. Another exciting aspect of baking bread is what Pollan describes as an emergent phenomenon. Most other forms of cooking, for instance, heating by fire or warming in a pot, involve a simple extrapolation of the preparation conditions. Baking bread is different. It is a "system property," where one combines various ingredients and makes something completely different than the original constituents. Pollan also describes how gluten acts almost like an elastic to create cavities in bread that can fill with gas and facilitate rising.
The next fermented food Pollan discusses is wine. To make it clear how easy it is to achieve fermentation, he shares humorous stories from his childhood of fermenting grape juice and having the vessel burst. He also brings up a philosophical question of whether we have domesticated Saccharomyces cerevisiae or whether it has domesticated us: alcohol itself, which is the product of many fermentations, is toxic to most organisms, yet we have evolved enzymes and pathways in our liver to break it down. Pollan also talks about how one can understand the different flavors of wine in terms of the various microorganisms available. Humans, in a sense, have co-evolved with wine and can benefit from having a glass a day based on a variety of health indicators.
The final section on fermentation talks about cheese. Cheese represents the product of rotting or decay in its extreme. Pollan describes cheese fermentation as a multistep process where, initially, microorganisms aerobically colonize the center of a bit of milk, digesting it partially and raising its pH, but eventually, the increasing acidity fouls the microbes' nest. Then, there is effectively an ecological succession where other species of bacteria replace the initial microbes; this continues to raise the pH. What I found most interesting is that a secondary fermentation then occurs from the outside of the cheese, where yeasts – which are aerobic – send in their hyphae and partially neutralize the increasing pH. The competition between these different fermentations gives rise to new chemistries, flavors, and compounds.
Cheese is also unusual in that it represents the nexus for competition between two current groups of people: the fermentos, those who believe in the importance of microorganisms for health and for giving food its flavors, and the Pasteurians, those who want to purge all foods of microbes. Their differences are evident when choosing a vessel for making cheese: should it be made out of old rotten, moldy wood or modern stainless steel?
The overall discussion of fermented foods points to the legacy of the agricultural revolution and the great importance of microbes in day-to-day life.
Altogether, I highly recommend this book. I find myself revisiting many of the book's points when I enjoy various meals and purchase things at the grocery store.
In Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan, published in 2013, the author explores the impact of four of the most powerful elements of nature – air, water, fire and earth – on the food that we eat. From baking to fermenting, he experiments with some of the best chefs in the world to discover how beautifully these four elements shape and cook the food that we so love to eat.
The entire world pauses to read a culinary book that is written by the renowned journalist, Michael Pollan. It is no wonder that after penning down several critically acclaimed non-fiction books based on food and culinary science such as In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, his next piece of work, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, has taken the world by storm. It is difficult to find an author as passionate about food and the role it plays in the evolution of mankind as Pollan. So the book certainly deserves your attention if you love food.
Readers have loved how the food systematically breaks down into the four sections of fire, air, earth and water giving ample explanation of how each of them shape and cook the food separately in their own unique way. It will take you on a journey starting from the basic techniques of cooking to how they have evolved over the centuries, and how this evolution has shaped our society and inter-personal relationships.
The book also makes a point to remind its readers how the modern man is losing his touch with the real methods of cooking. Relying on processed food to take care of our nutritional requirements weakens us and the entire cycle of ecological inter dependence. In fact, the author claims that by adopting a healthier cooking practice, we can fight health issues successfully and go back to restoring our disturbed relationship with nature.
In 2016 Pollan and Alex Gibney turned the book into a 4-part documentary series released exclusively on NetFlix which brought stunning visuals to Pollan’s story.
This review was originally written for 27Press.com.
Top international reviews
Surprisingly easy to read, as well.
A great gift for a foodie friend. Not too technical, not too long, I loved it.