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Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation Hardcover – April 23, 2013
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, April 2013: Who has untangled the nature of modern America’s relationship with food more effectively than Michael Pollan? After sharing the experience of growing his own food in Second Nature, he illuminated how our appetites drive the evolution of edible plants with The Botany of Desire. Then he pondered The Omnivore’s Dilemma, weighing our precarious food chain and popularizing the pleasures of eating local; In Defense of Food and Food Rules distilled his conclusions into a manifesto and a manual. With Cooked, he closes the seed-to-table loop with a passionate exploration of the satisfying transformation of grilling, braising, baking, and fermenting--and their primal roots. Learning to cook elevated humans from lone animals into increasingly intelligent, civilized groups, and though we spend scant time doing real cooking, we’ve become obsessed with watching people cook--a paradox that points to longing for a lost experience. Through his own experiences making and enjoying food with pit masters, chefs, bakers, and “fermentos,” he retraces our path to connection with real ingredients and health for people and planet. Whether you’re sympathetic or skeptical, you can’t help but appreciate Pollan’s genius for conveying the elemental appeal of making a meal. --Mari Malcolm
*Starred Review* Pollan’s newest treatise on how food reaches the world’s tables delves into the history of how humankind turns raw ingredients into palatable and nutritious food. To bring some sense of order to this vast subject, he resurrects classical categories of fire, water, air, and earth. Pollan visits pit masters to learn what constitutes authentic barbecue. An Italian-trained Iranian American teaches him the subtleties of proper cooking in pots, how to coax maximum flavor from humble vegetables, herbs, meats, and water. Baking trains Pollan to watch, listen, and feel the action of living yeasts in doughs. The harnessing of fungi and molds to ferment sauerkraut and beer and produce cheeses illuminates the fine and ever-shifting boundaries between tastiness and rot and how the human palate can be trained. Four recipes accompany the text, and an extensive bibliography offers much deeper exploration. Pollan’s peerless reputation as one of America’s most compelling expositors of food and human sustainability will boost demand. --Mark Knoblauch
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The books organization into four sections based upon the classical physical elements, while not perfect (as Pollan himself notes when he points out that beer, filed under the "earth" category as a fermented food, actually makes use of all four elements), is nonetheless pleasing and somewhat helpful.
The four basic elements he lists are fire, water, air, and earth, with the four basic preparation techniques being barbecue/grilling (fire), stewing/braising (water), leavening (air), and fermentation (earth). He interviews and learns from cooks specialized in each of these areas, and passes their knowledge on to his readers. He includes information from the natural sciences, about the biological and chemical mechanisms underlying the transformations we call "cooking". He goes into various theories as to how various forms of cooking came about, including a fairly extensive section about what is called the "Cooking Hypothesis" of human evolution.
This book is a nice complement to Salt, Sugar Fat (http://www.amazon.com/Salt-Sugar-Fat-Giants-Hooked/dp/1400069807). Of the two, I enjoyed this one more, but I highly recommend both. There is little (though some) overlap. I suggest reading this one second. Salt, Sugar Fat helped me understand why our diet looks like it does today, whereas Cooked inspired me (in a positive way) to make changes to how I eat.
Granted, it is not a pot-boiling page-turner. It is a well researched, thought provoking, look at the creation and evolution of ways to transform raw plant and animal material into tasty and healthy nutrition for the human animal. He also highlights the cultural and social aspects of cooking as key elements of our human development. Both the food transformation and the cultural/social aspects of cooking are losing importance in western societies. Pollan argues this is to our collective detriment.
Reading this thoughtful book may not make you change your food purchase and consumption habits -- and it's certainly not likely to make you a master chef, baker, brewer, etc. -- but it will give you a new perspective on the place that cooking has held in our past. A place that may or may not remain so important in the future.