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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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Top Customer Reviews
Pollan opens the book by explaining the day that realized that all of the questions that occupy his time seem to lead back to cooking. How to improve your health? Cooking. Good way to connect with the family? Cooking (and brewing). The most important thing we can do to help reform the American food complex? Cooking. Pollan admits he has always been mildly interested in the act, but it wasn't until he realized how important it could be that he began wanting to learn how to do it in earnest. Pollan realized that though American's seem to be obsessed with cooking (Top Chef, The Taste, Anthony Bourdain, Hell's Kitchen) we seem to do very little of it.
Pollan breaks down his education into four sections, much like he broke down The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore's Dilemma. The first section, called Fire, starts out at a North Carolina BBQ. It's here that Pollan strives to solve the mystery of "pig-plus-wood-smoke-plus-time" and what makes it so darn good. He spends time with pit-masters, learning the find art of the fire, which involves everything from Freudian theory, ancient gods and the Bible to chemistry and, of course, Big Meat. Before his fire education will be over, the reader will journey with Pollan to Manhattan, Berkeley, Spain and back again.
From there we dive into Water, which starts out, inexplicably, with chopping onions. As any home cook knows, onions are a basic element of cooking, but did you ever consider what evolutionary advantage onion tears could possibly have for the onion? In this section, Pollan tackles water in a seven-step recipe that walks through copping, sautéing, browning, braising and finishing. But of course, this being Michael Pollan, nothing is quite that simple. While learning about braising the reader also gets an education in chemistry and the mystery of umami.
On to Air, which is all about baking. Pollan breaks down bread into its most pure form "an ingenious technology for improving the flavor... of grass." Here we learn about evolution and, as Pollan spends his time with master bakers, fermentation. Any other author might have trouble linking such disparate ideas as bacteria and engineering, but this section ambles easily between the two ideas. Pollan doesn't spend all of this time in his home kitchen mastering the art of crumb and crust, however, and he takes us from the blue surf waves of the ocean to the industrial Hostess plant all in the name of understanding air (can I have his job?).
Finally, we come to earth, or "Fermentation's Cold Fire." As you would imagine, it is here that Pollan turns his eye to vegetables and animals, but the section starts out with death. Bacteria, mold and even Jello gets its due as Pollan takes us into the garden and into the soil for making kimchi. From there we head to the dairy farm where we learn about milk and its more popular big brother, cheese. Pollan works along side cheese master Sister Noella in Connecticut, learning the amazingly intricate ins and outs of cheese creation. This section is also the one in which Pollan address alcohol, which is right at home among the vegetables, it turns out. The story of beer and spirits is one of biology, of course, but also history and culture.
In the end, this isn't just a book about learning to cook, nor should it be considered an addendum to The Omnivore's Dilemma. Though Pollan tackles some of the same issues (health, agribusiness and the human body), Cooked is the retelling of a journey. And the opportunity to meet these culinary superstars is wonderful, but it is only a fraction of the story. Of course there is the requisite finding of the satisfaction of making your own foods, but the bigger aspect is the author and reader's education in the nature of the world and of human culture. Whether you are familiar with Pollan's previous work or not, this is a must read for anyone who is even remotely curious about the world around us.
Like many of his other books, Pollan divides Cooked into thematic sections (Here: Fire [Grilling], Water [Cooking in water], Air [baking], and Earth[fermenting/pickling]) but they seemed a little forced, as Pollan himself seems to acknowledge. You need fire for three of the four, and yeast plays a pretty big role in both beer and bread. I get what he was trying to do, but it felt like it didn't quite work to enhance the themes of the book rather than merely provide breaking points.
His introduction sets the stage for the entire book. He identifies a dilemma in modern culture: we spend less time cooking than ever but more time watching and idolizing others who cook. Pollan explains that contemplating this dilemma triggered something in him to write this book, and I think he makes an important overarching observation: although cooking may not be the most efficient use of time, it is an alchemic process that transforms both raw foods and people. Without cooking, humans would not be what we are today. The modern trend to remove cooking from everyday life, therefore, is likely to have huge consequences on who we are. As Pollan notes, our fascination with cooking reflects the deep-seated position it holds in our lives.
The book contains long sections with meditations on what cooking is and what it means to culture, both ancient and modern, and for the most part I enjoyed them. For example, although it is somewhat tangential to cooking, Pollan discusses the role that microbiotics play in our gut and the effect on our health. Tying this topic into modern cooking, he raises some very interesting questions about the effect of a "no-microbe" policy on our health. As Pollan excels at pointing out repeatedly, the food we eat today is at the long end of the combined evolution of man and food: we eat what we eat and cook food the way we do because it is necessary to our survival. Removing certain types of food (e.g., whole grain bread, fermented vegetables) without thinking of the consequences is fraught with peril.
The meditations are interspersed with stories about masters of cooking and Pollan's own personal experiences. In each section, Pollan seeks out the masters in each particular field to teach him about cooking. As with his other books, Pollan always finds the philosophers within a certain field that combine their expertise with an ability to discuss their field in a way that opens your eyes. Who knew that bread baking would be so complex and more of an art form than simple mixing? Pollan is a masterful storyteller, combining an ability to explain complex issues with a sharp sense of humor and self-deprecation.
With Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan changed how I think about the world. For me, Cooked was different in that rather than changing how I see the world of food, he reinforced ideas I already have and gave voice to some subconscious thoughts I had about the importance of cooking my own food. Although I have always enjoyed cooking, Pollan helps highlight WHY cooking is so enjoyable and so worthwhile. I especially enjoyed his section on brewing beer and have been inspired to try to brew my own batch. As he notes in his afterword, many of these endeavors seem at first glance to be an incredible waste of time and totally inefficient. As Pollan explains, however, there is a "satisfaction that comes from temporarily breaking free of one's accustomed role as the producer of one thing -- whatever it is we sell into the market for a living -- and the passive consumer of everything else." Over the course of the book, Pollan successfully proves that cooking is special and shouldn't be given up so easily, and there are benefits to slowing down and becoming immersed in something so basic as the food we eat. So while I can't claim that Cooked is as eye-opening as some of Pollan's other works, I enjoyed it immensely.