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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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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.
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.
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.