Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation is a hard book to categorise. It is not a cookbook, although it contains recipes and Pollan is not a chef, although the book details his cooking exploits. Cooked is a fascinating look at how we approach the food we eat and encompasses economics, history, philosophy, anthropology and culture.
Cooked is ostensibly the story of Pollan’s education in cooking from scratch where he apprentices himself with talented and often obsessive cooks and then tries to replicate what he has learnt in his own kitchen.
The book is split into four sections – Fire, Air, Water and Earth – each a classical element in the transformation of ingredients into food. Starting with ‘Fire’, Pollan looks at the genesis of what we know to be cooking using fire on meat. He works with barbeque masters of the South, learning to roast pigs slowly over smouldering coals and explores how it is worlds away from what the majority of people think of barbeque.
In ‘Water’ he explores cooking indoors in a vessel – creating stews and braises – and learning the complex yet universal art of stock. It is in this chapter that he particularly explores the benefits on family life of spending time cooking, noting that ‘a good pot holds memories’. ‘Air’ focuses on the almost magical world of bread making, from the science of a starter to the benefits of certain grains.
‘Earth’ enters the world of fermentation and how bacteria (which are often thought of as bad) can transform in the nature of brewing, fermenting, pickling and cheese making.
Cooked is a really engaging book, written in a warm conversational style.
While it can be bogged down in scientific detail at times, the heart of the book focuses on Michael Pollan’s attempts to incorporate these forms of slow cooking into his life, both for his family’s health and for their wider mental well-being. He notes that having turned food preparation over to corporations, the average family in the US spends just over 20 minutes a day on cooking and invariably indulges in secondary eating – eating while also doing something else.
Well, in a world where so few of us are obliged to cook at all anymore, to choose to do so is to lodge a protest against specialization—against the total rationalization of life. Against the infiltration of commercial interests into every last cranny of our lives. To cook for the pleasure of it, to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption.
He extols the virtue of taking time over cooking, of spending time batch cooking and of sharing the process of cooking with your family and with your children. His goal is to celebrate the very satisfying and often Zen activity of preparing healthy, tasty food for those you love. Cooked is, in some ways, a political manifesto, but it is also simply an ode to cooking and to the benefits and joys that cooking, and of course eating, can bring to our lives.
For anyone interested, Cooked has been made into a four part series for Netflix and is very enjoyable.
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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!