I finally listened to Michael Pollan‘s latest book, Cooked – A Natural History of Transformation. Pollan, a contributor writer for The New York Times, is one of the thought leaders of the real food movement. His previous books, which include The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense Of Food and Food Rules, focus on the intersection of food, history, politics, society and health. I am a big fan of his writing, both in style and in content. Although I don’t necessarily agree with everything he stands for, I think the gist of his message is nothing but positive.
Cooked is divided in the four elements: fire, water, air and earth, which are not only essential to life in general but also specifically to food transformation. Part of the author’s research for the book involved travelling to multiple locations in order to find one or more experts in a particular way of cooking (or preparing) food, in order to learn how to do it by himself from scratch. As Pollan notes, current society spends more time obsessing about food and less time cooking than ever before. His message in this book is that cooking is a way of reconnecting with our human nature, expressing generosity, building community, improving our health and eventually influencing the direction of food production and politics.
This book, as the previous ones, is beautifully written. I think it should come with a warning: “this book will make you hungry”. Let me elaborate. Fire describes what is possibly the earliest technology that allowed us to maximise the nutrients that we could extract from food. Pollan, being American, explored this element using the example of barbecue. I spent the whole section not only craving, but looking for online menus and planning my next visit to a local American barbecue restaurant.
In the water section, the author narrates how he enlisted one of his former students, who has worked as a professional cook, to teach him how to cook. The lessons involved many “pot” dishes, such as braises, which link to the main topic of the section. Braising liquids, such as stock, wine, milk and plain old water, are discussed in this section, as well as the superiority of pot dishes as a means to nourish many mouths with less cost and more flavour.
Air is mainly about bread, one of the foods which structure is defined by the air produced by bacterial fermentation. Pollan embarks in the adventure of making his own sourdough starter and baking his own bread with the help of a professional baker. There was a time when I baked a loaf of bread every week (mainly for my husband) and, even though I used commercial yeast instead of a starter, I do agree it is a very satisfying thing to do from scratch.
The final section, earth, expands on the topic of fermentation. It includes cultured vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchi, wine, mead, cheese and beer. As such, Pollan consulted with a few different experts, including a nun who makes artisanal cheeses and beer brewing experts. This section gave me cravings for cheese and beer, both of which were satisfied over the weekend :).
The book comes with four recipes, one for each transformation. These are involved recipes, don’t expect “ready in 15 minutes” weeknight dinner dishes. There is also a list of recommended books on cooking in general and also for each transformation.
Pollan makes clear that his prescription is not that everyone should be cooking all the time. Instead, he suggests we should aim to cook a few more times per week (and ideally eat with the rest of the family), and therefore eat out less and/or buy less ready-made meals. This is advice I can definitely get behind.