I’m a big Michael Pollan fan. I own several of his books, loved the PBS Documentary “Botany of Desire”, and generally agree with his point of view on food. That said, it was wonderful to read a Pollan book full of information that I hadn’t already read in other food writing.
The focus of Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation* is exactly what you’d expect. The 468 page book explores the various methods through which humans turn the earth’s bounty into something edible. Pollan divides the book into the four elements: Fire (barbecue), Water (braising and slow cooking), Air (baking bread) and Earth (fermentation). Through each of these sections, the book explores the history, sociology, religious aspects, nutrition, cultural aspects and science of each topic. Pollan also interviews and works with individuals known for their expertise in the field, adding to the depth of knowledge in the book.
But Pollan’s overall personal goal through the book is to learn to cook in each of the themes himself. It was really nice to read a book with a more personal touch than some of his previous works. I thoroughly enjoyed joining Pollan as he experienced his first whole hog roast, spent Sundays making stew in his kitchen, attempted to perfect his sourdough bread and brewed his own beer. As I’m sure was intended, this book made me want to cook. It made me want to understand my ingredients better and take them further.
The hardest part of this book for me to get through was the Fire section, perhaps because I find grilling in general and whole hog barbecue specifically, to be the most disconnected from my experience and interests. Certainly the interviews with esteemed pit masters and discussion of the changes in barbecue due to factory farms and the like were interesting to me, but there were times when I felt like this section was really dragging.
However, I loved all three of the other sections. I certainly identified with Air. I’ve been baking my own bread for eight months now and moving to sourdough starters is high on my list of things I’d like to try next. Earth was probably the most fascinating and full of new information to me; fermentation is so amazing and unfamiliar to me. Throughout Cooked I was constantly reminded that so much of cooking is outside our control. The foods we love could not be made without fire, air, water and microorganisms.
This is not a cookbook, but there are four recipes at the end, one for each section. The recipes are pork shoulder barbecue, meat sugo and pasta, whole wheat country loaf bread and sauerkraut, all of which sound worthy of trying out to me, especially given their close connection to the content of their related sections.
Cooked takes a little time and effort to get through. It’s a big book and there’s tons of information contained within. Still, I highly recommend it to anyone interested in why or how we cook, or the history of how it came to be that way.
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