Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

  • By Michael Pollan
  • Penguin Press
  • 458 pp.

The elements of fire, water, air and earth guide the author’s latest exploration of our association with food.

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

In his latest work, Cooked, Michael Pollan sets out to explore home cooking by examining both the foods we eat and our efforts to prepare them. “Cooking … is one of the most interesting and worthwhile things we humans do,” writes Pollan, who chronicles his own education in mastering cooking basics. In Cooked, he focuses on the four classical cooking elements — fire, water, air and earth — which comprise the book’s four main sections. 

Pollan is an amiable tour guide through these four realms, satisfying our thirst for details while weaving facts and current scientific understanding into his narrative and reflections. His research is meticulous, and he doesn’t gloss over the fascinating intricacies of modern health and food issues. As good researchers do, he’s covered plenty of ground, traveling across the United States and as far as Spain and Korea to learn more about cooking techniques and the people who have mastered them. We follow him to a mill in California, a Wonder Bread plant, a fermentation festival — well attended by the subculture of fermenters who believe that we need more good bacteria in our diet — and down the slow, smoky path to barbecue so well prepared that it doesn’t need sauce.

Since the mid-1960s, Pollan writes, time spent cooking in the kitchen has decreased by half. Even in our 21st-century society that reveres good cooking, as evidenced by the popularity of cooking shows and celebrity chefs, we allow commercial interests to do much of our cooking for us. From microwavable meals to packaged foods, we use shortcuts that often trade nutrition for convenience. Such industrial cooking, he continues, has taken a toll on our well-being, which is compromised by diet-related chronic diseases and obesity. 

Pollan’s tome is part story, part journal, part food history and part cookbook, with a dash of science and a pinch of politics. Throughout the book, Pollan returns regularly to the idea of the transformation of edible raw material into “food.” Our food is transformed through fire, water, air and microbes, and, in turn, our relationships, both with each other and with our environment, are more tightly woven together as a result of cooking.

He makes the case for learning a bit about these different methods of cooking, as opposed to letting commercial interests dictate what we eat. “There is a deeper kind of learning that can only be had by doing the work yourself,” he writes, “acquainting all your senses with the ins and outs and how-tos and wherefores of an intricate making.” In this way we can recognize and appreciate a good loaf of bread or a great brew when we taste one, while enjoying self-reliance and the pleasure of making something with our hands. “I eventually found that I could … relax into it,” he writes. “This time became a kind of luxury, and that is precisely when I began truly to enjoy the work of cooking.” 

Pollan explains and narrates various cooking techniques and building blocks, such as the mirepoix of onions, carrots and celery sautéed in butter that creates the base for a French-based pot dish, as opposed to a soffritto, in which those ingredients sautéed in olive oil with garlic and herbs create a distinctly Italian dish. 

Along the way, Pollan delivers heaping portions of food for thought on the philosophy and history behind our cooking habits and techniques. From the tedious chopping of onions to the slow fermentation of cabbage into sauerkraut, Pollan hosts us in his kitchen and takes us along as his travel companion while he perfects bread loaves, simmers a braise and brews beer. As we encounter his various cooking teachers, we learn about pit master Ed Mitchell’s rise to barbecue fame, professionally trained cook Samin Nosrat’s expertise in braising, Spanish chef Bittor Arguinzoniz’s precision while flavoring dishes with wood, Sister Noella Marcellino’s perfection of an old French cheese-making technique and much more. 

Cooking offers us a worthwhile way to spend our time and results in healthier food on the table. “The regular exercise of these simple skills for producing some of the necessities of life increases self-reliance and freedom while reducing our dependence on corporations,” Pollan writes. 

As in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan sets out to change the way we think about food — and succeeds. Readers may find themselves craving healthier fare and lingering over nutrition labels and ingredient lists at the grocery store. At the book’s conclusion, readers with an appetite for “slow food” are rewarded with four detailed recipes, one from each section: pork shoulder barbecue, meat sugo and pasta, a whole-wheat country loaf and sauerkraut. Readers will also be left with plenty of culinary inspiration to get them started as they begin to spend time in their own kitchens.

Carrie Madren is a freelance writer based in Northern Virginia who will be adding braises and bread-baking to her own cooking repertoire.

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