Title: Cooked - A Natural History of Transformation
Author: MIchael Pollan
Publisher: Portfolio / Penguin
This is the fourth in a series of brilliant, in depth studies of the one topic that affects every human, Food.
In his earlier work, In Defense of Food, Pollan advised us to "eat food, not too much, mostly plants". In The Omnivores Dilemma he tackles the food system and may have single handedly initiated awareness and improvements that are still ongoing. This fourth book, Cooked, which has since become a Netflix special, is somehow more intimate, more personal. He explores the four ancient elements of fire, water, earth and air and how humans have harnessed these elements to transform our food, our culture and even our bodies and brains. In the afterword he makes the statement that resonates most with me, "The recipe is never the recipe".
In Fire, he goes deep into the heart of American barbecue country, and examines the most ancient aspects of humanity's relationship with food, fire and community.
In Water he investigates the history and flavor profiles that define the more refined arts of boiling and braising to create what we've come to think of as comfort food.
Air is of course bread. Again he digs into the history and likely prehistory of a food that is ubiquitous across the globe, the very smell of which triggers something deep inside each of us.
Last is Earth. This is about death, decay, resurrection; how humans have harnessed fermentation to preserve and enhance the nutritional value of our food. He enlists the experts to create cheese, fermented vegetables and of course alcohol.
You may have gathered that I'm a huge Michael Pollan fan. And I'm not alone. In 2010 he was named among Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in the world. This is in addition to countless literary awards. So yes, I'm an unembarrassed fan girl.
One of my favorite things about Pollan's style is that he immerses himself in each project and lives it for the period of time that he's writing the book. Cooked is no exception. He enlisted experts in each of the categories of cooking that he explored and learned their craft. In doing so we get to learn right along with him. He shares his thoughts, his successes and failures and his mental meanderings of what this might all mean to his own life, our lives and humanity in general.
I loved every section of this book. My favorite method of cooking is braising, which relates to the element of water. I love simmering a stew or a roast for hours and then closing my eyes as I take those first few bites and taste the depth and complexity of the flavors that have mingled and permeated each morsel. Fire is the art of slow roasting and provides equally mouth watering and deeply satisfying results. But the two methods that most resonated with me, for different reasons were Air and Earth.
Air is about bread. Need I say more. As a person with celiac disease, bread brings up a bit of a Pandora's box of emotion. I read this section with a bit of the perspective of the injured child standing at the edge of the playground unable to join in. But, it also informed my own attempts at gluten-free bread making by helping me to understand, better than any gluten-free cookbook had, the mechanics of gluten and yeast and temperature and how they work together to create the perfect loaf. The one master baker he apprenticed with, Chad Robertson, has since released a book of gluten-free recipes. I'll be checking that out for sure. And watch the gluten-free bread section of this site for an upcoming journey into gluten-free sourdough.
Earth is about fermentation. He gets seductively morbid as he relates the smells and the processes to death and sex and how they may remind us of our own corporeal reality. But what intrigued me the most was his foray into the still very new science of the human microbiome. As anyone with a digestive condition knows, the gut and what goes on in there is central to our feeling of well being or not, on a day to day basis. And if you've geeked out on it at all, like I do, you may have discovered that your gut is home to a multitude of species that are not human but have lived and evolved along side and within us for millennia. I wrote about the relationship between celiac and the microbiome in my newsletter. If your interested you can pop your email address into the subscription form and look for issue 003. It's free. Also watch for more on fermented foods. I've been following a German Recipe blog and I think I'll start with her recipe for sauerkraut.
Do I recommend this book? YES!! Like all of Pollan's writing, this is interesting, intelligent, thought provoking, and maybe even life changing if you want it to be.