By Bill Palladino
“Alone among the animals, we humans insist that our food be not only ‘good to eat’ —tasty, safe, and nutritious— but also, in the words of Claude Levi-Strauss, ‘good to think,’ for among all the many other things we eat, we also eat ideas.”
My first Michael Pollan book, “The Botany of Desire,” was one I instantly fell for. That book casually tossed upon my table the relationship humans have with plants, and reciprocally the relationship they seem to have developed with us. It sounded vaguely alien-esque, so I went off into the void of two of my favorite reading genres: food and sci-fi. It was followed by a succession of other Pollan books through the years, each with the promise of keeping my foodie mind burbling with anticipation.
When “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” first arrived on the shelves, I instantly bought it with intention to consume it over a few long weekends. As it so often happens, life got in the way and the hardcover with its tempting penne immersion image languished on my bed stand.
Then a month or so ago my employer, The Michigan Land Use Institute, started a new initiative, “The Bob Russell Resilience Reading Project.” The project honors the memory of a community luminary and his gift to us of a carefully curated reading list he believed could help change the world. “Cooked” is the first book selected for the project.
If you’ve read Pollan’s other books, this one arrives a bit off-camber. It’s not the same rip-out-the-heart, traditional food system skewering we’re used to. “Cooked” starts with a frank admission from Pollan: “Cooking has always been a part of my life, but more like the furniture than an object of scrutiny, much less a passion.” What he’s saying is that he’s made a career out of talking about food without ever understanding its true relationship personally.
“Cooked” is a nationwide gustatory road-trip mapped out to right that wrong. While it lacks the ferocity of an Anthony Bourdain treatise, it has a similar effect in that it asks us to question the obvious while leaving us hungering for the forbidden fruit of our guilty pleasures.
The book is organized around the four classical elements, fire, water, air, and earth. In its simplest form, “Cooked” uses each element as a classroom opportunity for Pollan to learn one classic—otherwise mundane—recipe at a time. To examine fire, he seeks out a southern barbecue master. Diving into water, he teams up with a former Chez Panisse chef. For air, he ventures into the ancient art of bread baking. And finally for earth, he seizes upon that mysterious organic process we call fermentation. These all reinforce the subtitle of the book, “A Natural History of Transformation.” “Cooked” seems more the work of a cultural anthropologist than that of the food systems activist we’ve known.
Greeks and Egyptians, Persians, and even medieval alchemists all had some interpretation of the four elements. Michael Pollan leads with fire and approaches it quite literally. We go with him as he gets in his car and drives to a little town in North Carolina known for its barbecue cookery. This unproven Yankee dons his neophyte hat and wades into a backwoods barbecue pit overseen by a 30-something man with barbecue in his blood named Samuel Jones.
The section shows in detail the lessons Pollan will need to learn to understand this succulent American right of passage known as barbecue. It starts with a treatise on how our very species invented fire, and then cooking with it as a way to do nothing less than preserve and advance our DNA. Before the section ends, we find some iconic Pollan, regaling us with Freudian references: “Cooking with fire remains very much a competitive male preserve, and those of us who do it should probably count ourselves lucky Freud isn’t around to offer his analysis of exactly what it is we’re up to.”
Pollan doesn’t leave classical Greek interpretations of fire alone either. He devotes pages to tales of Zeus and Prometheus and plots of revenge and retribution for betrayals of gods and mortals. “The Prometheus story becomes a myth of the origin of cooking, an account of how animal sacrifice evolved into a form of feasting, thanks to Prometheus’ daring reapportionment of the sacrificial animal to favor man.”
The emphatic call to arms of fire is that it was born to cook meat.
This second section starts with a chef’s most basic of tasks, chopping “veg” for a mirepoix. Pollan’s stop at this juncture is illustrative of the book’s mission. He realizes he’s been part of the problem, which thus far he’s been unwilling to admit in his other books. Recognizing that playing an active role in the preparation and “transformation” of food is the mea culpa that drives the narrative.
“Today the typical American spends a mere twenty-seven minutes a day on food preparation, and another four minutes cleaning up. That’s less than half the time spent cooking and cleaning up in 1965, when I was a boy. Somewhat more than half of the evening meals an American eats today are still “cooked at home,” according to the market researchers.”
Still, he’s far from taking it all on the chin himself:
“The very same activity that many people regard as a form of drudgery has somehow been elevated to a popular spectator sport. When you consider that twenty-seven minutes is less time than it takes to watch a single episode of Top Chef or The New Food Network Star, you realize that there are now millions of people who spend more time watching food being cooked on television than they spend actually cooking it themselves.”
Pollan’s work on water examines its important role in the transformation process. Extracting flavors and separating, then reconstituting, chemical compounds in food is critical to our expectations of taste. For this lesson he employs an upwardly reaching chef, Samin Nosrat, formerly of Chez Panisse fame. Pollan spent Sundays with Samin to learn the intricacies of the pot. The subtle combinations of flavors—this vegetable with that—or the order in which we add them to a soup or a braise provide telltale signals to our brain about a food’s cultural origins.
The power of the chop (we’re talking veggies here) combines with water (or oil or other liquids) to create a myriad of flavors, all of which require tending. Pollan refers to this “drudgery” as the “antithesis” of what fire requires. “Indeed,” he continues, “The only time the grill man or pit master deploys a knife is at the very end of his show.”
Water it seems was designed for the pot, and in the pot we find veg.
This chapter focuses on part of a cooking tradition that is akin to religion. In fact some of the greatest books on bread-baking are still published by Jesuit brothers and priests. Pollan joins the ranks of millions of us in search of salvation from that perfect loaf because, he intimates, we’re either meant to be bakers, or we’re not.
“I had baked one or two loaves years before with only middling results, and had concluded baking was probably not for me.” This conclusion is one I’ve heard espoused by many of my own friends. Even my wife, an otherwise accomplished cook, claims she’s had far too many catastrophes to make any further attempts at baking. So here’s something of his work that certainly speaks to all of us. One way to think about bread, he suggests, “is simply this: as an ingenious technology for improving the flavor, digestibility, and nutritional value of grass.”
Pollan peeks behind the curtain of naturally fermented breads, too. He talks about the mysteries and vagaries of rising dough, of the care and feeding of a sourdough starter, and the downright bizarre rituals discussed by authors and bloggers about how wild yeasts and strains of bacteria find their way into mason jars hidden in the dark recesses of San Francisco apartments. Then Pollan incriminates himself as just another foodie-mortal powerless to the seductions of bread with this mouth-watering description of the finished product.
“The best bread I ever tasted was a big country loaf shot through with holes the size of marbles and golf balls—easily more air than bread. It had a tough hide of a crust very nearly burned, but held inside a crumb so tender, moist, and glossy it made you think of custard. There was something sensual about the strong contrast between these two realms—outside and inside, hard and soft. The bread was so powerfully aromatic that, had I been alone, I would have been tempted to push my face into it.”
Air explains to us the importance of the places in between, and the role we have as humans to manipulate that space to our own ends.
Michael Pollan doesn’t let this sensual loaf seduce him to distraction. He also looks towards other aspects of fermentation in the food system, reminding us that before refrigeration, canning, and chemicals, fermentation was the primary form of preserving food over long periods of time. He talks of Korean kimchi buried in the backyard, Russian kefir, yogurt, and of breadfruit aging in Fiji pits to eventual odiferous perfection as something resembling the scent of road kill after a week in the sun.
Finally he covers something dear to many of my friends: the role of fermentation in making alcohol, and specifically beer. This, as it turns out, is another specialty of the religious. If you’ve ever had Belgian ale, you can thank a monk.
Speaking of fermenting cultures he says, “It not only seems alive, it is alive. And most of this living takes place at a scale inaccessible to us without a microscope.”
Earth is really about stuff that lives and breathes and changes food from one form into another. As humans we are sometimes the instigators, but mainly bystanders in a process that closely mimics the very way life is thought to have emerged from that primordial ooze.
“Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” is an eye-opening read, but it pries your lids up in a very different way than his previous books. Gone are the diatribes and stabs at American corporate agriculture that many of us grew to appreciate from him. That edge is replaced with a new foundation of self-discovery, one akin to the sense of wonder served up by children. It begs you to turn the page, grab some ingredients, and push upon the edges of your own food comfort zone.
Michael Pollan is the author of seven books including: The Botany of Desire, In Defense of Food, An Omnivore’s Dilemma, A Place of My Own, Second Nature, Food Rules, and Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. All these books are available at our local books stores throughout northwest Lower Michigan.