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Book review: Michael Pollan's 'Cooked'

Kendra NordinThe Christian Science Monitor
"Cooked": In his latest book, bestselling food author Michael Pollan uses the four elements -- fire, water, air, and earth -- to explore the art and practice of cooking. Courtesy: Michael Pollan's 'Cooked'

The term cooking conjures up a variety of emotions: It can mean something delicious is bubbling on the stove. It can mean absolute drudgery. It can mean relationships, as in “I love my husband’s cooking.” But what is going on really, in the process that transforms animal protein and active yeast into barbecued meat resting on a pillowy bun? And if more people knew about those techniques, would they actually cook?

Food journalist Michael Pollan thinks so. In "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation," Pollan explores four elements -- fire, water, air, earth -- to breathe new life and understanding into an activity that he calls essential and exclusive to the human experience. Unlike his previous food-related books (“The Omivore’s Dilemma,” “In Defense of Food,”), which scrutinized agribusiness practices and questioned consumers' choices at the supermarket, this time Pollan has subjected himself to his own thesis. He admits that while has he always dabbled in cooking, he counts himself as one among many who hadn’t thought that much about it.

“Cooked” is a do-it-yourself solution to the food consumerism Pollan feels has gone out of control.

In some ways, it seems odd to declare that many Americans are dispassionate about preparing their own food, choosing to watch cooking shows than stir a pot themselves. This is not to say that Americans aren’t doing some kind of cooking -- just not the type of meals that take longer than 30 minutes, about the same amount of time it takes the contestants on “Chopped” to mince, sauté, and braise their way through three courses.

In “Cooked,” Pollan invests three years in being mentored by various gifted teachers -- an eternity in the world of microwaves and fast food restaurants. First, he heads straight into the fire to grill with Southern pit masters such as Ed Mitchell, the “pope” of barbeque, learning everything from preparing (and in some cases, blessing) whole pigs before they are smoked, tending to the coals, and shredding pounds and pounds of cooked meat into pulled meat for thousands of New Yorkers at a street festival.

Next, exploring the component of water, he takes private weekend “Grandma cooking” classes from one of his own writing students at Berkeley, who also is a local chef and a daughter of Iranian immigrants. Together they dice onions, braise meat, and make stews that simmer for an entire day. So what happens when an investigative journalist turns his piercing attention to the simple act of caramelizing onions in a pan? Something like this:

“Cooking with onions, garlic, and other spices is a form of biochemical jujitsu, in which the first move is to overcome the plants’ chemical defenses so we might eat them, and the second is to then deploy their defenses against other species to defend ourselves.”

In other words, onions are spicy on the tongue, cooking makes them sweet, and they have health benefits. Perhaps this kind of cooking chemistry verbiage will attract new people into the kitchen -- the kind who like to drop random bits of trivia around the dinner table. But sometimes these deep-dives, which come with regularity throughout “Cooked,” up the urge to click on the TV and see what’s entertaining on the Food Network.

Regardless, Pollan who is an excellent storyteller, places cooking within cultural histories and folk lore, writes engaging mini-profiles of his mentors, and reveals a fascinating underworld of microbes and bacteria busy at work in the foods that we eat.

The section on air examines the complicated and sometimes infuriating process of baking a loaf of bread. Pollan visits the San Francisco bakery of Chad Robertson, who “looks less a baker than the surfer he also is.” Robertson is the epitome of an artisan baker, working tirelessly and obsessively until he created a signature leaven of young yeasts that smell “fruity, sweet, and floral.” He tends to his bread “starter” as if it were a newborn, feeding it on regular intervals, controlling its temperature, and mourning deeply when it once got accidentally tossed out.

Pollan downscales this intensity in his own kitchen but still pursues baking his own loaves until he feels a sense of mastery and accomplishment. “A good-looking loaf of bread declares itself as an artifact ... something that cannot be said of too many other foods,” he writes.

The last section, earth, takes on bacteria and the Western fear of “micro”-anything when it comes to food. Pollan swims away from natural repulsions reinforced by the efficiency of mass-marketed, prepackaged foods and mothers who equate bacteria to warriors of evil. Pollan embraces stinky cheese and fermenting vegetables. He goes as far to say, “Bacteria-free food may be making us sick.”

Putting his own squeamishness aside, Pollan makes sauerkraut, Korean kimchi, and beer. Like bread-making, and even yogurt-making, these are temperamental and mysterious processes, not always doing what they are supposed to do. To find out why, Pollan explores the curious communities of microbes living inside us. This kind of gut-gazing may not interest all readers, but it does reveal the links between science and cookery. A visit with Sister Noëlla Marcellino, a French nun with a PhD in microbiology, who makes cheese made from raw milk, is as charming as it is informative.

While most of this exploration is new to Pollan, “Cooked” arrives alongside a resurgence of self-reliant folks who already bake their own breads and make crocks of sauerkraut. For them, Pollan’s work will be a trendy affirmation. But for the uninitiated and curious, there are a few recipes at the back of the book to try out.

Domestic science isn’t new, dating back to the homestead days before sliced bread and industrial canning. And while charming, it is a tedious process that some have left behind without a shred of guilt. So this is really the story of one man’s transformation and discovery of skills once only linked to the female domain. Whether enough people will follow his example and take the time to cook at home, thereby lessening consumer disconnect from the food system, is yet to be seen. But one thing is clear: there are plenty of entertaining chefs to watch on TV while you wait for your dough to rise.

Kendra Nordin is the editor for The Christian Science Monitor's food blog "Stir It Up!." The preceding review is republished here with permission.