Monday, October 14, 2013

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan

I don't typically get into books about food. Being told by someone else what I should or should not eat has always been somewhat of a sore point for me. I know how to be healthy and I know what indulgences I'm not interested in living without and that works for me. Thankfully, this book doesn't come close to this approach to food; it goes in a completely different direction and it totally blew my mind.

Cooked doesn't talk about what to eat or really how to eat, but rather how eating and preparing food has contributed to our evolution, how things have changes over the time inside and outside the kitchen, and what consequences we face in how we process food. Divided into four parts, Pollan uses the four elements to break all this down. 

We start with fire and the art of BBQ but not just BBQ as a cuisine, whole hog BBQ. Pollan talks about the art of cooking the entire animal and how the discovery of fire complete changed the human diet. He talks about how sacred fire has been historically - initially seen as an actual gift from the gods.

Water is next and with it the art of cooking in the kitchen. Pollan primarily focuses on the one-pot meal learning how to cook and mix flavors from an actual chef. He uses this section to talk about the domestication of cooking - the shift from "man's" fire pit outside to the "woman's" indoor stove. Traditional roles in the home as they relate to preparing food are discussed along with corporations' desire to make kitchen life easier for women by selling partially (or fully) prepared foods to, "save time." He makes the point, which I found very interesting, that home cooking today isn't actually cooking from scratch, which is what the term means in our heads. It's like saying a bowl of pasta using a jarred marina is a homemade meal when actually half of it was prepared in a factory.

Baking bread encompasses the element of air in the third section. Pollan talks about yeast here and nurturing the culture for break almost like a pet. Changes in how we view the nutritional value of bread, how we've begun putting stripped-out nutrients back into white bread to make it more marketable to today's health-conscious consume is a big focus. I found it most interesting that baking sourdough bread - which has the least nutritional value as far as ingredients go - is described most seriously as an art form.

Last, but not least, is earth. This ends up being a broad topic as far as food goes with the common factor in all being bacteria. Pollan uses pickling  cheese-making, and beer-brewing to talk about fermentation and how good bacteria contributes to food preparation. He also uses this section to talk about how pasteurization and over-processing has robbed us of access to this good bacterial. Humanity's fear of the bad bacteria has led to us removing it all from our food and now our guts aren't as healthy as they used to be.

No point Pollan makes throughout the book is heavy-handed which I appreciate and they all really made sense. He never calls for any radical changes to the world of food, but rather takes the time to incorporate technique and history into how common items are prepared. I really liked everything he had to say and learned a lot through Pollan's accessible narrative style. I've already  been telling all my friends about this book, so I definitely recommend it across the board.