In Cooked, Michael Pollan explores the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen. Here, he discovers the enduring power of the four classical elements—fire, water, air, and earth—to transform the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink. Apprenticing himself to a succession of culinary masters, Pollan learns how to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer.
Each section of Cooked tracks Pollan’s effort to master a single classic recipe using one of the four elements. A North Carolina barbecue pit master tutors him in the primal magic of fire; a Chez Panisse–trained cook schools him in the art of braising; a celebrated baker teaches him how air transforms grain and water into a fragrant loaf of bread; and finally, several mad-genius “fermentos” (a tribe that includes brewers, cheese makers, and all kinds of picklers) reveal how fungi and bacteria can perform the most amazing alchemies of all. The reader learns alongside Pollan, but the lessons move beyond the practical to become an investigation of how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships. Cooking, above all, connects us.
The effects of not cooking are similarly far reaching. Relying upon corporations to process our food means we consume large quantities of fat, sugar, and salt; disrupt an essential link to the natural world; and weaken our relationships with family and friends. In fact, Cooked argues, taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable. Reclaiming cooking as an act of enjoyment and self-reliance, learning to perform the magic of these everyday transformations, opens the door to a more nourishing life.
Spurred by a number of objectives improving his family's general health, connecting with his teenage son, and learning how people can reduce their dependence on corporations, among others Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma; In Defense of Food) came to the realization that he'd be able to accomplish all those goals and more if he spent more time in his kitchen. He began cooking. Divided into four chapters based on the four elements, Pollan eloquently explains how grilling with fire, braising (water), baking bread (air), and fermented foods (earth) have impacted our health and culture. In each case, Pollan examines the process as well as the science of barbecue, bread, and beer-making in addition to each particular method's effect on humanity. Cooking over high heat, for example, enabled primates' brains to grow much bigger and digest their food faster, making them more efficient; fermented foods like kimchi can promote and encourage the growth of good bacteria in the gut, a function that highly processed foods are unable to accomplish. These and other revelations (obesity rates are inversely correlated with the amount of time spent on food preparation, "microbiologists believe that onions, garlic and spices protect us from the growth of dangerous bacteria on meat," which could explain why we are drawn to flavorful foods, etc.) make for engaging and enlightening reading. Liz Farrell, ICM.