Easily the most inspiring book I’ve read in a long time.
Michael Pollan’s Cooked gives voice to something I’ve felt for a very long time – that cooking is more than an act of self-sustenance, but one of creativity, mystique and self-empowerment.
There is a power to the act of cooking. It is ingrained into our history as a species. Cooking unlocked the nutritive potential of our food sources, enabling our ancestors to evolve more quickly and freeing up their time spent foraging and hunting to kickstart a civilisation. In modernity, it remains a last holdout of artisanship in the face of an all-consuming capitalist juggernaut, powered by the cold logic of comparative advantage.
There is therefore a nobility to cooking – it hearkens us back to our roots in the deep past, and is one of the few ways left for ordinary people to create something of value and worth with their own hands – a product that gives creative satisfaction to the creator, pleasure to the partaker, and binds us closer together.
With that frame in mind, Pollan explores four realms of cooking in this book, in four distinct parts related to the classical elements – fire, water, air and earth. Fire, naturally, applies to roasting and smoking. Water is the act of braising and making stews. Air is the act of baking, and earth is the act of fermentation, both in food and drink. There are, of course, overlaps – but in essence the division is a poetic and apt one.
For each part, Pollan interviews and works with masters of each of the four crafts – pig smokers, sous chefs, bakers, homebrewers, and “fermentation fetishists”, talks about the historical, scientific, nutritional and creative aspects of each process, and eventually describes his attempts to recreate some of what he has learned in his own kitchen. Pollan’s enthusiasm is infectious, his research far-ranging, and his exhortations to try it yourself compelling. For each foodway, he portrays the food, when properly made, as something transcendent in tastes and smell but also nourishing and sustaining from a nutritive, cultural and psychological standpoint. And then, he walks the talk and tries to make it himself – drawing the book back to its fundamental thesis – the need to cook for yourself to reap the multitudinous benefits of the act.
Reading Cooked didn’t change my mind about anything – because I was already convinced of cooking’s value in achieving fulfillment. But it did open up a new dimension of things that I was previously unfamiliar with, and showed me just how interesting the art of food-making can be. The chapter on breadmaking, for example, taught me that it’s possible to make a loaf of healthy, delicious bread in the style of world-class bakeries like Tartine in your own home, using varieties of bacteria that you can cultivate in your own kitchen. The chapter on braising underscored the point that you don’t need expensive cuts of meat to create rich and sustaining stews. The chapter on fermentation taught me the cultural depth that can be found in each culture’s use of bacteria to alter their food to impart unique (and sometimes acquired) tastes and smells.
In essence, cooking, itself, is something that ties us back to our cultural and biological roots, while opening up whole new worlds of experience in the comfort of our own homes. Michael Pollan’s Cooked is, if anything, just about the best tome to evangelise that message. It’s certainly inspired me to want to try all that he does, and more.
I give this book: 5 out of 5 lactobacillus starters