Why bother cooking? The reasons to skip it are stacked as high as the microwavable meals in a Costco freezer case. You don’t have time, of course (or you think you don’t); that’s the big one. But you also don’t do it as well as the professionals, so it’s tempting to let them handle it for you. Or at least let them give you a head start in the form of meal-assembly shops, cake mixes, and canned, frozen and pre-chopped ingredients.
Michael Pollan thinks you should bother, and not just as a fashionable exercise in hipsterdom. His latest book, “Cooked,” is a powerful argument for a return to home cooking of the sort that doesn’t begin with an attempt to find the perforated opening.
(Penguin Press) - “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” by Michael Pollan
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Pollan is not the first person to issue this clarion call. Scores of food writers and editors, myself included, have long bemoaned the increasing influence of corporations on the public’s diet. We have seen the slow retreat from the kitchen — even while interest in TV food shows has grown — as a primary contributor to America’s (and increasingly, the world’s) obesity epidemic and other health and environmental ills. But perhaps only Pollan can so effectively pick up the threads of so many food movements, philosophies and research papers and knit them into a compelling narrative with a crystal-clear message. “My wager in ‘Cooked,’ ” he writes, “is that the best way to recover the reality of food, to return it to its proper place in our lives, is by attempting to master the physical processes by which it has traditionally been made.”
Don’t bet against him. Because of the power of his prose and his reasoning, “Cooked” may prove to be just as influential as Pollan’s seminal book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” possibly the single most-cited text by those who profess concern with how our eating choices affect the planet.
As in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Pollan knows that his credibility depends on a willingness to practice what he preaches, so in “Cooked” he takes just as much of a hands-on approach as he suggests his readers do. He divides the book into that contemporary nonfiction trope of four sections: in this case, the classical elements of fire, water, air and earth. Each represents a type of cooking — barbecue, braising, bread baking and fermentation — and, as the book’s subtitle promises, explores cooking as no less than a transformation of nature into food and drink. In admitting his own inadequacies up front and apprenticing himself to masters who show him the keys to each process, Pollan puts himself in the shoes of even the least experienced readers, helping pull them into the kitchen at every opportunity.
The results are fascinating, but the magic of “Cooked” lies not in its ability to unlock the secrets of slow-roasting a whole hog or brewing beer. There are much more helpful, intensive instructional materials for that kind of thing. No, what Pollan pulls off is even more impressive: He manages to illuminate the wealth of connections that stem from our DIY time in the kitchen. “Cooking — of whatever kind, everyday or extreme — situates us in the world in a very special place, facing the natural world on one side and the social world on the other,” he writes. “The cook stands squarely between nature and culture, conducting a process of translation and negotiation.”