Book review: ‘Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation’ by Michael Pollan

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.”

In his hands, then, an attempt to learn traditional barbecue leads not merely to scientific explanations of the flavor compounds created by browning and long cooking but also to theories about racial politics and to the connections between today’s pitmasters and ancient priests supervising ritual sacrifice. The section on water includes a meditation on the difference between drudgery and Zen mastery, on the difference between a woman’s style (braising) as an exercise in domesticity and nurturing, and a man’s style (grilling) as performance and spectacle.

In “Air,” he points up one particularly tragic irony of industrial milling, which strips wheat of its best properties: “After figuring out an ingenious system for transforming an all but nutritionally worthless grass into a wholesome food, humanity pushed on intrepidly until it had figured out a way to make that food all but nutritionally worthless yet again!”

Finally, he connects fermentation to religious fervor, to questions about humanity’s very identity (if 99 percent of our DNA is from microbes we host, who are we, really?) and to an understanding of “hand taste” vs.“tongue taste.” The former, in the words of a Korean kimchi maker, is flavor that includes the mark of the person who took the care to make it.

Throughout the book, Pollan reminds us how much cooking matters. The food industry, he writes in one example, was all too happy to step in when women started working outside the home and couples were at risk of arguing over who should get dinner on the table. “In the end, women did succeed in getting men into the kitchen, just not their husbands,” he writes. “No, they’ve ended up instead with the men who run General Mills and Kraft, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.”(One criticism: He largely ignores the role of restaurants, from celebrity-chef-driven places to mom-and-pop joints.)

Pollan shows us the folly of our decision to hire food corporations and other industrial forces as our live-in cooks. The consequences include the gluten intolerance that he suggests might be tied to modern flour cultivation and processing, and the compromised immune systems that might be related to our diet’s relatively recent absence of live-culture foods. What’s the most reliable predictor of a nation’s obesity rate? It’s not income. It’s not the share of women in the labor force. Quite simply, the higher the percentage of a country’s residents who cook, the fewer of them who are obese.

And about that time crunch that keeps so many of us ordering takeout? Time for a recalculation. Pollan cites Richard Wrangham’s fascinating theory, espoused in “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human,” that it was the control of fire to help make food more digestible that allowed us to develop smaller jaws, teeth and guts, and a larger brain. In Wrangham’s calculation, cooking gave humans an estimated four hours of extra time a day, time that we once spent chewing food to prepare it for digestion — and time that now, Pollan points out, happens to be about what we spend watching TV. We have plenty of time to cook; we just don’t choose to spend it that way.

Ultimately, he makes the case that cooking is a political act, one that declares our resistance to the “learned helplessness” that the food industry likes to insist requires an outsourcing of dinner. “To cook for the pleasure of it,” he writes, “to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption.”

The choice is clear: Occupy your kitchen!

Joe Yonan is The Washington Post’s Food and Travel editor.

COOKED

A Natural History of Transformation

By Michael Pollan

Penguin Press. 468 pp. $27.95

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