The Christmas vacations feels so long ago – despite it having only been three weeks since I came back to Sweden, I have had a hard time getting back into the rhythm of school and am under the impression I could use a break again – anybody else? Let’s pretend to be back in the awesomeness of pleasure reading and laying-at-the-beach by letting me review my holiday pleasure literature – “Cooked” by Michael Pollan!
You guys probably know that I am a huge Michael Pollan fan – in fact, it was his writing that first made me discover food politics as something I was interested in -, so I was pretty sure I was in for a treat. Yet, since that time I have become pretty knowledgeable about food, and I have always liked cooking, so I was a little hesitant at first to invest because how much more could he tell me about food? Well, let me tell you – a pretty huge lot.
That’s because of how Pollan writes, which is such a great cross-section of science, history, cultural tidbits and just great story-telling. That makes for really entertaining reading as well as just the right amount of information that doesn’t feel overwhelming but yet like you are reading a ‘smart’ book, if that makes sense.
Pollan leads you through the history of cooking by following the elements and the cooking techniques associated with them – fire (barbecuing), water (braising), air (baking bread) and earth (fermentation – from sauerkraut to cheese). From the very start, he explores an interesting hypothesis: that it was cooking that made us human and differentiated us from our great ape ancestry. The act of discovering and using fire for our own means enabled us to eat food that was much better digestible, giving us more energy (and allowing our brains to grow larger in the process) and giving us more time in the day to do other things than digest our food. Then came the invention of the cooking pot, our “external belly” as he calls it, which again used fire and – now – water to make food even more digestible, and break it down to a consistency that even infants and the elderly could handle. Thus evolved, according to his hypothesis, larger family clans and finally tribes, which then developed sedentary agriculture and the cultivation of grains (aided by the technique of harnessing the right bacteria to create sourdough bread). An interesting side story is the claim by some historians that the movement towards agriculture stemmed not from an incentive to make more grain for bread, but rather for beer, because the hunters and gatherers that had accidentally made the first wild-hops beer couldn’t get enough of it. Finally, the discovery of fermentation allowed the storage of all kinds of goods, from milk (cheese) to vegetables (pickles) while preserving their nutrients over a longer period of time as well as developing interesting synergies with the bacteria at work in the fermentation process – and thus was created the four-point cradle of civilisation that we have since moved away from through the specialisation and industrialisation of our food supply.
This is the second half of Pollan’s story – the empowerment that comes with rediscovering these skills and becoming in a certain way self-sufficient in your own nutrition. Watch this video for an animated explanation on his behalf that particularly emphasizes the health angle:
But what struck me more in “Cooked” than the healthy, anti-corporate message was how Pollan describes this journey back to the stovetop – how he talks about long, lazy Saturday mornings chopping vegetables for a mirepoix and endless afternoons purportedly “cooking” in his backyard when all he did was watch a pork slowly roast or the beer brew, all the while having leisurely conversations with his friends and cooking instructors. The care with which he babied his sourdough starter, and the passion with which one of his interviewees spoke about the cornucopia of French cheeses, all different – again, according to this book – because of the regional differences in bacteria that kick in at just the right time to give the creamy tang or the sharp flavor of the local specialty. Cooking, according to Pollan, has a nearly meditative quality about it – a single-mindedness that forces you to focus on the task at hand but is yet not superbly cerebral, allowing your thoughts to swirl while your hands chop, knead, stir and make magic happen.
Furthermore, he also ties in these interesting detours into cultural history, recounting how barbecue was one of the few things that united black and white Southerners even at the height of the Civil Rights movement, but that the culinary scene today still seems divided with black pit masters in the back and white restaurant owners in the front; he tells the tale of how a cheese-making nun single-handedly protected the old-fashioned procedures from being banned by food safety inspectors; and explores the rise and fall of Wonderbread as an American sandwich institution. This is why the book is a terrific beach read – while following a grand theme, it veers off here and there in enjoyable little episodes that grab your attention for half an hour or so before you doze off again to the sound of the waves, but when you wake up and keep reading you haven’t missed out on a huge story line arc because it doesn’t exist; rather, it’s plain and simple great story-telling.
The New York Times gives a slightly more critical (but worthy-to-read) review, accusing Pollan of extreme nostalgia in glamorizing the home cooking of our great-grand parents – born out of necessity rather than choice – and not really giving the modern world a chance to compete, if you so will. But I would hold against that and say – the modern world is already winning in making food ever less valuable, less attention-worthy, less of an event (think Sunday dinner) than a continuum of snacking, so if we need a bit of nostalgia to bring back that feeling of purpose around food, so be it. And if we now do have the luxury of choosing to dedicate a weekend day to a slow roast, why the hell shouldn’t we take that time?
Personally, just thinking back to this book makes me excited to go into the kitchen tomorrow and try something new, just to see whether I can. I’ll let you know whether my sourdough starter survives.
Have you read “Cooked”? What did you think about it?