Michael Pollan has made a name for himself as an ardent critic of the hyper-engineered ‘notional’ food flooding the marketplace. In Cooked, his latest book, he positions himself to appeal to practically any reader: smart enough for the NPR/TED talk crowd, yet down-to-earth and pragmatic enough to potentially win over the kitchen illiterate. He quotes Coleridge and eats barbecue, criticizes the food industry but still has to contend with it like us mortals. (He also readily admits to eating while driving around in his car, something that makes me personally feel a little better, though only a little better, about the bag of M&M’s in my cup holder.)
At its core, Cooked (with the heady subtitle A Natural History of Transformation) makes only the gentlest of arguments and has little value as a polemic. Even the laziest eater won’t deny that home-cooked food is probably healthier and we should be eating more of it. The only people who might take issue with the main notion of the book (that cooking ranks as the chief act of society) might be raw vegans, whom Pollan dismisses as “faddists.” Rather, he turns the focus on the act of cooking itself, avoiding 400 pages of chastising us for eating out so often. As he asks in his introduction, “Once it has been dismantled, can a culture of everyday cooking … ever be rebuilt?”
The most ingenious thing about this book? Its structural hook, which breaks up the culinary world into four chunks, with each chunk focused on a different stage of civilization, philosophy and classical element (Fire, Water, Air and Earth, in that order). With each element also comes a particular type of food that Pollan tries to prepare for himself – foods in most cases beyond his previous realm of cooking experience (He includes recipes in the back of the book). This gives his chapters their own flavor, so to speak, even as he touches on several recurring themes.
The first of these sections, “Fire,” feels most dynamic, centering around various forms of pit cooking—largely southern barbecue, which Pollan describes with a fervor and admiration that borders on the pornographic. Pork crackling surely has never sounded as absurdly majestic as it does in Pollan’s fatty lines: “[The] skin was gorgeous: lacquered brown, the color of strong tea.”) He meets various inhabitants of North Carolina’s barbecue world, including larger-than-life pitmaster Ed Mitchell. Between helping out with a roast and learning the practice himself, Pollan ponders the masculine mythos of cooking meat over fire, invoking Prometheus, Biblical lore and Freud’s curious theory that society advanced once man learned he could put out fires by urinating on them.
It’s a vastly entertaining section, expertly spanning history and anthropology, while examining the moral and practical issues of cooked meat without denying the simple facts that humans seem to viscerally respond to it, especially its smell. (And it’s not just us: According to a study cited by Pollan, “… given the choice, many animals will opt for cooked food over raw meat.”)
The pace tapers off in “Water,” partly by design as Pollan intentionally turns his gaze to stove-based boiling and braising. Compared to the focused narrative of the previous section, this one meanders. Rather than create a coherent subject matter from our associations with this element, Pollan jumps here and there, trying to tackle gender discrimination in the kitchen and the evolution of modern grocery culture. The timelines track, in Pollan’s view: As food production evolved, “… the industry was only too happy to clothe itself in feminist ideology if that would help it insinuate itself into the kitchen and onto the dinner table.”
Though a fitful, not entirely successful attempt, this section does offer one revelation— the intriguing idea that preparing a frozen dinner really doesn’t save much more time than a homemade one. (“I could make onion soup from scratch in 40 minutes!” Pollan notes…the same amount of time it takes to prepare four different pre-packaged frozen dishes.)
The next section, “Air,” tackles baking, specifically bread-making. It follows the history of flour milling as it evolved from ancient cultures to what Pollan calls “the white flour industrial complex.” Once again, the sumptuous descriptions of Pollan’s encounters with food here, as he conjures the taste of crumbs and crusts, may make you want to dash to a farmers market in spite of yourself. The bulk of the action once again revolves around a man describing his activities in the kitchen, but there’s at least a field trip to a few bakeries to liven things up. Pollan includes one no-nonsense bread-maker who chops his own firewood, and he offers a peek at the alarming Wonder Bread procedure of breaking up vitamins to throw into vats of sweetened bread batter to make it “healthier.”
The last and longest section, “Earth,” could justify publication as a separate book. It looks at various types of fermentation—from pickling to cheese-making to craft brewing to, perhaps, the way humanity as a whole is ‘pickled’ by its passenger microbes. These passages also capture the book’s most colorful characters, including Sandor Katz, described as “the Johnny Appleseed of fermentation,” and Sister Noella Marcellino, a nun/microbiologist/cheese-maker somewhat famous for proving that wooden barrels and stirring paddles can be more effective for sanitizing milk than government-mandated stainless steel. It’s another pleasing blend of subjects, although the fast-moving mix between chemistry and philosophy can be a challenge. (I honestly can’t say that I will long remember the specific ways that different yeasts and sugars interact with each other, although I appreciate the obvious research that went into it.)
Despite all of this effort, I find it hard to believe that Cooked will actually convince a hardened junkavore to unplug the microwave and take up soffrito. Pollan doesn’t really focus on the simpler ways of cooking for yourself that may be familiar to most amateur chefs. As easy as some of the methods he does describe are, more common things like oven-roasting meats and steaming vegetables might seem the more logical starting point if you’re really out to promote ‘everyday cooking.’
Pollan loves cooking precisely because of its complexity and demands. He wants us to love it for the same reasons. This makes the book fascinating as a work of memoir and philosophy, but a fundamental disconnect between reader and author never quite gets bridged: Most people who pick up Cooked will read it the same way they watch the Food Network, to be entertained—precisely opposite Pollan’s intention. He de-mystifies cooking in his opening, only to re-mystify it through flights of enraptured rhetoric as he proceeds. And his attempts to make the story more personal by involving his wife and son misfire: These family members really only appear to second whatever point Pollan’s already making about food.
As he examines the ways different culinary traditions work to process food for human consumption, Pollan carefully tries to make himself as much of an outsider as the rest of us may feel we are. He never commits too wholly to one school of thought; he does oppose some food for being too organic, for example, and criticizes the naïve hippie aspirations of the original whole food movement. Still, try as he might to play the everyman, that Pollan tinge of self-satisfaction does seep in every once and a while, particularly in “Water.”
Will his approach to food preparation work? The four recipes included in the appendix aren’t likely to convert the kitchen-phobic – the simplest one takes “4 to 6 hours” to make.
As an ideological prompt, and a greater meditation on the difficulties surrounding modern consumption, Cooked fascinates. But while it will definitely get any reader thinking, it may only get a few of us up and cooking.
W.A. Hughes is a writer and eater who lives in Boston.