Thursday, June 6, 2013

Book Review: Cooked by Michael Pollan

Title: Cooked
Author: Michael Pollan
Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: April 23, 2013
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Plot Summary from Goodreads:

In  Cooked , Michael Pollan explores the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen. Here, he discovers the enduring power of the four classical elements—fire, water, air, and earth—to transform the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink. Apprenticing himself to a succession of culinary masters, Pollan learns how to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer.

Each section of  Cooked  tracks Pollan’s effort to master a single classic recipe using one of the four elements. A North Carolina barbecue pit master tutors him in the primal magic of fire; a Chez Panisse trained cook schools him in the art of braising; a celebrated baker teaches him how air transforms grain and water into a fragrant loaf of bread; and finally, several mad-genius "fermentos” (a tribe that includes brewers, cheese makers, and all kinds of picklers) reveal how fungi and bacteria can perform the most amazing alchemies of all. The reader learns alongside Pollan, but the lessons move beyond the practical to become an investigation of how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships. Cooking, above all, connects us.

The effects of not cooking are similarly far reaching. Relying upon corporations to process our food means we consume large quantities of fat, sugar, and salt; disrupt an essential link to the natural world; and weaken our relationships with family and friends. In fact,  Cooked  argues, taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable. Reclaiming cooking as an act of enjoyment and self-reliance, learning to perform the magic of these everyday transformations, opens the door to a more nourishing life.

My Review:

You've all heard me wax poetic about Michael Pollan in the past.  I find his nonfiction works about food to be endlessly fascinating.  If you've never read any of his stuff, probably his two most well-known books (other than this one) are The Omnivore's Dilemma, and In Defense of Food.  The Omnivore's Dilemma takes a close look at where our modern-day food comes from: everything from our organic (or is it?) produce, to the Cheetos in Aisle 5.  It's eye-opening (and somewhat disturbing) for sure.  On the flip side, In Defense of Food is about how we decide what to eat.  What does the American diet consist of, and is it really good for us?

I highly recommend reading those two books before jumping into Cooked.  Cooked is a great follow-up because as Pollan states in the intro, it bridges the gap between those other two subjects: he already wrote about where food comes from, and what we choose to eat, but what about the way that food gets to the table?  How do we prepare it...and why?  That's what Cooked attempts to examine.

The book is divided into 4 chapters: Fire (grilling/barbecue), Water (braising/pot meals), Air (bread making), and Earth (fermentation, such as pickling and beer brewing).  Pollan argues that lot of our meals these days are ready-made by corporations: frozen dinners, boxed cereals, instant mashed potatoes, etc.  What people define as "cooking" these days is iffy at best...and I'll admit it, I say that I "cooked" dinner on a night when I boiled up a pot of pasta and threw a glop of Ragu on top.  Is that really cooking though?  Wouldn't cooking be a more apt description if I made the noodles, or crushed up the tomatoes for the sauce?  Pollan attempts to get back to the basics with these four methods of cooking--methods that a lot of us have outsourced to the food service industry in the last 50-ish years.

I was enthralled by every chapter, but unexpectedly, the one that got most of my attention was the last  (Earth, or fermentation).  I honestly thought this one would drag a little bit for me.  I'm not particularly interested in pickling, and I'm familiar with brewing already because my husband has done it, so I figured I wouldn't glean much from that section.  However, Pollan includes a deep discussion about how "fermentos" (a subculture of fermenters that believe in using natural (ie not sanitized) fermentation processes to make things like sauerkraut, pickles, cheese, etc) are adamant about the health benefits of their products.  In the world of antibacterial hand soap and throwing out any cheese with the smallest dot of blue fuzz on it, many of us have lost the "good" bacteria in our GI tracts that we need in order to digest things well and ward off infections.  He makes some really great, well-researched points, and I found myself reading half the chapter aloud to my husband ("listen to THIS part, OMG you will thank me later for enlightening you!").

The book as a whole will make you feel smarter, while also providing some entertainment.  Pollan found a person (or several people) in each chapter to help him try his hand at their cooking techniques, often with unexpected results.  (And often with delicious results...prepare to feel voracious after reading.)  His personal experiences, paired with the historical and scientific information he has gathered, makes for an excellent read.

Have I hooked you yet?  Cooked is an awesome nonfiction pick for anyone interested in the food they prepare.  At the very least, it will inspire you to look at your oven in a whole new way.  You do have to be prepared for some history lessons, as well as some food science, but they're mixed so seamlessly into the rest of the narrative that I doubt you'll be bothered.

Now to perfect my braising technique.

Have you read any of Pollan's books?  What did you think?


  1. The only thing of his that I've read is the itsy bitsy Food Rules. (Very handy and good)

    You've made me want to read everything of his!

    1. Then it seems my work is done here. HA! :)

  2. Um. Would you recommend this to the cooking un-inclined? I prefer my food cooked by someone who isn't me.

    1. Hmmm, depends. Even though you don't do a lot of cooking, per se, are you interested in how others do it? The processes behind it? If yes, you'd probably like it. Personally, I am a semi-horrible chef but am fascinated by the world of food/culinary arts, so this was up my alley.

  3. You've just made me want to read all of his books!!!!

    1. Woohoo! High praise for a review! :)

  4. I've been looking forward to your review since you mentioned him recently. I loved Robin Shulman's Eat The City and have been looking for a book that would be a suitable continuation (though I know it's not the same). Thanks to your review, I think I've found it :)

    1. Happy to be of service! :) I will have to check out Eat The City, never heard of it but definitely seems like something I'd be interested in.

  5. Your cookbook reviews always make me want to try my hand in the kitchen. Just for a moment, though. haha!

    1. Haha, I know, books like this motivate me culinarily for a short period of time...then I'm back to spaghetti...:)

  6. I have read all of Michael Pollan's books - and they are all informative and well written. This one takes a novel approach to cooking, through the four elements: fire, water, air, and earth. Highly recommend if you are a "foodie", or even if you aren't.

    Irene Jennings of Vacation Rentals in Seattle

  7. I periodically go through phases where I resent how much time I spend cooking. This looks like the perfect book to help me remember, again, why I'm doing it and to appreciate the results.

    Joy's Book Blog

    1. Joy, YES, this is the perfect book for that. It brings you back to the bones of your cooking process for sure.

  8. Huzzah! I have TWO copies of The Omnivore's Dilemma because apparently I lost my mind and forgot I owned a copy when I downloaded the ebook on sale. Arrgh! This one sounds fascinating, but I'll start where you recommend.

    1. Ahhh I do that all the time with ebooks! So annoying when you realize there's a duplicate. Well, now you can enjoy it in two formats I guess. :)

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