Klawchat today at 1 pm ET.
Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation veers from the subject matter of his previous books* toward an examination of how and why we cook food – the application of heat and/or microbes to raw ingredients to transform them into dishes that are more nutritious, more portable, easier to digest, and more flavorful. He runs through four major methods of preparation – smoking, braising, fermenting with yeast (for bread, mostly), and fermenting with bacteria (for pickling) – dealing with their histories, cultural significance, biological relevance, and a little with environmental impact as well. It’s a highly educational book, especially at the macro level, although a little speculative in places, and Pollan’s prose is often pretentious and admonishing.
* Full disclosure: I’ve never read his two biggest bestsllers, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, which dealt with the ethics of responsible eating and questions of how to feed the growing global population. I think I’m pretty aware of these issues, but his tone (in excerpts I’ve read) has turned me off.
Pollan’s premise is simple and important: We cook less than we ever have, even though food content in the media is more popular than ever. He argues, mostly successfully, that this change hurts us physically, psychologically, and culturally. Our lack of connection to our food – where it comes from and how it’s prepared – leads to our ignorance about the true costs of, say, debeaking chickens or feeding cows and pigs unnatural diets or growing crops with fertilizers made from petroleum. It’s also a function of larger societal trends that Pollan can’t cover, like the rise in two-income households, but he can at least delve into how and why we cook, and I think his criticism of the time we spend watching food-related television as time better spent preparing food for ourselves is a reasonable one.
Pollan makes a tenuous connection between the four cooking/fermenting methods he covers and the four elements of antiquity: fire, water, air, and earth. That gives the book an outline, but the link is irrelevant to the actual material, which fares much better when Pollan gets into the individual stories he’s exploring, such as Ed Mitchell and Samuel Jones on Carolina BBQ, or Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. Pollan dissects each method, goes into its history, and discusses why these methods matter, such as the way applying heat or microbes to various foods makes their nutrients more available, or how Western fear of bacteria has led to a rise in allergies (behind which there’s a lot of science) and in gluten insensitivity and lower nutrient absorption (which he presents with less evidence). Breads made with the sourdough method and longer autolyses may be more nutritious even than “whole-grain” breads made with single, commercial yeast strains and shorter processes. Smoking meat for hours over low temperatures produces complex chemical reactions in surface proteins and sugars, while also allowing interior fat and connective tissue to break down, keeping the meat from drying out even as it reaches temperatures approaching 200° F. Braising, the process of cooking something very slowly with liquid at a low temperature, breaks down long protein chains in meat that produce glutamates, which are the chemicals that provide us with the taste we now refer to as “umami.”
Within each section, Pollan provides useful tips on each cooking technique, gleaned from his own experience shadowing at least one expert in the field – including a wonderful passage on the famous “cheese nun” of Connecticut, Sister Noëlla, where she explains why “clean” isn’t cleaner, and tells of putting the lie to a state inspector’s criticisms of her use of wooden materials to make cheese. You can always cook better if you understand why things are happening in the bowl, the pot, or the pan, and Pollan delves into each of these questions in a way that fans of Alton Brown or Michael Ruhlman will appreciate. Why do you sweat a soffritto or brown meat? Why do you want the slow fermentation of sourdough breads? What are those lactobacilli doing to the cabbage in kimchi or sauerkraut – and what do you do when the bacteria aren’t cooperating? Between the advice he offered and the growing body of information supporting a diet higher in fermented foods, I’m more emboldened than ever to spend the offseason pickling the fruits of our garden and making a new sourdough starter.
Pollan’s content is solid, if occasionally undersourced, but his prose is not for everyone. Witness this description of a drive into rural North Carolina:
The coastal plain of North Carolina is one of the sacrifice zones that Big Hog has consecrated to industrial pork production, a business that shrinks the number of farms in a region even as it massively expands the population of pigs. Long before I registered the pheromones of barbecue, occasional passages of less winning animal odors assailed my nostrils as I navigated the gray roads leading into Ayden.
Tone and style are highly subjective things, but I find this passage overwrought and bombastic without telling me much of value. Factory farms stink. Film at 11. Spare me the “pheromones” stuff unless you really want to do dirty things to hogs, and in that case, please leave me (and the hogs) alone.
The whole book includes language like this – Pollan can’t help but reach for the $2 word when a ten-cent one will do, and in the barbecue section in particular it often seems like he’s patronizing his subjects. References to Greek mythology abound as well. An exhortation to the American public to cook more can’t come across as a castigation, and it can’t be in language that readers won’t follow. There’s plenty of good information in here, with material to help change the way you approach food and cooking, if you don’t mind wading through Pollan’s prolix prose to get to it.