Over the past decade, no single writer has more diligently explored the myriad consequences of what we humans eat than Michael Pollan—which makes it fairly extraordinary that he continues to find new ways to make us see food in new ways.
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation finds Pollan doing many of the same fascinating things that characterized his earlier books, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire. He digs into hard science. He throws himself into his own stories with both journalistic diligence and stylistic flair. And he tells us remarkable things about our relationship with food that, somewhere in our primitive consciousness, we probably always knew but find it more psychologically convenient to ignore.
The focal point of Cooked is that mundane-sounding task we generally simplify into the single term “cooking,” yet it’s far from a mere cookbook. Over the course of four sections, Pollan dedicates himself to learning the basics of four rudimentary techniques that, over the course of human history, transformed the things we put into our mouths, and quite possibly changed humanity itself. He heads to North Carolina to study whole-hog barbecue with masters of the craft; he practices the fundamentals of braising; he learns the care and feeding of a sourdough starter for the creation of bread; and he digs into the microorganisms behind fermentation as they facilitate the creation of sauerkraut, cheese and beer.
Pollan labels these sections with corresponding “ancient elements”—fire, water, air and earth—and it’s more than just a convenient rhetorical device. Cooked continues the author’s ongoing exploration of the way modern life has separated us from the realities of the food chain, turning his gaze backward at processes that allowed primitive humans to fundamentally change the way they lived. To those people, there was a kind of supernatural magic in the way fire made meat so delicious, or the way grapes left to ferment became an intoxicating beverage. For 21st-century people, they’re just another kind of fuel.
The sociology of food is the subtext that makes Cooked so engrossing, even beyond Pollan’s sharply observed accounts of time spent with the passionate aficionados—pit masters, a nun making artisanal cheese in a convent—of these various culinary crafts. He explains the “cooking hypothesis” for human evolution, which suggests that learning the abilities that allowed part of the work of breaking down food to begin in a pot or over a fire allowed primitive pre-humans the additional energy for their big brains to develop. He looks into the notion that the ritual nature of roasting meat, in addition to the development of agriculture and settled dwellings, turned us into communal creatures who sat down to eat and tell stories together, rather than foraging alone.
Cooked launches from the paradigm shift of modern life that has us perceive cooking not as basic human behavior, but as an inconvenient, time-consuming task to be avoided, resulting not just in the increased consumption of processed pre-prepared foods but a change in the way we think about preparing and eating a meal as a shared experience. Pollan links some of this shift to evolving gender roles, and a post-World War II advertising culture that was about “liberating” women from the drudgery of kitchen work. Yet, he refuses to suggest that women alone need to carry the guilt for resorting to quick-fix meals for their families rather than preparing a dinner from scratch.
Indeed, his emphasis is not on guilt at all, but on reconnecting us with the things that once made food more than just something we grab to keep us going until the next time we’re hungry. Do we even realize that the omnipresence of onion in recipes across cultures may be connected to its chemical qualities of killing off harmful bacteria? Has our cultural obsession with eliminating all bacteria contributed to the elimination of even those microbes we need in our lives, perhaps contributing to the increase in digestive disorders? Have we lost respect for the perfection of a whole grain of wheat’s nutritional potential in our obsession with a sweeter, fluffier white loaf of bread?
Just to make sure there’s a bit of practical advice, Pollan does include some basic recipes that he picked up along his journey. But Cooked is ultimately far less about getting readers to duplicate these techniques than it is about taking time to think about them at all. Pollan is such an entertaining writer that it’s sometimes easy to forget that what he’s writing is, at its core, philosophy; he’s out to encourage shifting your eating behavior in a way that fundamentally shifts your way of perceiving it. For all the amazing chemical and biological changes he chronicles in Cooked, the change he’s most interested in is the one that might happen just as a result of reading.
MICHAEL POLLAN: COOKED: A NATURAL HISTORY OF TRANSFORMATION
Release date: April 23
$27.95 hardcover/$14.99 ebook