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Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

“Important, possibly life-altering, reading for every living, breathing human being.” –Boston Globe

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 bre

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  1. 150 of 165 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Why cook? Here’s why., April 23, 2013
    By 
    Kristine Lofgren (Utah) –
    (VINE VOICE)
      

    This review is from: Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (Hardcover)

    Michael Pollan has the amazing ability to take the mundane (corn, building a workshop, plant seeds) and make it fascinating. So it shouldn’t come as a surprised that Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation could take something many of us take for granted and turn it into an incredible journey.

    Pollan opens the book by explaining the day that realized that all of the questions that occupy his time seem to lead back to cooking. How to improve your health? Cooking. Good way to connect with the family? Cooking (and brewing). The most important thing we can do to help reform the American food complex? Cooking. Pollan admits he has always been mildly interested in the act, but it wasn’t until he realized how important it could be that he began wanting to learn how to do it in earnest. Pollan realized that though American’s seem to be obsessed with cooking (Top Chef, The Taste, Anthony Bourdain, Hell’s Kitchen) we seem to do very little of it.

    Pollan breaks down his education into four sections, much like he broke down The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The first section, called Fire, starts out at a North Carolina BBQ. It’s here that Pollan strives to solve the mystery of “pig-plus-wood-smoke-plus-time” and what makes it so darn good. He spends time with pit-masters, learning the find art of the fire, which involves everything from Freudian theory, ancient gods and the Bible to chemistry and, of course, Big Meat. Before his fire education will be over, the reader will journey with Pollan to Manhattan, Berkeley, Spain and back again.

    From there we dive into Water, which starts out, inexplicably, with chopping onions. As any home cook knows, onions are a basic element of cooking, but did you ever consider what evolutionary advantage onion tears could possibly have for the onion? In this section, Pollan tackles water in a seven-step recipe that walks through copping, sautéing, browning, braising and finishing. But of course, this being Michael Pollan, nothing is quite that simple. While learning about braising the reader also gets an education in chemistry and the mystery of umami.

    On to Air, which is all about baking. Pollan breaks down bread into its most pure form “an ingenious technology for improving the flavor… of grass.” Here we learn about evolution and, as Pollan spends his time with master bakers, fermentation. Any other author might have trouble linking such disparate ideas as bacteria and engineering, but this section ambles easily between the two ideas. Pollan doesn’t spend all of this time in his home kitchen mastering the art of crumb and crust, however, and he takes us from the blue surf waves of the ocean to the industrial Hostess plant all in the name of understanding air (can I have his job?).

    Finally, we come to earth, or “Fermentation’s Cold Fire.” As you would imagine, it is here that Pollan turns his eye to vegetables and animals, but the section starts out with death. Bacteria, mold and even Jello gets its due as Pollan takes us into the garden and into the soil for making kimchi. From there we head to the dairy farm where we learn about milk and its more popular big brother, cheese. Pollan works along side cheese master Sister Noella in Connecticut, learning the amazingly intricate ins and outs of cheese creation. This section is also the one in which Pollan address alcohol, which is right at home among the vegetables, it turns out. The story of beer and spirits is one of biology, of course, but also history and culture.

    In the end, this isn’t just a book about learning to cook, nor should it be considered an addendum to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Though Pollan tackles some of the same issues (health, agribusiness and the human body), Cooked is the retelling of a journey. And the opportunity to meet these culinary superstars is wonderful, but it is only a fraction of the story. Of course there is the requisite finding of the satisfaction of making your own foods, but the bigger aspect is the author and reader’s education in the nature of the world and of human culture. Whether you are familiar with Pollan’s previous work or not, this is a must read for anyone who is even remotely curious about the world around us.

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  2. 102 of 111 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    Seeing Your Kitchen and Food with Fresh Eyes, April 23, 2013
    By 

    This review is from: Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (Hardcover)

    To state the obvious, few people can write about food and food related issues like Michael Pollan. He has changed the way our culture–or at least well-read segments of our culture–thinks about our industrial food complex. In Cooked, Pollan takes his keen eye from large scale systems and focuses it on the kitchen and cooking (while naturally showing the connections to bigger issues). I suppose, I should write “my” kitchen, as Pollan is directing us to make this intimate and personal account. To build our relationship with food, we need to cook for ourselves, and from scratch (at least most of the time). While cooking has lost much of its esteem in our fast-paced, fast-food society, Pollan reevaluates the significance of cooking in everyday life: “Cooking, I found, gives us the opportunity, so rare in modern life, to work directly in our own support, and in the support of the people we feed. If this is not `making a living,’ I don’t know what is” (pg23).

    In Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Pollan pairs his sharp journalism skills with his acumen as a thoughtful analytic essayist to look more deeply at the way we transform plants and animals into food–and why a better understanding of how and why we do it matters. He observes: “The work, or process, [of cooking] retains an emotional or psychological power we can’t quite shake, or don’t want to. And in fact it was after a long bout of watching cooking programs on television that I began to wonder if this activity I had always taken for granted might be worth taking a little more seriously” (pg4). Not surprisingly to anyone familiar with Pollan’s work, he uses cooking to help restore our connections to a healthier natural world.

    Pollan looks at cooking from an almost magically scientific perspective: “Cooks get to put their hands on real stuff, not just keyboards and screens but fundamental things like plants and animals and fungi. They get to work with the primal elements, too, fire and water, earth and air, using them–mastering them!–to perform their tasty alchemies” (pg5). Accordingly, the four elements–fire, water, air, and earth (which correspond to the essential ways we turn to raw materials into meals)–organize the book. Fire = grilling; water = using liquids to cook; air = baking; earth = fermenting. Granted, it’s not a neat categorization (after all, you need fire to bake bread*), but metaphorically the organizing principles work in the sense that Pollan is trying to get us to look at food afresh and referencing the basic elements helps do that, at least poetically (and a writer as good as Pollan works on the subconscious/subtle level). Going further, he cites research and the stories of “deep foodies,” to get us to see with beginners mind. This is his gift; and it makes us care.

    Pollan looks at the process and science of cooking (barbecuing, baking, fermenting, braising/steaming, etc.) along with each method’s effect on us. For example, cooking over high heat contributed to primates’ brains growing larger through eating more efficient with easier and faster to digest foods. Fermented foods help increase healthy bacteria in our intestinal tract. And “microbiologists believe that onions, garlic and spices protect us from the growth of dangerous bacteria on meat.” (It’s likely not just a coincidence that we are drawn to such flavors.)

    In short, this is classic Pollan (ahem) fare. Anyone who has enjoyed MP’s other books, are likely to find this one well worthwhile as well.

    *Example of quote illustrating classification: “To compare a loaf of bread to a bowl of porridge is to realize how much of bread’s power, sensory as well as symbolic, risdes in those empty cells of space. Some 80 percent of a loaf of bread consists of nothing more than air.” (pg. 249)

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