Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (book review)
I’ve never thought of what I do in the kitchen each day as being particularly revolutionary, but after reading Michael Pollan’s newest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, I’m now convinced that the act of cooking is actually very powerful. Not only does cooking meals at home ensure a healthier and happier family, but it also rejects the processed-food industry in favour of a better, more sustainable food system. Cooking reduces dependency and makes us more self-sufficient in a highly specialized consumer economy. It provides a deeper understanding of the natural world, of animals and seasons, and even of history.
Cooked is divided into four parts, “one for each of the great transformations of nature into the culture we call cooking.” These transformations also correspond to the four classical elements: fire, water, air, and earth. Pollan embarks on a quest to better understand each of these styles of cooking and to improve his own cooking skills in the process. ‘Fire’ is a foray into the world of Southern barbecue. ‘Water’ is about braising meats and vegetables in the kitchen. ‘Air’ is a quest to make the perfect loaf of bread. ‘Earth’ explores the art of fermenting, which relies on fungi and bacteria to “creatively destruct” food.
As a devoted home cook who spends at least three hours a day in the kitchen, I particularly enjoyed Pollan’s glorification of the seemingly mundane and repetitive tasks that I do on a regular basis, such as chopping onions, browning meat, simmering stock, and kneading dough. The significance of these steps often becomes lost in the frantic daily rush to get food on the table, but Pollan makes my efforts feel worthwhile.
Even more compelling are Pollan’s arguments for how the act of cooking can repair the damage caused by outsourcing meal production to corporations. Cooking could do much to reverse the tide of poor health. Americans spend a mere twenty-seven minutes preparing meals each day; ironically, more time is spent watching food being cooked on TV than actually cooking it. One food-industry researcher tells Pollan, “You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. Cook it yourself. Eat anything you want – just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”
“Handling these plants and animals, taking back the production and the preparation of even just some part of our food, has the salutary effect of making visible again many of the lines of connection that the supermarket and the “home-meal replacement” have succeeded in obscuring, yet of course never actually eliminated. To do so is to take back a measure of responsibility, too, to become, at the very least, a little less glib in one’s pronouncements.”
Cooked is an inspiring call to global action that’s accessible to everyone.