The Joy and Value of Cooking – A Review of Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan

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Late last year I, along with my mother and father, took a blood test to check for any health issues that might have cropped up over the previous year, as well as to check up on pre-existing conditions. The latter was mostly for my parents, but it was also important that I get my blood tested to make sure I hadn’t developed any conditions of my own. My tests from the year before last, when my mother started encouraging us to do this, had come back clean, and I was fully expecting these tests to come in clean, too.

That was not the case. My sodium levels might have been within normal tolerances, and my sugar was a little high for comfort, but my cholesterol gave me great cause for alarm – my doctor told me that I had the cholesterol level of someone twice my age. I was given two choices: either start medication, or adjust my diet. I took the diet option without even thinking twice.

Now, the word “diet” tends to imply that one is about to starve oneself in order to lose weight, but to my mind, that’s not what “diet” means – and I think my doctor is rather proud that I do not define “diet” in that manner, either. “Diet” has, to me, never meant that I ought to go hungry, but simply that I alter what I consume to silence that hunger. So: less junk food, less soda (very much less soda, now), and far, far less fast food. All of these were easy decisions to make, especially when I started packing lunches instead of buying them – which, of course, meant home cooking.

And it is home cooking – or cooking from scratch – that is the central focus of Michael Pollan’s latest book, Cooked. Divided into four sections named after the four classical elements – Fire, Water, Air, and Earth – Pollan talks about his journey of learning how to cook, apprenticing himself to a Southern barbeque pit master; a Chez Panisse-trained former-student-turned-personal-cooking-instructor; a baker; and a cheese-maker, and learning from each of them various methods and traditions of cooking, while at the same time contemplating on where these methods fit in our lives, how they affect us, and what losing or continuing them might mean for humanity as a whole. The result is a fascinating sequence of anecdotes, interspersed with a great deal of science, history, and philosophy, all told in Pollan’s eminently readable narrative style.

Those who have read The Omnivore’s Dilemma will, in all likelihood, be comparing it to Cooked, and will find a great many similarities between them – perhaps too many for some. The Introduction, in particular, will read very,very similar to the content of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and some readers have taken a set against Cooked for this similarity. I, for my part, do not take this against Pollan at all, since I’ve come to view Cooked as a natural extension of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: an expansion, so to speak, of the ideas and philosophies Pollan expounded upon. In Omnivore’s Dilemma he concludes that cooking one’s own food, as well as taking great care to source ingredients from responsible growers and animal raisers, is one of the keys to a better life, and is in many ways the key to a healthier one. Cooked demonstrates, far beyond the four meals Pollan describes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, how to go about doing just that, as well as showing what humanity lost when it handed control of food production to corporations.

As expected, it is in his anecdotes that Pollan truly shines. In the course of his various apprenticeships he explains a whole host of other aspects related to the type of cooking he is doing. For example in the section titled “Fire” he discusses the concept of barbecue from the perspective of Southern whole-hog barbecue, interweaving various bits of research and musings on the cooking style’s politics (class, race and gender being some of the more interesting angles from which one may approach the concept of barbecue as a whole, and not just whole-hog) and history, all the while telling the story of his brief apprenticeship to pit master Ed Mitchell, and then his own subsequent attempt at doing whole-hog barbecue. He repeats this in his discussion of braising, baking, cheese-making, and beer-brewing, always ensuring to tackle the social, political, historical, and gender-related aspects of each method of cooking.

What I found especially fun to read, mostly because it’s related to my own interests, was the section on baking. I can do stovetop cooking, but I have something of a fear of spattering oil, so I don’t do much of it if I can. Baking however – that is an entirely different story. There is something comforting and magical about combining a set of raw ingredients, putting it in an oven, and more or less leaving it there until the nose (and occasionally the eye, but more the nose) judges it the right time to pull out whatever has been cooking – and while waiting, nothing is more pleasurable than to catch up on my reading. Every year around December I bake chocolate-chip cookies as Christmas gifts for family members, and it is easy to read a chapter or two before smelling that delicious, mouthwatering scent of chocolate, butter, and vanilla and pausing a while to pull out the cooked batch to put in a new one, before settling down to read another chapter.

Pollan, however, goes much further than simply making cookies – he bakes what I (and many other bakers) consider to be the ultimate baking accomplishment: bread. Though I come from a country and culture whose staple grain is rice, bread is still an important food item in the Philippines, and we do still eat quite a bit of it (mostly for breakfast and merienda – the Filipino equivalent of afternoon tea), so the idea of baking my own bread is incredibly appealing. Therefore, reading about Pollan’s attempt to culture his own sourdough starter, and his discourse on bread of the past, present, and perhaps of the future, made for thoroughly enjoyable reading.

And here is what I think is the most enjoyable aspect of this book, aside from Pollan’s anecdotes and narrative style: the fact that all of this encourages the reader to try their hand at cooking for himself or herself. Pollan even includes the recipes in the book’s appendix, though by the time the reader gets to them she or he is aware that a recipe is not a hard-and-fast rule when it comes to cooking – something Pollan learns throughout the course of the book. As I mentioned earlier, The Omnivore’s Dilemma makes the case for home-cooking, but Cooked shows the reader how one may make that case – and cause – one’s own. Pollan makes it clear that it is not going to be easy, that there will be many mistakes along the way, but they do give the reader hope that perhaps it is not as daunting as one assumes it to be (something Pollan specifically tackles in “Water,” the section dealing with the slow-braising of food). To be sure, Pollan has the advantage of access to some of the best people in their field, but he makes it clear that just because he has access to the experts, it does not make him as good as they at their own specialty. That takes time and practice – and it is something Pollan himself recognizes, and encourages the reader to have in any future cooking endeavors.

Overall, Cooked is, at its core, no different thematically from The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but it should not be viewed as a rehash of that book – rather, one should approach it as an extension of what Pollan was trying to do in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: that it is better to cook one’s own food. The Omnivore’s Dilemma explains the greater cultural and health-related reasons for home-cooking; Cooked emphasizes that but also adds a far more personal dimension. It will not be easy at first – Pollan’s stories about his apprenticeships make this clear – but if one keeps at it, one is sure to reap the benefits of that time and patience, not only in better health or a clearer statement about (or against) the world, but also something that will bring great personal satisfaction – something to do, first and foremost, for oneself.

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