A Natural History of Transformation, the subtitle of Michael Pollan’s new book, COOKED, suggests that his message is about transformation of both the food to be cooked and the one who cooks as well. Pollan wants to promote the notion of people being not only consumers of food but producers as well. As an organizing principle he makes use of the four basic elements of ancient philosophers, fire, water, air and earth, to discuss food and its preparation.
Pollan suggests that an important transformation takes place when one catches, plucks and guts a chicken compared to microwaving a frozen chicken breast. A sense of community with the earth and other people is lost when a family gathers around the microwave: only one dish can be “cooked” at a time and individual choice does not promote sharing according to the author.
Pollan relates cooking to natural history by frequent references to anthropology and evolution as factors in determining what humans have eaten during our long history. Control of fire and the development of pots and other containers all allowed humans to eat a greater and greater variety of food and helped in the development of larger brains. Humans are animals that cook; no others do! For environmental, social, community and economic sustainability, cooking is the most important thing one can do for earth according to Pollan.
To research the four elements and their relationship to cooking Pollan sought expert tutors to guide him in discussing the role of each element. For fire he related to the chefs of whole pigs in North Carolina and other places; for the other elements he teamed up with artisan bakers, cheese makes and brewers to learn how water and air and fungi and microbes all contribute to the preparation of food. It is a fascinating journey.
At times Pollan dabbles in speculation about ideas such as the connection between whole-hog cooking and animal sacrifices of ancient times, the choice of bread as Eucharist (why not cheese?) and cultural and physiological aspects of alcohol consumption and the connection between stinky foods and death, but he really needs to write another book to explore those ideas.
The book ends with recipes for each of the four sections including how to make a sourdough culture and an extensive bibliography. Reading will give you a renewed interest in food and cooking. Whether that interest turns to real cooking may depend on how tied you are to microwaving as cooking!