Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Book Review: Cooked by Michael Pollan

As one of, if not THE, best food writers out there today, Michael Pollan's works get more publicity than many other writers today. His newest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation is no exception. It's been featured everywhere, and I've seen interviews with Pollan all over TV and heard them on the radio. As a fan of his writing, I would have read this book anyway (and even had it preordered and got a signed bookplate). But after reading it, I am even more convinced that others should too, even if food writing isn't your usual reading fare. 

Let me first state that I wholeheartedly disagree with any reviews out there that suggest that Pollan is sexist or advocating a return of women to the kitchen as opposed to men. I'm convinced those people were looking for page hits and never actually finished the book (which is rather long, clocking in at almost 450 pages). He does point out that for much of history, the work of cooking was divided along gender lines, and when women entered the workforce, the amount of cooking done in the home was in general reduced. That is obviously true. But nowhere does he advocate that women are responsible for the destruction of American food culture or suggest that women should be cooking by virtue of their sex alone. (Trust me, had their been any whiff of sexism in this book, I would have detected it. I didn't get a graduate certificate in women's and gender studies for nothing.) So if you come across a review that even suggests it - stop reading the review and pick up the book instead.

Pollan divides the book into four sections that cover the four fundamental transformations that humans use to cook food and breaks it down by explaining particular foods in those categories. Fire (traditional barbecue), Water (braises), Air (bread) and Earth (fermented foods, alcohol) are all discussed at length, with the history of the processes and their development, how they are practiced today and what makes them unique. He also tries his own hand at the processes and describes those experiences.

Mark and I are both avid cooks. One of us makes dinner every night, even though it takes up precious time. We believe in the benefits of home cooked meals and feel they are better for our bodies nutritionally and we take joy in their preparation as well. To be honest, much of the reason I cook when I come home exhausted from a long day of work is because I don't want corporations doing it for me. I refuse to give up that independence and that connection to my food by relying on fast food or easy fix processed dinners in a box. We save money by cooking. And my food tastes better than most anything you can buy in the store. (Ask the people who smell the leftovers I heat up at work. I've seen more than a few raised eyebrows when they ask what's being heated up and I say oh, just rigatoni with my husband's homemade Sunday gravy. Yep, my husband cooks.)

So I didn't really pick up this book to be convinced that cooking is important. I've already been on that train for awhile. But it made me think about cooking in new ways and to appreciate more the value of it on a cultural level. The benefits of cooking are manifold, that much is clear. Not only does it set us apart from animals, but it bring us together in community. In a world that's forever multi-tasking, always having to accomplish more in less time, cooking makes you stop and develop the art of unitasking. That's right - just doing one thing. Chopping onions. Feeding a sourdough starter. Roasting meat over a cook fire. Pollan's descriptions of the benefits of these individual ways of cooking are poetic.

For those of us who work in an industry where we don't really produce anything tangible (and for that matter, sometimes, meaningful), cooking gives us the opportunity to make something with our own hands. I like that cooking doesn't involve typing. Pollan says it best here:
I doubt it's a coincidence that interest in all kinds of DIY pursuits has intensified at the precise historical moment when we find ourselves spending most of our waking hours in front of screens - senseless, or nearly so. At a time when four of our five senses and the whole right side of our brains must be feeling sorely underemployed, these kinds of projects offer the best kind of respite. They're antidotes to our abstraction. (p.407, emphasis mine)
For me, cooking is grounding. It connects me to my family and to the earth. It gives me immense pride to spend time cooking and create something infinitely more than the sum of its parts. In a world filled with noise, the swoosh of the knife coming down through onions followed by those same onions sizzling in a pan is calming. 

Is cooking a chore for some people? Yes. I recognize not everyone is going to get philosophical or wax poetic about the sounds coming from a pan when they are spending an hour prepping and cooking a braise. But chores are what they are because they are necessary. We find ways to make them less cumbersome or take less time because we know we need to do things like clean our toilets and wash our clothes. And how much more important is a chore tied to the nourishment we give our bodies? The answer is infinitely.

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