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 bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer. In the course of his journey, he discovers that the cook occupies a special place in the world, standing squarely between nature and culture. Both realms are transformed by cooking, and so, in the process, is the cook.
Each section of Cooked tracks Pollan’s effort to master a single classic recipe using one of the four elements. A North Carolina barbecue pit master tutors him in the primal magic of fire; a Chez Panisse–trained cook schools him in the art of braising; a celebrated baker teaches him how air transforms grain and water into a fragrant loaf of bread; and finally, several mad-genius “fermentos” (a tribe that includes brewers, cheese makers, and all kinds of picklers) reveal how fungi and bacteria can perform the most amazing alchemies of all. The reader learns alongside Pollan, but the lessons move beyond the practical to become an investigation of how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships: with plants and animals, the soil, farmers, our history and culture, and, of course, the people our cooking nourishes and delights. Cooking, above all, connects us.
The effects of not cooking are similarly far reaching. Relying upon corporations to process our food means we consume large quantities of fat, sugar, and salt; disrupt an essential link to the natural world; and weaken our relationships with family and friends. In fact, Cooked argues, taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable. Reclaiming cooking as an act of enjoyment and self-reliance, learning to perform the magic of these everyday transformations, opens the door to a more nourishing life.
Amazon.com ReviewAn Amazon Best Book of the Month, April 2013: Who has untangled the nature of modern America’s relationship with food more effectively than Michael Pollan? After sharing the experience of growing his own food in Second Nature, he illuminated how our appetites drive the evolution of edible plants with The Botany of Desire. Then he pondered The Omnivore’s Dilemma, weighing our precarious food chain and popularizing the pleasures of eating local; In Defense of Food and Food Rules distilled his conclusions into a manifesto and a manual. With Cooked, he closes the seed-to-table loop with a passionate exploration of the satisfying transformation of grilling, braising, baking, and fermenting--and their primal roots. Learning to cook elevated humans from lone animals into increasingly intelligent, civilized groups, and though we spend scant time doing real cooking, we’ve become obsessed with watching people cook--a paradox that points to longing for a lost experience. Through his own experiences making and enjoying food with pit masters, chefs, bakers, and “fermentos,” he retraces our path to connection with real ingredients and health for people and planet. Whether you’re sympathetic or skeptical, you can’t help but appreciate Pollan’s genius for conveying the elemental appeal of making a meal. --Mari Malcolm
From BookforumEven when he's championing his ethical concerns, Pollan is a researcher, a prodigious gatherer and synthesizer of vast reams of information. Having throughly scutinized every other link in the food chain, he finally turns his skills to the one link missing from his repertoire. And in the process, he learned to cook. The chapters and their signature recipes are meant to stand in for the traditional four elements (water, earth, air, and fire). And each of these natural forces, Pollan writes, signifies one of the “great transformations of nature into culture we call cooking.” The author's project is, in fact, nearly as all encompassing and essential as the elements themselves, ranging across several disciplines, embracing perspectives both stringently objective and deeply personal, and introducing us to a novel's worth of colorful characters whom he enlists to teach him the cooking method at hand. Cooked is a potently seductive invitation to discover—or rediscover— our most primal connection to the natural world, and it will likely induce more than a few readers to dust off their little-used pots and pans and to brush up on some essential knife skills. The only problem with Cooked is that, at a lengthy—albeit entrancing—450-some pages, it'll be quite a while before you get back into the kitchen. —Linda Delibero