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If US food writer Michael Pollan’s latest book Cooked: A Natural History Of Transformation (Penguin) were a meal it would be a lengthy one made up of delicious morsels and bigger chunks harder to chew through but probably very good for you all the same.
Cooked is not a recipe book – although there are a few at the back. Rather it is part dissertation, part culinary journey of discovery, part paean to the virtues of food preparation.
Pollan begins with the premise that cooking is the thing that separates us from other animal species. He quotes anthropologist Richard Wrangham’s theory that when humans learnt to control fire it freed us up from the effort of chewing and digesting raw food, providing faster, better nourishment; and so we were able to get on with the business of developing a culture.
Enthused by this idea, Pollan resolves to embark on an education in cooking. He approaches it by dividing the whole business into its four transformative elements: fire, water, air and earth.
Fire takes him to North Carolina where he is introduced to the tradition of southern barbecue – not a gas grill in the backyard Kiwi-style but fire pits where whole hogs are roasted slowly over wood. This is the most entertaining section of Cooked partly because of the personalities Pollan encounters as he learns to make the perfect barbecue sandwich, in particular legendary pitmaster Ed Mitchell.
Water takes him to the kitchen where he learns the art of one-pot slow cooking. For home cooks this is the most practical part of the book as the chapters are constructed round a basic recipe and littered with tips to extract maximum flavor from cheap cuts of meat.
Air is all about baking the perfect sourdough but it also takes Pollan to a Wonder Bread factory where he sees how manufacturers carefully remove all the good stuff from grains of wheat before mass-producing their soft white loaves.
Earth leads us into the realm of fermented foods, with Pollan steeping himself in sauerkraut, kimchi and healthy bacteria.
The core message in Cooked is much the same as in Pollan’s previous books. He is concerned about the industrialisation of food, the insidious creep of the processed and the packaged onto our dining tables, our love affair with fast and convenient, and what it has stolen from the rhythm of our lives as well as done to our health.
He manages to be opinionated without preaching. What he says makes such sense he almost shouldn’t have to say it, except you only have to walk down the aisles of your closest supermarket to see how much we need to hear it.
Pollan is a realist. He understands all the elements of modern life that have contributed to the decline of culinary skills. Time in the kitchen, chopping and frying, neither hurried nor distracted is, he says, one of the great luxuries of life at this point.
Cooked is writing to inspire and inform, to help turn the drudgery of getting family weeknight dinners on the table into something more vital for our health and our humanity. It’s a big feed of a book, complex and difficult to digest at times, but nourishing to the soul as well as the brain.