Michael Pollan uses the four elements – fire, water, air, and earth – to explore the art and practice of cooking.
The term cooking conjures up a variety of emotions: It can mean something delicious is bubbling on the stove. It can mean absolute drudgery. It can mean relationships, as in “I love my husband’s cooking.” But what is going on really, in the process that transforms animal protein and active yeast into barbecued meat resting on a pillowy bun? And if more people knew about those techniques, would they actually cook?Skip to next paragraph
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Food journalist Michael Pollan thinks so. In Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Pollan explores four elements – fire, water, air, earth – to breathe new life and understanding into an activity that he calls essential and exclusive to the human experience. Unlike his previous food-related books (“The Omivore’s Dilemma,” “In Defense of Food,”), which scrutinized agribusiness practices and questioned consumers' choices at the supermarket, this time Pollan has subjected himself to his own thesis. He admits that while has he always dabbled in cooking, he counts himself as one among many who hadn’t thought that much about it.
“Cooked” is a do-it-yourself solution to the food consumerism Pollan feels has gone out of control.
In some ways, it seems odd to declare that many Americans are dispassionate about preparing their own food, choosing to watch cooking shows than stir a pot themselves. This is not to say that Americans aren’t doing some kind of cooking – just not the type of meals that take longer than 30 minutes, about the same amount of time it takes the contestants on “Chopped” to mince, sauté, and braise their way through three courses.
In “Cooked,” Pollan invests three years in being mentored by various gifted teachers – an eternity in the world of microwaves and fast food restaurants. First, he heads straight into the fire to grill with Southern pit masters such as Ed Mitchell, the “pope” of barbeque, learning everything from preparing (and in some cases, blessing) whole pigs before they are smoked, tending to the coals, and shredding pounds and pounds of cooked meat into pulled meat for thousands of New Yorkers at a street festival.
Next, exploring the component of water, he takes private weekend “Grandma cooking” classes from one of his own writing students at Berkeley, who also is a local chef and a daughter of Iranian immigrants. Together they dice onions, braise meat, and make stews that simmer for an entire day. So what happens when an investigative journalist turns his piercing attention to the simple act of caramelizing onions in a pan? Something like this:
“Cooking with onions, garlic, and other spices is a form of biochemical jujitsu, in which the first move is to overcome the plants’ chemical defenses so we might eat them, and the second is to then deploy their defenses against other species to defend ourselves.”
In other words, onions are spicy on the tongue, cooking makes them sweet, and they have health benefits. Perhaps this kind of cooking chemistry verbiage will attract new people into the kitchen – the kind who like to drop random bits of trivia around the dinner table. But sometimes these deep-dives, which come with regularity throughout “Cooked,” up the urge to click on the TV and see what’s entertaining on the Food Network.