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Michael Pollan uses the four elements – fire, water, air, and earth – to explore the art and practice of cooking.

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Regardless, Pollan who is an excellent storyteller, places cooking within cultural histories and folk lore, writes engaging mini-profiles of his mentors, and reveals a fascinating underworld of microbes and bacteria busy at work in the foods that we eat.

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The section on air examines the complicated and sometimes infuriating process of baking a loaf of bread. Pollan visits the San Francisco bakery of Chad Robertson, who “looks less a baker than the surfer he also is.” Robertson is the epitome of an artisan baker, working tirelessly and obsessively until he created a signature leaven of young yeasts that smell “fruity, sweet, and floral.” He tends to his bread “starter” as if it were a newborn, feeding it on regular intervals, controlling its temperature, and mourning deeply when it once got accidentally tossed out.

Pollan downscales this intensity in his own kitchen but still pursues baking his own loaves until he feels a sense of mastery and accomplishment. “A good-looking loaf of bread declares itself as an artifact ... something that cannot be said of too many other foods,” he writes.

The last section, earth, takes on bacteria and the Western fear of “micro”-anything when it comes to food. Pollan swims away from natural repulsions reinforced by the efficiency of mass-marketed, prepackaged foods and mothers who equate bacteria to warriors of evil. Pollan embraces stinky cheese and fermenting vegetables. He goes as far to say, “Bacteria-free food may be making us sick.”

Putting his own squeamishness aside, Pollan makes sauerkraut, Korean kimchi, and beer. Like bread-making, and even yogurt-making, these are temperamental and mysterious processes, not always doing what they are supposed to do. To find out why, Pollan explores the curious communities of microbes living inside us. This kind of gut-gazing may not interest all readers, but it does reveal the links between science and cookery. A visit with Sister Noëlla Marcellino, a French nun with a PhD in microbiology, who makes cheese made from raw milk, is as charming as it is informative.

While most of this exploration is new to Pollan, “Cooked” arrives alongside a resurgence of self-reliant folks who already bake their own breads and make crocks of sauerkraut. For them, Pollan’s work will be a trendy affirmation. But for the uninitiated and curious, there are a few recipes at the back of the book to try out.

Domestic science isn’t new, dating back to the homestead days before sliced bread and industrial canning. And while charming, it is a tedious process that some have left behind without a shred of guilt. So this is really the story of one man’s transformation and discovery of skills once only linked to the female domain. Whether enough people will follow his example and take the time to cook at home, thereby lessening consumer disconnect from the food system, is yet to be seen. But one thing is clear: there are plenty of entertaining chefs to watch on TV while you wait for your dough to rise. 

Kendra Nordin is the editor for the Monitor's food blog Stir It Up!.


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