I’ve read every one of Michael Pollan’s books and enjoyed all of them; he’s arguably one of my favorite authors.
His latest book “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” did not fail to impress me once again. His ability to take the mundane (in this case cooking) and make it interesting has - in my humble opinion - no match.
Even though the focus of Cooked is on cooking (duh!), Pollan starts his book by pointing out how modern American society is in fact characterized by a culture of non-cooking. Or better yet, American society has grown a distorted relationship with food and cooking: We spend less time cooking than ever before, but more time watching other people cooking (think about the success of TV shows such as Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, or The Taste).
Pollan identifies this as a dilemma in modern American culture, we are pinned to our couches admiring others cook, but we do it very little ourselves. In fact, “Today, the typical American spends a mere 27 minutes a day of food preparation and another 4 minutes cleaning up. That’s less than half the time spent cooking and cleaning up in 1965.”
So who’s cooking if we don’t do it anymore?
The answer is simple: Corporations. We have outsourced home cooking to Corporate America. And this, according to Pollan, got us into all sorts of trouble.
Corporations care only about selling more food to us and not about our health. To please our palates (and make us eat more) they laden food with sugar, salt and fat. Flavors we are hardwired for, and that we constantly crave.
This has taken a toll on our health: We are a nation where chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, arthritis and cardiovascular diseases are skyrocketing.
Pollan believes this to be a direct consequence of giving up home cooking almost 40 years ago.
His research has led him to the conclusion that cooking is the single most important stepping stone in human evolution. And if humankind wants to continue to evolve, we need to get back in our kitchens.
He admits he has always been mildly interested in the act of cooking, but it wasn’t until he realized how important it could be that he began wanting to learn to do it in earnest.
Pollan breaks down his cooking education into four sections: Fire, Water, Air and Earth. Each represents one of the four central transformation processes of cooking.
Fire = BBQ; water = braising/stewing; air = baking; earth = fermenting/brewing.
For each Pollan has surrounded himself with the masters of each element and he tried to discover the secret of each process.
In the book Pollan takes the reader on a journey that stretches far beyond the house’s kitchen. He looks at the process and science of cooking along with each method’s effect on us.
All in all, Cooked is not a book about learning to cook. It’s a crash course on human evolution and the nature of world.
Whether you are familiar with Pollan’s previous work or not, if you are only a tiny bit interested in food and in the world around us then this book is a must read.