15 Sep 2014

Cooked -- the review

I'm a big fan of Michael Pollan's writing. I read and enjoyed The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore's Dilemma.* I read his most recent book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation about six months ago.

This book makes you want to cook and experiment with food chemistry in your own kitchen. I did a few recipes with a crock pot (mac cheese was meh; brisket tasted metallic), a lot of oven roasting ("paella," mac cheese and roasted veggies were all yummy), and got much deeper into the pickles section (new favorite: green peppercorns).

Cooked also makes you think about the process of cooking and the social dimension of food. (I just bought an apartment with an open kitchen that will make it easy to talk while cooking for guests.)

These ideas are worth repeating:
  1. People who see preparing food as wasted time fail to connect with the natural world and appreciate the amazing cooperation necessary to bring food from a distant farmer to your plate
  2. Cooking may not show up in GDP, but it's definitely a source of happiness for the chef and guests
  3. "Barbecue has the highest bullshit-per-calorie ratio of any cooking method, either because barbecue is so straightforward or because it's done by men" [p 68]
  4. The "slow" dimension of southern cooking probably dates from an era (=slavery) where cooking used time that was worth nothing
  5. By cooking and eating garlic and onions, we convert their chemical defenses into ours
  6. Fire cooking is as wasteful (of heat and ingredients) as pot cooking is conservative. The English had plenty of wood and meat to waste; the French needed to economize in their cooking, hence their mastery of sauces and other ways of improving dodgy food
  7. "Time is the missing ingredient in our recipes -- and our lives." I sometimes feel I lack time to cook but never regret spending time when I do
  8. The move to processed foods was not pulled by demand from busy housewives but pushed by supply from food corporations that wanted higher profits**
  9. "Most of the increase in obesity in the US can be explained by food preparation outside the home" [p 191]
  10. There's strong evidence linking "western diseases of affluence" (cancer, heart disease, stroke, etc.) to refined grains and sugars (I agree)
  11. Most commercial "whole wheat flour" has had the germ and bran taken out and added back (perhaps in a different ratio), which may explain why the flour I milled at home was so much better than store-bought flour
  12. The explosion of research into the microbiome appears to justify the value of fermented foods that most cultures have integrated into their traditional diets
  13. Fermented foods are an "acquired taste" because they define our cultural loyalties
  14. The quest for "clean" foods and "antibiotic" environments may be undermining our health
  15. Cheeses do not just remind us of sex, death and animals; they connect us to life when we eat them
  16. It's not implausible to see fermenting grains into alcohol as a rationale for moving from a healthy hunter-gatherer lifestyle to farming, i.e., people sacrificed weight and height to get drunk
  17. Different cultures treat alcohol and drunkenness in different ways, which makes alcohol use acceptable while allowing alcohol to "open up new possibilities" in different ways
  18. Make your own beer or bread if you want to appreciate good bread or beer
  19. Yes, it's cheaper to buy bread, but baking allows you to be a producer, rather than just an empty consumer. Steaming hot bread reminds us of the joy of friendship and gifts of nature
  20. Pollan tends to criticize the over-industrialization of life that can -- like Adam Smith's pin factory or Chaplin's Modern Times -- erode our humanity. I agree with him on this, and I agree that alienation from production can depress people. I am lucky to have a VERY creative job (teaching, writing, making up ideas), but I think that everyone can do a little more producing, no matter their day job
  21. "Cooking is one of the more beautiful forms that human generosity takes... the very best cooking is a form of intimacy" [p 415]
Bottom Line: Food isn't fuel. Food is life and civilization. It is the string connecting us with others' minds and bodies. I give this book FIVE STARS for its fun and interesting exploration of food, cooking, eating and life. Read it, then cook something for someone.

* Botany describes how apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes "use" us to extend their genetic footprint. Dilemma explains how Americans without a tradition of eating certain foods have a hard time choosing how to eat well.

** I'm routinely disgusted to see the variance between a food package's label and its ingredients. For a simple example, look at any carton of "banana-mango juice" (or similar) where you see that apple or grape juice -- or NO juices -- are the primary ingredients

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