Michael Pollan probably knows that many good things come in trilogies. His latest work completes a three-book food journey he started in 2006 by following food from its origins in nature and agriculture with The Omnivore’s Dilemma, to the effects it has on our bodies with In Defense of Food. Pollan has now written Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (Penguin Press, 2013, $29.50) to show us that the preparation of food, the stage in between coming from nature and going into our bodies, could be the most vital link in the food chain. His previous research took him to farms, feedlots, and McDonald’s, but the legwork for Cooked started and ended in his own kitchen. Along the way, he got help from bread bakers, barbecue pit masters, beer brewers, artisanal picklers, and cheese makers.
About experimenting in his own kitchen Pollan writes: “Handling these plants and animals, taking back the production and the preparation of even just some part of our food, has the salutary effect of making visible again many of the lines of connection that the supermarket and the ‘home-meal replacement’ have succeeded in obscuring, yet of course never actually eliminated.” Cooking is a primal activity, using the fundamental sources of plants, animals, and fungi with the core elements of fire, water, air, and earth to create everyday culinary works of art. Pollan’s wish is that we embrace these sources and elements as a foundation of sustenance in our own kitchens.
The elements actually provide the backbone of the book’s four chapters: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. Cooking with Fire takes Pollan to the barbecue pits of North Carolina where he gets his hands into whole hog barbeque with legendary pit master Ed Mitchell. Chopping bellies, loins, shoulders, and skin used in barbeque preparation, he works so frantically to prepare barbeque sandwiches for ravenous crowds that he finds himself covered in pig oil at the end of the day. He even suggests the elegant concept of terroir, used mostly in reference to wine, can apply to a pulled pork sandwich, because the sense of history that North Carolina has put into what real barbeque is all about is tasted in those sandwiches.
The chapter on Water gets him into soups, sauces, and stews – dishes that combine multiple ingredients in a pot to simmer in a bubbling liquid. Quite the opposite of roasting a single joint of meat over a fire, cooking with pots, casseroles, and tagines allows for a marriage of ingredients which become unified with a braising liquid to create new flavours. The same can be said about the magic of bread making. The chapter on Air informs us that along with yeast, water, and flour, a loaf of bread consists of 80 percent air; it is the magical ingredient that allows bread to rise and the air pockets in bread are where the flavour and aroma reside.
There is even an evolutionary theory uncovered by Pollan called “the cooking hypothesis”, which claims that modern homo sapiens evolved from early ancestors only after they discovered fire, started cooking food, were able to quicken their digestive processes, and had excess energy for brain development. Pollan writes, “Cooking in effect takes much of the work of digestion outside the body, using the energy of fire in (partial) place of the energy of our bodies to break down complex carbohydrates and render proteins more digestible.” Before the invention of food cooked over fire, our primate ancestors spent most of their day expending energy by chewing and digesting raw food.
The Earth chapter is about the fermenting and pasteurizing processes used to preserve all sorts of food — sauerkraut, tofu, pickles, cheese, beer, and yoghurt. Fermentation originally occurred in the ground, graduating to crocks made of earthenware which are “really just earth once removed, cleaner and more portable perhaps, but otherwise the same basic idea.” Fermentation is also known as cooking with cold fire as there is no actual heat involved but foods like cabbage and grapes can be “cooked” with bacteria and live cultures into sauerkraut and wine.
Pollan ends the book with brewing his own beer because “all four elements were represented in the beer-making process. The barley is first cooked over a fire; the grain is then boiled in water; and the beer, after fermentation, is carbonated with air. Beer is the complete four-element food.”
Above all, Pollan is interested in informing us how his research is good for our health and he does rail against pre-packaged, industrialized food as being detrimental to our well-being. He urges that “to cook for the pleasure of it, to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption.” Pollan believes that building our own meals from scratch is important, interesting and worthwhile, and that every meal is a piece of artistry and alchemy that nourishes us. He writes: “It is the very allusiveness of cooked food that appeals to us, as indeed that same quality does in poetry or music or art.”
DARIN COOK works and plays in Chatham-Kent and regularly contributes to eatdrink.