Friday, October 3, 2014

Review of "Cooked" by Michael Pollan

A busy new routine with driving two boys to and from two different schools, the start of my tutoring schedule and a couple of new hobbies have kept me away from the blog. I've still been reading, but at a more leisurely pace. So, yesterday I mentioned to a friend that I had this little blog and blogger's guilt immediately set in... so I bring you a very belated review of Michael Pollan's "Cooked."


Michael Pollan's name is well-known as a NYT food columnist (maybe even a food philosopher?), so I was a little surprised when I came upon his confession that he didn't really cook in the introduction of his newest tome, Cooked. But we journalists like to think we can teach people about things that we ourselves are just in the process of learning, so I figured I'd forge ahead with the nearly 500-page book about Pollan's adventures and experiments in barbecue, bread baking, cheese-making and fermenting. His core argument is that readers should, like he has learned, prepare their own food at home because of the way cooking connects us to our families, promotes healthful eating, supports local food producers and, well, because we're genetically wired to cook. Cooking is what makes us human, Pollan argues, using quotes from anthropologists who hypothesize that early humans distinguished themselves from the apes when they began to use fire to cook. But let's get on to the meat of the book. And the bread, cheese and pickles.

The book is organized by sections according to the four elements-- fire, water, earth and air. I didn't feel this gimmick really added to the book, so I'll avoid wasting your time going into more detail. Instead, I will organize my review by what I liked and what I didn't:

I liked:
I was surprised by how extraordinarily interesting pickles are. Real pickles, like kimchi and sauerkraut, that have marinated in their own fermenting juices, Pollan proposes, are a source of health today's Western-diet eating omnivore no longer enjoys. He quotes fermentation guru Sandor Katz to posit that humans are not the rugged individualists we assume we are. Instead, we live because of --and in symbiosis with--a vibrant microcosm of bacteria that colonize our guts, help us digest, send messages to our brains and defend us from bad intruders. His portrait of the invisible bacterial world is really brilliant. And it made me up my intake of yogurt. 

I was also entranced with Pollan's foray into ancient cheese making traditions with a forthright nun. Here, he explores the safety of unpasteurized cheeses and why humans like cheese, despite its sometimes heady (and sometimes footy) odors. The humor, history and science of this section make it an enlightening read.

There are plenty of DIY recipes at the end of the book. I liked that they were there, especially the instructions for colonizing your own bread yeast from scratch. But I must admit I did not test any of them out.

Take it or leave it:
Pollan spends a good chunk of the book microbrewing Pollan's Pale Ale with his teenage  son. I have zero interest in beer or brewing moldy batches of it in my basement. But I know it's kind of culinary craze right now, so there are probably plenty of readers who would enjoy this section of the book.

What I didn't like:
Pollan's opening chapter explores Southern pit barbecue. Here I found the author's privilege as a white, upper-middle class male came out in annoying ways. It seemed he spent a lot of time hinting that blacks were superior pit men, but didn't interview an actual black pit master until the end of the section. When he did, he made the man seem like a self-inflated, self-absorbed barbecue mascot who might have at one time been a great pit man but now cuts corners and entrusts the real work to underlings. Then Pollan exposes the dark truth: the black man uses industrial-ag pigs to produce his pulled pork sandwiches!!! So they aren't even authentic.  Maybe Pollan was just telling it like it was. But something about the subtly elitist tone of the whole bbq chapter just didn't sit well with me. A journalist of Pollan's caliber could have find a super-authentic, true to tradition, farm-raised, unpretentious pulled pork sandwich, and he could have unearthed a similarly impressive black pit master. Perhaps he needed to look into that wooden shack that all the locals (white and black) know, but hasn't made the guidebooks or yelp. 

In Sum:
Despite my quibbles, I think most foodies will like this book. But if food snobs or food agendas make you lose your appetite, just read the parts about cheese and pickles. 

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