Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, by Michael Pollan

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Michael Pollan’s new book, Cooked, examines the fascinating transformations that take place when our food is cooked. The book mixes science, philosophy, history and hands on practice. The end result will make you think more deeply about the mysterious chemical processes that turn raw food into delicious meals.

If you’re a foodie, your heart most likely skips a beat at the mention of Michael Pollan. He’s most famous for his brilliant 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, an investigation into the various food chains that lead to our plates. He also wrote In Defense of Food. It could perhaps be argued that his new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, forms the third volume in a food trilogy. Together, the three books in their chronological order explore the provenance of our food, its nutritional value, and finally, the chemical and taste transformations that occur when our food is cooked.

A book about a late middle aged man discovering cooking seems like a pretty prosaic subject for a 400 page book, but Pollan has the gift of the gab. He can turn the chopping of an onion into a philosophical meditation. Sometimes these musings can go on for a bit too long, but by and large Pollan has a wealth of information and learning to bring to every subject he explores.

The big idea of the book is the hypothesis, developed by Richard Wrangham in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, that cooking food allowed humans to develop bigger brains. Cooking food, a form of digestion outside of the body, allowed us to consume more calories and hence develop more grey matter. That’s the theory, anyway.

Cooked is very much a conceptual piece, with the book organised into the four elements: fire, water, air and earth. Translation for the reader: barbeque, pot cooking such as soups and stews, baking bread and the wonderful world of microbes involved in fermenting and brewing. Pollan gets himself a mentor for each type of cooking and writes up his experiences. There’s also generous side orders of  Pollan’s typical erudition on questions of science, history and cultural practice. Each section is about 100 pages long. To my surprise, my favourite was the one on fermenting, which has plenty of fascinating science on microbes and the important part they play in human health. The upshot of this part of the book is that we should perhaps be exposing ourselves to more dirt and filth to build up a resistance to bad microbes. In one jaw dropping experiment, a raw cheese maker shows how her milk, curdled in an old wooden tub rather than a sterilised stainless steel one, has enough good microbes to kill off a lethal dose of added E. Coli. Amazing.

Cooked is perhaps a little long, and doesn’t have the compelling narrative drive of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but nonetheless there’s a lot of interesting things stewing in this book. Michael Pollan is one of those writers who can make us look at the mundane and everyday in an entirely new and enlightened way. Yes, he rapturously describes various cooking processes as Proustian one too many times. Some of his metaphors tend to stretch things a bit too far. Nevertheless, he is a brilliant explainer and teacher who is genuinely eager to expand our consciousness. It made me think a lot about the chemical and taste changes that happen to food when it is cooked, and how it is a practice that is unique to humans. (Although I was surprised to learn that animals like to drink and get drunk on fermented fruit. Apparently birds can get so plastered they fall from the sky!)

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, by Michael Pollan. Published by Allen Lane. ISBN: 9781846148033  RRP: $29.99