Book: Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan
Publisher: The Penguin Press
Publication date: 2013
Summary: Cooked by Michael Pollan looks at the transformation of ingredients into food by the four elemental forces — fire for barbecue, water for braises, air for bread, and earth for fermented products like sauerkraut and cheese. There is overlap, like when fermentation shows up in the sourdough for bread giving the reader a helpful basis for the deeper work in the next part of the book.
This quote in the Introduction demonstrates the importance of the topic:
Cooking gave us not just the meal but also the occasion: the practice of eating together at an appointed time and place. This was something new under the sun, for the forager of raw food would have likely fed himself on the go and alone, like all the other animals. (Or, come to think of it, like the industrial eaters we’ve more recently become, grazing at gas stations and eating by ourselves whenever and wherever.) But sitting down to common meals, making eye contact, sharing food, and exercising self-restraint all served to civilize us. p. 7
Thoughts: It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Michael Pollan’s books. My one complaint of In Defense of Food was that it was written by someone who didn’t seem to have a deep appreciation for cooking. In Cooked, he set out to remedy that lack.
My copy of the book is bristling with pale yellow post-it notes. I’m going to write my thoughts of each of the four parts of the book in separate posts because, otherwise, this would be way too long.
I always love it when one topic that I’m deeply interested in intersects with another. In the case of the first part of Cooked, it was food intermingling with the subject of race in America (a topic I wrote most recently about here: Book Review: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander). Barbecue in the South brings people together. The Southern Foodways Alliance, organized by historian John T. Edge and the University of Mississippi, celebrates Southern cooking:
Edge had found that talking about food–something Southerners could always talk (and argue) about even when it was too uncomfortable to talk (and argue) about anything else–was a good way to broach some of the more difficult issues of Southern history. “Food,” Edge told me, “is one of the ways the South is working through it’s race quandaries.” p. 76
This reminded me of my favorite response to the Paula Deen controversy earlier in the year from black culinary historian, Michael W. Twitty, which included an invitation to cook and eat together: An Open Letter to Paula Deen — along with a whole lot of things I didn’t know about Southern cooking and culture.
Michael Pollan got to cook and eat with whole hog pit master Ed Mitchell (there are some great photos on Mitchell’s website), experiencing Southern traditions:
It seems to me that authentic whole-hog barbecue…is not something you ever want to pay someone to do by the hour. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that this method of cooking, which demands so much more time than effort, would have taken root in a society where wage labor was the norm. The rhythms of barbecue are much better suited to the premodern economics of sharecropping or slavery. Such an economy, combined with the heat, helped make a certain slowness–as much as pork or wood smoke–a key ingredient in Southern cooking, and Southern culture more generally. p. 100
Although, Pollan’s day sped up when the crowd showed up at serving time.
There are other aspects of food covered in the first part of Cooked that fill out the exploration of meat over fire: food as sacrifice; sacrifice as ceremony; ceremony as the purview of men (as opposed to the sort of cooking that happens in the kitchen and will be covered in Part 2, which I’ll write about next week).
Look for more cooking posts at Weekend Cooking hosted by Beth Fish Reads.