Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation



In Cooked, author and activist Michael Pollan explores the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen. Here, he discovers the enduring power of the four classical elements—fire, water, air, and earth—to transform the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink.  Each section of Cooked tracks Pollan’s effort to master a single classic recipe using one of the four elements. Apprenticing himself to a succession of culinary masters, Pollan learns how to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer.

Cooking—of whatever kind, everyday or extreme—situates us in the world in a very special place, facing the natural world on one side and the social world on the other. The cook stands squarely between nature and culture, conducting a process of translation and negotiation. Both nature and culture are transformed by the work.

The first chapter takes on the element of Fire as Pollan travels to barbeque haven,North Carolina. The divine scent of wood smoke and roasting pig permeates through the small towns. Most of us are strongly drawn to it and Pollan explains why.

I Yin, A Chinese chef from 239 B.C. said “The transformation which occurs in the cauldron is quintessential and wondrous, subtle and delicate. The mouth cannot express it in words.”

Water is the life source for us all. Cooking in a pot is all about economy. Every last drop of the fat and juices from the meat, which over a fire would be lost, are conserved, along with all the nutrients from the plants.

Part three explores the chapter on Air, and Pollan drifts along attentively detailing the types of bread available. How does air transform grain and water into a fragrant loaf of bread? Joe Vanderleit, the proprietor of Certified Foods and the miller for Community Grains explains that “the engineering and the nutrition are pulling in opposite directions”

Pollan finishes his tour of the elements by learning about the fermentation process created by the Earth. As one of the primary processes by which nature breaks down living things so that their energies and atoms might be reused by other living things, fermentation puts us in touch with the ever present tug, in life, of death.

Having gained a better knowledge of the foods prepared and cooked in the way they were meant to be cooked, Pollan shares his own recipes with you.

“To join the makers of the world is always to feel at least a little more self-reliant. For everyone to bake their own bread or brew their own beer is perhaps inefficient. But though it is certainly cheaper and easier to rely on untold, unseen others to provide for our everyday needs, to live that way comes at a price, not least to our sense of competence and independence.” – Michael Pollan  

About Amy Landes

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