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I just finished Michael Pollan's newest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation and I liked it so much that I went back to Chapter 1 and started it over.



Cooked is similar to Pollan's earlier (and equally wonderful) The Omnivore's Dilemma in its exploration of food on a thematic framework. Where the earlier book follows the food of three typical meals back to their origins in the food industry, this book uses the conceit of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth to explore the four primary means of transforming animals and plants into human food (respectively roasting, braising, baking and fermenting).

Though I'm a meat-eater, I find that the Fire section (using Southern barbecue as its focus) is the least interesting of the four. I'm pretty sure Pollan did too, and that's why he got it out of the way first. Nevertheless, he makes an interesting story out of his time with the pit-masters and the whole pigs, and ties it all back to Homer and Genesis and fragrant smoke offerings to the gods.

In the Water section, he spends several Sundays learning home-cooking basics with an Iranian-American cook. His descriptions of the steamy, fragrant kitchen and the classic world-wide soups, stews, and braises they prepare together have given me a new enthusiasm for the kind of cooking I do myself every Sunday afternoon. Chopping onions has taken on a whole new dignity!

Pollan's paean to bread in the Air section is so mouthwatering that I bought an artisan whole grain loaf today--and ate a not-insignificant portion of it. He's given me cause to re-think my three years of wheatlessness. We'll see how I feel tomorrow.

When, in the Earth section, he goes to a convent in Connecticut to help Sister Noella make Saint Nectaire-style cheese, and there contemplates stinkiness and the erotics of disgust, I was ready to launch myself at the nearest hoity-toity cheese counter and demand something in a washed rind. (I actually had some fairly odorous Fourme d'Ambert in the fridge. You don't need to talk me into stinky cheese.)

But I think what's going to stick with me most is the fascinating idea, woven throughout the book, of the symbiotic and co-evolutionary relationship we have with our microbiota, the colony of microbes in our guts. It's possible that in depleting this colony, over-prescribed antibiotics have been doing almost as much harm as good, and that reviving traditions of live fermented foods could help restore a balance that's far more delicate and crucial than we realized.

I don't think I'll be making my own kimchi any time soon, but a big bestseller like Cooked will accelerate the creative ferment that will make someone else's artisanal sauerkraut available to me. Especially here in Portland.



Note: the audiobook is read by the author, who does a terrific job. And there's a story in it about a pig named Kosher. Kosher: The Porcine Prometheus.

It's a really good book.

Crossposted from Dreamwidth, where there are comment count unavailable comments.

Comments

( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
decemberleaf
May. 2nd, 2013 11:52 am (UTC)
"Chopping onions has taken on a whole new dignity!"

One of my favorite very old images: Arriving at the house of a professionally dressed woman who was just coming home from work to her household and family. Still with her bag slung over one shoulder, still in her high heels (!), she started cutting up onions. What are you going to make for supper? "I don't know yet, but I do this almost every night. I love the way they smell, and my kids and their friends do too. If I immediately start onions cooking, everyone knows that supper's underway and that it will be good. And I can always find something to go with them."
emeraldsedai
May. 2nd, 2013 04:51 pm (UTC)
What a great story.

Onions, apparently, are nearly universal in human cuisines, the basis of almost every braised dish. Pollan delves fairly deeply into onions, and really made me want to take a fresh look at my habits of chopping, sweating and caramelizing them.
executrix
May. 2nd, 2013 01:13 pm (UTC)
I just read it too! (Liked it, but think he's a bit impressed with himself.)

BTW there's a Yiddish idiom that translates as "don't give me the kosher pigfoot"--(pretty much the equivalent of "don't snow me") because animals are kosher if they have split hooves *and* chew cud. So a stealth pig might stretch out its hoof and pretend to be kosher, so maybe Kosher did that too?

decemberleaf: Shirley Conran's "superwoman" recommends to harried working moms that they start cooking dinner the moment they come through the door, without even taking their coats off--otherwise if they get settled in and sit down cooking might end up not happening.
emeraldsedai
May. 2nd, 2013 04:56 pm (UTC)
I didn't find his ego intrusive in the book, though it's definitely there.

I'm neither harried nor a mother, and generally have no one to feed but myself, and I can relate to Shirley Conran's politically dubious advice. But I take off my coat because I don't want it to smell like onions, or bacon.
twasadark
May. 3rd, 2013 02:45 am (UTC)
I loved the dvd The Botany of Desire by him. Brilliant and so interesting. Unfortunately, my library doesn't have the audiobook of this title. I'll put it on my wishlist, though. I love your taste in audiobooks!
emeraldsedai
May. 3rd, 2013 03:01 am (UTC)
The Botany of Desire is the only major book of Pollan's that I haven't read, though my sister regards it as one of the most paradigm-shifting books she's ever read. As I understand its premise, about the symbiotic dance between human appetite/desire and the evolution of other species, he's exploring that territory still further in the new book.

I hope you do get a loan of the audiobook of Cooked. I'm on my second pass through it now (it's not unusual for me to listen to an audiobook two or even three times if I like it) and more of it is sticking to my brain. By the time I go grocery shopping on Sunday, I suspect my shopping list will look rather different than it did last week!
twasadark
May. 3rd, 2013 03:11 am (UTC)
You might enjoy The HIstory of the World in 6 Glasses, if you're into culinary/world history. I listened to it more than once myself. Fascinating stuff! http://www.amazon.com/A-History-World-6-Glasses/dp/1452651493/ref=tmm_abk_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1367550648&sr=8-1

I think I have the mp3s here somewhere if you are interested.
emeraldsedai
May. 3rd, 2013 03:16 am (UTC)
That sounds like it's right up my alley. If you can rustle up the MP3s, I'd definitely be interested! Nice of you to offer. Thanks!
twasadark
May. 3rd, 2013 04:10 pm (UTC)
I can't seem to find them on my computer ... I'm pretty bad at organization and every now and again it bites me in the bum! Sorry!
emeraldsedai
May. 3rd, 2013 04:19 pm (UTC)
Aw! Well, thank you for looking.
twasadark
May. 7th, 2013 01:05 am (UTC)
Guess what? I found the files! Woo hoo!! I uploaded them to Dropbox for you here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/18qpq5swwocl3yy/O8wmeQqpzN

If you could let me know when you retrieve them I'll take them down. And let me know what you think of the book if you get the chance.
emeraldsedai
May. 7th, 2013 01:41 am (UTC)
Got 'em! Really looking forward to listening to this audio.

Thank you so much!
twasadark
May. 7th, 2013 02:09 am (UTC)
Great! Hope you enjoy it!
raindancer_jess
May. 7th, 2013 10:49 pm (UTC)
I'm reading this now and going to a presentation tonight by Michael Pollan, should be interesting! I am in the fire section and actually did a paper in college about the use of fire being the most important evolutionary point for humans so it's fascinating to hear my conclusion echoed in his book. I have not read his others but they are definitely on my wish list now. Kosher the Pig cracked me up! :)
emeraldsedai
May. 8th, 2013 02:35 am (UTC)
I loved the Kosher the Pig story!

So glad you're reading and enjoying the book. I've read it twice now, and I feel like the Earth section, on ferments, gave me the most new information. I went out over the weekend and bought raw milk cheese, live kombucha, live vinegar, and live raw sauerkraut. Then, as it happened, I had a visit with my doctor today, and he heartily endorsed the plan of adding more live culture foods into my diet. (He's a naturopath. I don't think we're to the point of MDs giving that kind of advice yet.)

Hope you enjoy the rest of the book as much as I did.
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