Michael Pollan: Cooked

Times Literary Supplement, May 2013

To the influential American food writer Michael Pollan, eating can be a revolutionary act. His books chronicling the symbiotic and troubled relationship between humans and their food have been bestsellers; more than that, they have inspired armies of home gardeners, mobile butchers and heirloom evangelists to sally forth on the principle that the culinary is political, and that food, raised thoughtfully and humanely, on small scale and with great deference to tradition, history and culture, can be a corrective prescription for the earth and for our health.

This was the argument in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which Pollan consumed four meals—ranging from a fast-food spread to a “hunter-gatherer” feast killed and foraged with his own hands—and traced them back through the food chain. It was also the point in In Defense of Food, which pried apart the notion of synthetically augmented “nutritionism” and offered this blunt rule for eating in the processed age: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The Botany of Desire examined, through the history of four plants, the ways in which humans and plants exploit and reinvent each other and the landscape.

His latest book, Cooked, also explores the tolls of modern farming and eating, and it is also divided into four sections, each representing “the great transformations of nature into the culture we call cooking.” This time, Pollan examines how raw food becomes a meal, and how thoughtfully prepared meals can provide sustenance for not only our bodies, but also our families and our culture writ large. Americans spend less than half the time preparing food that they did fifty years ago; many spend more time watching food cooked on television than they do cooking for themselves. Pollan argues that participating in the production of one’s own meals, sitting down together, sharing food, “making eye contact,” talking, listening, arguing and minding our manners at a shared table, have served to civilize us. But cooking today has become “luxuriously optional, not obligatory,” and if it is now unnecessary as a matter of survival—since the food companies are happy to fill all of our nutritional “needs”—why should we bother? The answer, he says, “is that cooking is one of the most interesting and worthwhile things we humans do.”

In the book’s four sections he explores four “elemental” modes of cooking: “Fire” begins at a whole-hog barbecue restaurant in eastern North Carolina where men cook with wood and pigs and not much else, and where Pollan explores the performative, ritual aspect of cooking flesh. “Water” takes place in “the prosy confines of the kitchen,” where he receives a long tutorial on braising and “grandma-style” pot cooking from a local chef.

In “Air,” he bakes bread—“this fragrant risen form”— kneading and shaping alongside a trio of austere craft bakers in a quest for a perfect whole-wheat sourdough, and along the way exploring the evolution of the “white flour industrial complex.” Finally, he comes to “Earth,” and explores the microbial and culinary subcultures of kraut, cheese, and beer-making, engaging with a menagerie of quixotic “fermentos” to learn about the “careful management of rot,” and musing on the lusty and productive—and these days all too frequently disrupted—relationship between bacteria, fungi and humans. He learns how to properly chop and salt and source and simmer and blister and crackle and rise and most important of all, to wait.

If this structure and subject matter seems to offer nothing altogether different from his earlier books—another four-part treatise on humans and food—in many ways that’s because Cooked isn’t all that different. This is a more intimate book than his recent volumes, but like Pollan’s other works, it serves up a literary recipe of sorts: Start at the scene of a planned meal, add equal measures food-philosophy and minutely observed reporting on agriculture and the food industry, mix in some history, add a generous dollop of evolutionary biology and a dash of evangelism, garnish heavily with big, ambitious metaphor, end at consumption of said meal, and voilà—another Michael Pollan dish, as standardized, in its own way, as the processed food he so eloquently laments. It is comfort food for the gastronomically correct.

None of which makes it any less enjoyable to read. Like those chefs, bakers and barbecue kings who churn out the same obsessively curated recipes each day, Pollan does what he does very well. There is no writer alive as adept at illustrating our human connection to, and growing disaffection from, our food and the natural world. Pollan veers effortlessly between musings on fire, bacteria, and Promethean theft, to nitty-gritty culinary detail: hogs on a grill, “a smoke-dimmed conga line of splayed pink carcasses, laid out skin side up and snout to butt”; a cheesemaking nun in denim habit, laboring to “suspend milk’s inexorable slide into putrefaction”; a barbecue chef whose beard merges seamlessly into his chest hair. Like the culinary alchemists he chronicles, Pollan takes the bare ingredients of story and makes them into something more.

Critics have accused Pollan of reductionism—distilling ideas down to an oversimplified essence. There are such moments in Cooked, as when Pollan asserts that simply getting back to the kitchen can somehow help resolve the “environmental crisis of everyday choices” we make. More pointedly, he has been faulted for dilettantery: easy for those who make a good wage writing about food and live in places like Berkeley, California—epicenter of all things haute-organic—to offer a more virtuous way of eating.

In the name of research, Pollan one evening holds a family “Microwave Night,” an experiment in how the other half eats. The author and his son embark on a bewildering journey through the modern American frozen-food aisle: “It took us more than twenty minutes just to decide among the bags of frozen Chinese stir-fry, the boxed Indian biryanis… and the cheeseburgers pre-installed on their frozen buns.” The total came to $27, he noted, an amount with which he “could easily buy a couple pounds of an inexpensive cut of grass-fed beef and enough vegetables to make a braise.” He was—no surprise—unimpressed with the taste of the frozen food, and also perplexed by how long it took to heat each meal for each member of his family—37 minutes total, easily time enough to make a “respectable” home-cooked meal. “Is there any more futile, soul-irradiating experience,” he writes, “than standing before the little window on a microwave oven…?”

If these rituals are foreign to Pollan, they aren’t to most people, and Pollan comes across as rather far removed from the daily sturm und drang of getting a family fed. Pollan lauds cooking as a form of “unitasking” that defies the compartmentalization of our global economy. People today, he notes, tend to produce one thing—whatever it is they do for work—and consume everything else. By cooking, we become producer and consumer both. But of course one reason Pollan could find the time to meander through a farmers’ market, locate an inexpensive cut of grass-fed beef and then braise the thing is because, during the time in which he wrote Cooked, at least, it was his job to do so.