Sunday, July 07, 2013

Sunday Review: COOKED, by Michael Pollan

Cooked: A Natural History of TransformationCooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Yet there is a deeper kind of learning that can only be had by doing the work yourself, acquainting all your senses with the ins and outs and how-tos and wherefores of an intricate making. What you end up with is a first-person, physical kind of knowledge that is the precise opposite of abstract or academic. I think of it as embodied knowledge, as when you nose or your fingertips can tell you that the dough needs another turn or is ready to be baked....Eating and drinking especially implicate us in the natural world in ways that the industrial economy, with its long and illegible supply chains, would have us forget....To make it [beer] once in a while, to handle the barley and inhale the aroma of hops and yeast, becomes, among other things, a form of observance, a weekend ritual of remembrance."

One review I read of this book claims this is simply a repeat of everything Pollan has written before. I find that to be a complete misunderstanding of this book. If anything, I find this book to be unlike his other food books, and rather more similar to A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder in its almost spiritual approach to the subject at hand, and in Pollan's positioning himself as not the expert researcher, but the novice. Yes, some of Pollan's central theses remain: whole foods are good, industrialization of food has had terrible consequences on our health, but this takes it to a different level. This is less about the individual act of eating than the communal act of creating.

Although Pollan's other books contain anecdotes of his visits to various people and places to understand his topic, this book is more his grappling with what he learns and trying to apply it immediately. (Again why it reminds me more of APOMO rather than his other food books—he's again "building," just this time with food.) Yes, there's a good bit of information about the evolution of all these different kinds of cooking, but a lot of the focus is simply on Pollan's own transformations in his understanding of not only the processes of cooking, but their significance to him personally.

Where his other books are outward, I would describe this book as inward. Yes, it contains some scathing criticisms of industrial food culture (it doesn't stray from the theses in Omnivore's)And approaching it that way, I found it the most satisfying of all his food books to read. It's a book that will get you to think about why it's necessary to cook; not from a "this is good for your health" or "processed food is evil" standpoint, but from the idea that the act of cooking and sharing food is good for the soul.

I see this book as being the parallel to The Omnivore's Dilemma--4 foods, and now 4 preparations. The outward exploration of the purpose of food, and then the inward contemplation of preparing and consuming it. I look forward to it coming out in paperback, because I think the two books together will make a nice paired gift to my foodie friends (well, the ones who haven't already devoured everything Pollan has to offer.)

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