I really enjoyed In Defence of Food by Michael Pollan, so was excited to have the opportunity to review Pollan’s latest offering, Cooked. I wasn’t disappointed.
Cooked explores how humankind has turned raw materials – animals, plants and their seeds – into food that is more nourishing than the original form, through the mechanisms of the elements of earth, air, fire and water. Pollan posits that the story of applying these elements to our food is the story of the evolution of human culture – and that we’ve now gone so far by outsourcing so much of our food preparation to corporations, that we’re at risk of going backwards.
Continuing in the vein of In Defence of Food, where Pollan asked the reader to eat food rather than food-like substances, Pollan puts forward a case for getting back to basics and cooking from scratch. If you care about food and where it comes from, it’s a compelling message.
For me the highlight was the quarter of the book that is devoted to the element of air; it’s really about how bread is made, and has resulted in my purchase of stoneground flour (much more nutritious than standard milling, according to Pollan) and having a go at making my own sourdough starter with just flour and water and whatever wild yeasts the air delivers. I’m a confident bread maker but have always used commercial yeast, something I’m less keen on doing after reading Cooked.
When making bread without commercial yeast success is definitely not guaranteed, and a lot of love goes into the loaf. My first loaf is baking in the oven as I write and after more than a week of nurturing the starter and 24 hours of raising and proofing, it smells better than any loaf I’ve made before. Even if this loaf doesn’t work I’ll persevere, I’m reluctant to buy a plastic-wrapped loaf again.
As part of Pollan’s exploration of the four elements, he met expert practitioners working with each medium – these recounts were entertaining and thought provoking (and, in the case of the large scale bread manufacturer, a bit disturbing), and made a nice counterpoint for Pollan’s references to current research and his experiments in his own kitchen.
Food Channel junkies will get a kick out of the fire section, as it deals with “proper” Southern US barbeque, and anti-bacterial product manufacturers will not be adding Pollan to their Christmas card lists after reading the earth quarter. And the section on water, which is about long, slow cooking, is mouth-watering as we head into a New Zealand winter.
This is an extremely well-researched and hopefully provocative book. If you’re someone who loves good food and want to know more about it, I recommend you read it.
P.S. My loaf of bread didn’t rise as much as I hoped, but it was absolutely delicious!
Reviewed by Rachel Moore
by Michael Pollan
Published by Allen Lane