A Feature Review of
Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
Reviewed by Taylor Brorby.
I first read Michael Pollan in an undergraduate class in college. Admittedly, I thought the title The Omnivore’s Dilemma sounded a bit pretentious and trite. There was no apparent dilemma to me about being an omnivore, and no shortage of food that would not feed my appetite. However, upon first reading Pollan’s book I was grabbed by the task he had set out to accomplish: to follow a cow from field to slaughter to steak and observe what happens along the way.
In a similar way, Pollan’s latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation brings the same curiosity, verve, and examination that many readers appreciate about Pollan. Instead of living outward and observing the large industrial agriculture system that feeds livestock, Pollan stays put in his own kitchen, highlighting the myriad possibilities and hindrances that many of us do–or do not–confront daily in the act of cooking.
Pollan examines the four elements (and these are the four pillars that support this book), fire, water, air, and earth. The book is extensive, and at times Pollan belabors his point about how these four elements are critical not only to our economic and physical health, but also to our spiritual health as well. The book contains two appendices, one containing four recipes for the four elements, and the other about books on the topic of cooking.
In the introduction to his book, Pollan asks the question, Why cook? Throughout the rest of the book we get glimpses of Pollan coming back to this question, like the subject in a fugue. Pollan sings the well-known and overused idea about the importance of family dinners; for him, the essential thing to knowing other people and his own family was to get back to the basics, which is cooking.
Pollan brings up the topic of time early in his book, and how many people in America believe that they either do not have the time or that cooking takes too much time to prepare a meal at home. Pollan even includes himself in this problem:
“And though once I had my own place I cooked whenever I had the time, I seldom made time for cooking or gave it much consideration. My kitchen skills, such as they were, were pretty much frozen in place by the time I turned thirty.”
And Pollan brings insight to much of his writing in this latest work. Surveys indicate that we are cooking less and buying more prepared meals and that time spent cooking, since the 1960s, has fallen by half, bringing the average time spent cooking each day to 27 minutes. Pollan complexifies the problems most Americans face by highlighting our love for talking about cooking, watching cooking, reading about cooking, and “going to restaurants designed so that we can watch the work performed live.”
Pollan, in each section of the book, attempts to master one recipe revolving around a single element. In the chapter “Fire,” he travels to Ayden, North Carolina to master the art of the barbecue pit by roasting a pig. Pollan highlights one of the predicaments plaguing small-town America, the loss of a local economy. In Ayden, Pollan observes that where there were once three barbecue restaurants, there is now only one. And this is one of both the joys and pitfalls in Pollan’s writing: he strays far afield from his real subject (getting back in the kitchen and cooking) and explores the politics of agriculture, the food system, and local economies, like much of his previous addressed subjects in his other books, like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and Food Rules.