Cooked by Michael Pollan: can cooking change your life?

I’m a food blogger, so I take food seriously, not just what I eat, but where I eat it and how it’s cooked. Also, I cook. Most of the food I eat is made in from scratch. Not that we don’t use shortcuts: I’m a huge fan of tinned tomatoes and pulses, instant rice and quinoa, Indian pickles, yogurt and cheese, and I have never built up the confidence to make my own kimchi. And unlike EF, I’m too lazy to make my own bread (but I’m very happy to eat hers!). Still, in my household, lunch and dinner, most days, are home-cooked.

Last week, I read Michael Pollan’s book Cooked: a Natural History of Transformation. I thought it would be more up-to-date version of my favourite book about cooking,  Konsten att laga mat (The Art of Cooking), a rather scientific investigation of what happens when we cook food, and how to get the best out of ingredients. I was completely wrong.

Michael Pollan's Cooked explores the history of cooking methods.

Michael Pollan’s Cooked explores the history of cooking through four methods of transformation.

Cooked is a very personal story about Pollan’s journey into the kitchen, learning how to grill, braise, bake and ferment foodstuffs. Pollan wanted learn how to become more independent and health. The solution was to learn how to cook. In the US, few people cook from scratch, although an annual food survey with a very loose definition of cooking suggests that almost 50% of meals are home-cooked. (I don’t think making a sandwich, or putting dressing on salad, is cooking, so my definition of the act is a lot more stringent than theirs. I’m not even convinced that boiling pasta and heating up a jar of sauce is cooking, snob that I am.) I’ve been fascinated by American recipes for a while: many depend on heavily processed, or already cooked, ingredients. It’s the, to me unconventional, use of soups, cake mixes and all kinds of spreads and condiments, that fascinates. To me, that’s cheating. Bad cheating. Still, cheating is my cookery background.

When I grew up, in 1970s Sweden, we used a whole range of half-prepared ingredients that I wouldn’t consider buying now: Bearnaise sauce powder, for example, frozen crinkle-cut fries and chocolate mousse powder. We’d even have TV-dinners, with starchy sauce, over-cooked peas and dry schnitzel, as very occasional treats. Tinned meat ravioli was a favourite of mine, and tuna was browny-pink and came in a tin. (It was edible only when mixed with large amounts of mayo or tinned tomatoes.) We didn’t eat fish fingers with powder mash all the time, but mum worked long hours and cheating saves time.

I don’t eat those things anymore, despite occasional fish finger pangs, and you won’t find them in my cupboards. You will find smoked oysters and tinned mackerel, and, on occasion, falafel mix, as well as a range of tinned pulses and tomatoes, but the sashes of powders, sweet and savoury, are gone. Interestingly, you won’t find any of the 70s staples in my mother’s cupboards anymore either. Now, we make time to cook.

To Pollan, cooking your own food is important. It’s not necessarily a rational thing to do, especially not in a country where you can find ready-to-eat food cheaply, but it has benefits. To me, the main benefit is that you know what you’re eating, and Pollan mentions that aspect, but to him, the benefits are more spiritual. He sees cooking as a way to reclaim lost skills, learn how to look after yourself and care for your family. (He also quotes research that suggests that cooking from scratch helps portion control. I like that idea: we eat less when we know the effort that went into the dish.)

As he learns to grill, Pollan also learns about animal husbandry, a point he comes back to when learning about cheese. When baking, he learns about wheat and wheat growing, as well as how some commercial breads are created and what’s wrong with them. He reminisces about exploding beer, introduces us to his cooking teacher as well as his family, and all the various people who gives him an insight into the artisanal and commercial production of foodstuffs. It’s thoughtful and entertaining, and I learned things I didn’t know, both about the American food landscape, and cooking in general.

Michael Pollan - Photo Fran Collins

Michael Pollan

I really enjoyed Cooked. At times, it was a little preachy, but then, I cook, so I don’t need to be convinced of the worthiness of ‘preparing something good to eat for my loved ones‘. Pollan’s expectations of what he’d learn, and what he actually learned are interesting. The way Pollan gets hooked, and finds himself involved in highly obsessive groups like the online sourdough fraternity, is charming. The processes of eating and cooking are steeped in tradition and personal values so it’s fitting that this book is as much a personal statement on why cooking is good as a history of cooking methods. Pollan shares his experiences, his thought processes and a few recipes too.

And though I already cook, reading Cooked gave me motivation to cook more of my own food. I’ve started with bread and plan to move on to kimchi.

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

Michael Pollan
Allen Lane, 2013

ISBN-10: 1846147506
ISBN-13: 978-1846147500

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About Caroline von Schmalensee

Cooking, eating and drinking is fun as well as necessary. I do food for fun and I write for a living. Good food makes the world a more delicious and satisfying place. Good writing, meanwhile, can make the world a less confusing place.


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