Americans love watching people cook, on TV and in restaurants, and they love eating delicious food (along with taking pictures of it). But cooking times on average are the lowest they’ve ever been, with the average person spending less than 30 minutes preparing a meal every day. People are getting larger on the whole and diets are incredibly unhealthy, yet we’re obsessed with food. To rediscover our lost cooking heritage, Michael Pollan delves into cooking with each of the four elements – fire, air, water, and earth – and discloses the results and his discoveries in this book.
I am a very inconsistent cook. Sometimes I want to make everything from scratch, by hand, as best as I possibly can. Tomato sauce is an example of this – I’m convinced that when I make it myself, it’s the best thing ever, but I rarely feel I have enough time to make that happen, even though it mostly involves browning meat and throwing ingredients in the slow cooker, which isn’t particularly time-consuming. I’ve long harbored a not-so-secret desire to start making my own bread and I’ve managed to move us slowly away from making packaged microwave meals (at least for dinner) and cooking proper food. But sometimes, perhaps like everyone, I just can’t bring myself to find the energy to cook something, and so we end up eating fast food – exactly how Pollan describes is probably damaging to our health.
I thought Cooked was fascinating primarily because most of what Pollan delves into *is* actually lost. If we were faced with an entire pig, we probably wouldn’t know how to cook it over an open flame without burning half and undercooking the other half. Making sourdough bread from scratch with just flour and water? How flour is actually made and which parts we eat and don’t eat? I didn’t know how to do any of these, much less make beer or cheese, nor did Pollan. His discovery was really interesting to me and made me want to make what he makes myself, just to see how it happens.
Of course, the main reason we have stopped making food ourselves is time. Brewing beer takes weeks. Making a loaf of bread requires a week’s advance preparation, if you don’t already have a starter, and if you do, you need to take care of it every day. Even braising meat takes hours of chopping, slow cooking, and monitoring. Processing has taken on these jobs for us, so that we now don’t even understand half the ingredients in the food we eat. But Pollan gains essential skills that we’ve lost, a way to feel for how to make food and how to experiment with it and how to tell when it’s as delicious as possible. He’s no longer tied to recipes.
Along the way Pollan delves very tentatively into racial and gender politics – how certain kinds of people don’t touch certain kinds of cooking because it’s been “claimed” or historically “beneath” them. He also explores how processed food became the so-called savior of housewives, even though when surveyed, most housewives preferred cooking to any other chore. And how professional cooking is a man’s domain, but somehow cooking at home is a woman’s domain even though the concepts are the same. He doesn’t explore these topics very far – the book isn’t about this at all – but it made me think about that phenomenon, which I’d already noticed.
But primarily what Pollan discovers is that cooking is pretty amazing. We can turn raw plants, most of which we couldn’t even identify in the wild, and animals into delicious things by some of the strangest processes (particularly in the earth section). We’ve lost real skills that mean valuable things for our health. Isn’t it time we started re-claiming the kitchen?
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