by Christie Purifoy
I read cookbooks like novels. My favorite memoirs feature food. I spend a fair portion of every single day in either my kitchen or my kitchen garden. If Michael Pollan, author of six books including In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is the preacher, I am most definitely the choir.
Which is exactly why I thought I didn’t need to read his latest hefty tome Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. I already cook. I know (or thought I did) the value of home cooking. Why read 416 pages meant to set me on a path I’m already on?
Now I’m here to tell you how wrong I was, how grateful I am for this book, and why I think everyone, whether they enjoy spending time in the kitchen or not, should read Cooked. It may be titled “a history of transformation,” but this is a history with the power to transform.
Pollan’s latest journalistic enterprise proposes a single answer to the tangle of medical, ethical, political and philosophical questions that have defined his career. These are questions like what is the single most important thing we can do to improve our health? The health of our community? And the health of our planet? How can we better connect as families and friends? What should we do to make the American food system healthier and more sustainable? How can we achieve greater self-sufficiency within an economy that keeps most of us in the role of passive consumer? And why might we want to break out of that narrow mold to become producers ourselves?
Pollan argues we can find the answer to every one of these questions in a single place: the kitchen. The answer? Cook.
Cooked is part personal exploration (Pollan chops barbecue with southern masters, shapes baguettes with dedicated artisans, and brews beer in the backyard with a neighbor) and part social history. Alongside the history, you can expect to find hearty servings of science, philosophy, and even poetry.
It’s hard to imagine a more unwieldy topic than the whole history and practice of cooking. Understanding this, Pollan organizes the book according to the four classical elements: fire, water, air, and earth, a choice that proves to be both whimsical and practical. Each section traces Pollan’s journey to master a single recipe by which we transform the raw stuff of nature into nourishing food. He barbecues over fire, he braises with water, he bakes with air, and he ferments everything from pickles to beer with the aid of earthy bacteria.
Practically, these chapters can benefit anyone from novice to expert. I have already started using Pollan’s recipe for a whole-grain sourdough loaf, and I’m looking forward to a winter spent braising inexpensive cuts of meat. Most of us will never take up cheese making or beer brewing, but I defy even the most inexperienced in the kitchen to read the earth chapter without trying their hand at the easy superfood that is a traditional fermented pickle.
Ultimately, the real value of this book isn’t in the details (or even the recipes – most of us can find a recipe for just about anything in our cookbook collections or online). And the details can, at times, overwhelm. I admit to skimming through some of the science. You may find yourself skimming some of the poetic and mythological musings (though I personally have a weakness for Pollan’s literary flights of fancy).
The reason I want everyone to read this book (the reason I hounded my husband like a fiery evangelist after I finished each section), is because Pollan becomes convinced, and convinces us, in turn, that the smallest kitchen tasks are answers to the biggest and most intractable problems.
Chopping onions. Choosing our meat. Tending a fire. Kneading dough. Given the state of our western diets and food systems, these simple activities turn out to be some of the most radical and powerful things we can do.
Intuitively, we know there’s a difference between whipping up our own mayonnaise (something that takes me about five minutes with a blender, a few eggs, and some oil) and pulling a jar off a shelf. But who knew the difference means so much? Or that it matters so much?
Now that I’ve read Cooked, I know. Standing in my kitchen with my apron tied at my neck, I have never felt this powerful.
What I am doing matters.
Also, it tastes so good.
Christie Purifoy is a wife and mother of four who lives in southeastern PA. A PhD in English lit., she recently traded the university classroom for an old farmhouse and a writing desk. She blogs at www.christiepurifoy.com.