Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

By Falter, Skylar; Francis, Charles | NACTA Journal, March 2016 | Go to article overview

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation


Falter, Skylar, Francis, Charles, NACTA Journal


Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation By Michael Pollan. 2013. The Penguin Press, New York, NY. 403 pages, paper, $17.00, ISBN 978-0-14-312533-4.

Anyone who has read previous books by masterful storyteller Michael Pollan will not be disappointed with Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Using the four elemental sections of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth, the author weaves a history of the human development of processing and transforming raw materials from nature into the edible foods that we enjoy every day. The book is carefully researched and referenced, yet unlike academic texts is personal, thoughtfully written, and flows more like a well-crafted novel than a non-fiction book about something as basic as cooking. Welcome to Cooked.

The act of cooking preserves the intricate relationship humans have with nature. Cooking detoxifies many food sources, enhances their nutrient value, and provides a space for humans to share, listen, and eat together. However, this intimate relationship with food has been altered in the past few decades as more U.S. consumers leave their kitchens and let food industry provide their meals. The author explores both the historical significance of our intimate relationship with food, as well as recent changes in human consumption habits that are driven by a barely-regulated food industry that puts profit ahead of human wellness, contributes to untold human costs in medical bills and unusually early deaths, and in a dismaying turn of events becomes a model for much of the developed world. We follow Pollan in his journey into the origins of food preparations through literature searches and thoughtful documentation, as well as into his kitchen where he learns first hand how we transform nature and her ingredients into digestible delicacies using the four basic elements.

This journey through the elements begins in Ayden, North Carolina where he learns the history and culture surrounding authentic barbeque, the kind that involves long hours cooking a pig in a pit room over a slow fire. It is no coincidence that as humans we enjoy the flavors and smells of barbeque. As he describes the process, "It may well be that (some) animals are pre-adapted to prefer the smells, tastes, and textures of cooked food, having evolved various sensory apparatus to steer them toward the richest sources of energy" (p 61). In addition to introducing us to the fabled competition among famed barbeque cooks and their curious idiosyncrasies, the author presents an unlikely myth about how the process was invented by tasting a roasted carcass pulled from a burned down barn. But rather than detract from the story, this enjoyable factoid adds to the mystique that surrounds a truly southern delicacy that has spread across this country and abroad.

Next Pollan moves to water and imagines the historical discovery of using fire and water to cook food, starting with heated stones in vessels made of animal skins before invention of pottery and metal cooking containers. He discusses the intricacies of blending vegetable and animal ingredients with proper spices to create new emergent properties of aroma and tastes in food. Integral to the story are the personalities associated with different cultural traditions and preparations, including a young friend from Iran who made weekly visits to the author's kitchen to introduce new ingredients and food preparations, along with the history of these in another country. Throughout the book we are introduced to special people who devote their lives to food and adding value to simple ingredients through cooking. The story of water and food is one part of the story of civilization.

One of the most intriguing sections of the book discusses the history of baking, with a suspected origin in the human search for a way to transform seed of grass species into something easily digestible. …

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