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Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (2013)

by Michael Pollan

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,6125210,799 (4.02)64
"Fire, water, air, earth--our most trusted food expert recounts the story of his culinary education In Cooked, Michael Pollan explores the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen. Here, he discovers the enduring power of the four classical elements--fire, water, air, and earth--to transform the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink. Apprenticing himself to a succession of culinary masters, Pollan learns how to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer. In the course of his journey, he discovers that the cook occupies a special place in the world, standing squarely between nature and culture. Both realms are transformed by cooking, and so, in the process, is the cook. Each section of Cooked tracks Pollan's effort to master a single classic recipe using one of the four elements. A North Carolina barbecue pit master tutors him in the primal magic of fire; a Chez Panisse-trained cook schools him in the art of braising; a celebrated baker teaches him how air transforms grain and water into a fragrant loaf of bread; and finally, several mad-genius "fermentos" (a tribe that includes brewers, cheese makers, and all kinds of picklers) reveal how fungi and bacteria can perform the most amazing alchemies of all. The reader learns alongside Pollan, but the lessons move beyond the practical to become an investigation of how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships: with plants and animals, the soil, farmers, our history and culture, and, of course, the people our cooking nourishes and delights. Cooking, above all, connects us. The effects of not cooking are similarly far reaching. Relying upon corporations to process our food means we consume huge quantities of fat, sugar, and salt; disrupt an essential link to the natural world; and weaken our relationships with family and friends. In fact, Cooked argues, taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable. Reclaiming cooking as an act of enjoyment and self-reliance, learning to perform the magic of these everyday transformations, opens the door to a more nourishing life. "-- "In Cooked, Pollan explores the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen. Here, he discovers the enduring power of the four classical elements--fire, water, air, and earth--to transform the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink. In the course of his journey, he discovers that the cook occupies a special place in the world, standing squarely between nature and culture. Both realms are transformed by cooking, and so, in the process, is the cook"--… (more)
  1. 10
    The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan (4leschats)
    4leschats: Similar issues with the political and social aspects of food by the same author.
  2. 00
    Second Nature: A Gardener's Education by Michael Pollan (thebookpile)
    thebookpile: One of Pollan's earlier works about gardening which explores the boundaries between nature and culture. With Cooked, I find that he looks at that division again, but this time he's examining it from his kitchen.
  3. 00
    The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World's Great Drinks by Amy Stewart (fyrefly98)
    fyrefly98: The Drunken Botanist focuses entirely on fermentation of various plants, while Cooked also delves into other cooking processes, but they both have a similar approach to looking at both the natural and the cultural history of the things we consume.… (more)
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English (51)  Dutch (1)  All languages (52)
Showing 1-5 of 51 (next | show all)
Cooking, in effect, took part of the work of chewing and digestion and performed it for us outside of the body, using outside sources of energy. … Freed from the necessity of spending our days gathering large quantities of raw food and then chewing (and chewing) it, humans could now devote their time, and their metabolic resources, to other purposes, like creating a culture. {… until} cooking took its fatefully wrong turn: when civilization began processing food in such a way as to make it less nutritious rather than more.

This was so good, as has been every book I’ve read by Pollan. They take time and they pay off in terrific diversions into science, culture and history. Here, Pollan explores the four classic (and nearly magical) methods that humans have long used to make food more delicious and digestible: fire (grilling), water (braising), air (baking), and earth (fermentation). He locates niche uber-experts and resides with them to learn about such things as barbecue, aromatic mirepoix, bread-baking and cheese-making.

Even today, as much as a third of the food in the world’s diet is produced in a process involving fermentation. Many of these foods and drinks happen to be among the most cherished, {…} coffee, chocolate, vanilla, bread, cheese, wine and beer, yogurt, ketchup and most other condiments, vinegar, soy sauce, miso, certain teas, corned beef and pastrami, prosciutto and salami-- {…} Basically, it’s all the really good stuff. {…}

“The big problem with the Western diet, … is that it doesn’t feed the gut, only the upper GI. All the food has been processed to be readily absorbed, leaving nothing for {the microbial residents of} the lower GI.” {…} We have changed the human diet in such a way that it no longer feeds the whole superorganism. … We’re eating for one, when we need to be eating for, oh, a few trillion.
( )
  DetailMuse | Jan 24, 2024 |
A 4 read. Not 5, because to my liking the author sometimes provides way too much information on his personal exploits in various domains of cooking. Yet I couldn't get enough of his generalizations, historical perspectives and some obscure trivia he showered on his readers. ( )
  Den85 | Jan 3, 2024 |
This book is certainly an interesting take on the expression of food preparation as a function of the four “elements of life”:

• Fire. Food prepared via primarily fire: masculine, power, dangerous. It was kind of informative, if not particularly attractive to me. I definitely like the food, but am not all that interested in going to the lengths described here to prepare it.

• Water. Boiling, steaming , simmering: feminine, gentle. Also kind of informative, and slightly more attractive to me—inasmuch as it’s more accessible, if not as exciting or tasty as Fire.

• Air. The production of aerated foods, generally through baking in the oven. Informative and a bit more attractive.

• Earth. Fermentation. This is definitely the most interesting way of preparing food because the results are still alive when you consume them.

What makes this more than just a book about food (definitely NOT a cook book) is the transcendental/spiritual aspects of the preparation of food over the course of human evolution. Pollan explores—but of course can’t answer—the questions of who/why/when homo-sapiens first stopped eating raw meat and vegetables and started to “prepare” food: burn/boil/bake/ferment. Just think about how you, personally, would go about preparing: a dead animal, a tuber just dug up from under the earth, some rotting fruit spoiling on the ground, if you didn’t have someone else teaching you.

It's also very informative to think about how so many of the physical ailments we suffer today did not exist until we developed “fast food processing”. As far as I’m concerned you could live without reading this book…but it would be well worth the effort to read the section on Earth food production and fermentation and bacteria. This book only underscores some other books I’ve read in suggesting that we may likely discover that the cure for most modern ailments lies in merely eating healthy, rather than “purified” foods. Rather than looking for a “silver bullet” to cure our illnesses we should return to living with a little more “dirt”. ( )
1 vote majackson | Apr 22, 2022 |
Michael can write about food! Each section of this book encouraged me to bake bread, braise some meat, and now make some sauerkraut. I enjoyed this book, partly due to a couple of BBQ restaurants i I enjoy visiting regularly in NC were discussed. If you have seen Cooked on Netflix, it's pretty much the book on TV. ( )
  donhazelwood | Mar 11, 2022 |
This is the fourth book of Pollan's that I have read and I must say that he goes from strength to strength. From his simple mantra for eating (Eat food, not too much, mostly plants) in the Omnivore's Dilemma to his exploration of how food scientists over-emphasize micro elements in food in In Defense of Food, I have been given much (dare I say it) food for thought. This book was no exception.

The subtitle of this book is A Natural History of Transformation and Pollan examines four types of transformation that our food can go through. Each of these transformations is tied to an elemental force: Fire, Water, Air and Earth. For each section Pollan apprenticed himself to a master of that particular transformation. In Fire, he went to the American south and learned about barbecue. I'm not talking about throwing a piece of meat on the grill for a short length of time; I'm talking about slow cooking a whole pig in a pit for a day. If this section doesn't make you salivate you must be a really dedicated vegan. In Water he also explores slow cooking but it's the type of cooking done in a pot with liquid and some vegetables and some type of meat, probably a cut that would be tough unless cooked this way. Air is all about bread baking and how the air is essential to make a good tasting loaf of bread. He includes a recipe at the back for a sourdough type of bread which made me wonder if all those people who started baking sourdough in the beginning of the pandemic had read this book. As persuasive as he is with his passion for sourdough bread I think I'll probably stick to using yeast. Which gives me a nice segue into the final chapter which is all about treating food with microorganisms to ferment them. Fermentation also takes quite a long time but very little is required from the cook; instead those little bacteria do all the work. I think it might be time to make another batch of sauerkraut but unlike Pollan I'm not going to get a 7.5 liter crock. I'll stick with a quart preserving jar. In addition to vegetable fermentation, Pollan looked at cheese making and beer and wine brewing. Who needs barbecued or braised meat when you could have cheese and wine accompanied by some pickled and/or fermented vegetables? Remember Pollan's mantra and eat mostly plants.

I see Pollan has branched off into the effects of plants on our minds in his latest books. I will have to see what fascinating insights he has discovered there. ( )
  gypsysmom | Mar 9, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 51 (next | show all)
His eye for intricacy is well-suited to unpacking a sophisticated scientific or cultural phenomenon, but that same talent turns a description of actual cooking into a tediously reported, many-paged affair.
It’s too bad, because Pollan’s premise is absolutely right: getting into the kitchen does solve a lot of society’s ills. But if anything, this book is more likely to turn people away from the kitchen. Like the Food Network, it may actually make cooking seem more, not less, complicated than it needs to be.
added by timtom | editThe Walrus, Sasha Chapman (Apr 26, 2013)
 
Paragraph by paragraph, he’s still a joy to read, conveying the deep satisfaction of, say, experimenting to achieve a sourdough bread that’s wholesome but still airy. Yet the richness of his engagement with cooking refutes his own nostalgia. Judging by Pollan’s own kitchen, for those with the will and the resources, the world of cooking has never been as golden as it is now.
added by ozzer | editNew York Times, Bee Wilson (Apr 23, 2013)
 
For all the exoticism of this book's adventures, Mr. Pollan does not stray far from familiar ground. Simple but true: food becomes "literally more wonderful (and wonderfully more literal)" when we remember that who we are and what we eat are parts of the same world.
added by sgump | editWall Street Journal, Janet Maslin (Apr 15, 2013)
 
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At a certain point in the late middle of my life I made the unexpected but happy discovery that the answer to several of the questions that most occupied me was in fact one and the same.
Cook>
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When you consider that twenty-seven minutes is less time than it takes to watch a single episode of Top Chef or The Next Food Network Star, you realize that there are now millions of people who spend more time watching food being cooked on television than they spend actually cooking it themselves.
What if someone chomped down on an overlooked vertebra? Manhattan might have the lowest number of barbecue grills per capita, but surely it has the highest number of lawyers.
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"Fire, water, air, earth--our most trusted food expert recounts the story of his culinary education In Cooked, Michael Pollan explores the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen. Here, he discovers the enduring power of the four classical elements--fire, water, air, and earth--to transform the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink. Apprenticing himself to a succession of culinary masters, Pollan learns how to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer. In the course of his journey, he discovers that the cook occupies a special place in the world, standing squarely between nature and culture. Both realms are transformed by cooking, and so, in the process, is the cook. Each section of Cooked tracks Pollan's effort to master a single classic recipe using one of the four elements. A North Carolina barbecue pit master tutors him in the primal magic of fire; a Chez Panisse-trained cook schools him in the art of braising; a celebrated baker teaches him how air transforms grain and water into a fragrant loaf of bread; and finally, several mad-genius "fermentos" (a tribe that includes brewers, cheese makers, and all kinds of picklers) reveal how fungi and bacteria can perform the most amazing alchemies of all. The reader learns alongside Pollan, but the lessons move beyond the practical to become an investigation of how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships: with plants and animals, the soil, farmers, our history and culture, and, of course, the people our cooking nourishes and delights. Cooking, above all, connects us. The effects of not cooking are similarly far reaching. Relying upon corporations to process our food means we consume huge quantities of fat, sugar, and salt; disrupt an essential link to the natural world; and weaken our relationships with family and friends. In fact, Cooked argues, taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable. Reclaiming cooking as an act of enjoyment and self-reliance, learning to perform the magic of these everyday transformations, opens the door to a more nourishing life. "-- "In Cooked, Pollan explores the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen. Here, he discovers the enduring power of the four classical elements--fire, water, air, and earth--to transform the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink. In the course of his journey, he discovers that the cook occupies a special place in the world, standing squarely between nature and culture. Both realms are transformed by cooking, and so, in the process, is the cook"--

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