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Friday, July 25, 2014

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, by Michael Pollan

I know that I generally have a favorable opinion regarding many of the books I read.  (I mean, hey, it's a book.  Most of them have something of worth to extract.)  As a result, you are probably thinking that I am just going to say good things about everything and yada yada yada.

But this book, dearies, this book is one you MUST get and read from cover to cover.  MUST.  This is not one that I am just haphazardly suggesting you read, this one I am telling you to go get - you won't regret it.  It is brilliant and worthy of your time.

Michael Pollan is the famous author of The Omnivore's Dilemma.  If you're into reading about food, it is likely you've read that book.  It is thought provoking, as his work generally is.  This book, if I must say, is even better.

Mr. Pollan sections the world of cooking into the classical elements: fire, water, air and earth, and explores their influence in the realm of cooking.  

Fire, as you may guess, is the manly act of grilling (mainly a manly task - he tackles why through history).  He goes deep south to explain to (especially us) northerners what the real definition of barbecue is (and according to his research and those he's apprenticed under - it is NOT a verb).  He brings you into the lives of the grill masters, their pit crew and their beginnings, and somehow makes you want to tackle roasting a whole hog in your yard (even if you keep kosher).

Water is his exploration into what we generally think of as homemade, from scratch, fancy cooking.  If you've read David Tanis - that kind of cooking.  He makes you want to linger over a pot of onions, slowly releasing sweetness over the course of 45 minutes, not being quick about any of it - but reminding you of being purposeful and taking it easy.  I would say in one way, it is carefully and artfully making every single bit of the meal perfect.  Not skimping and grabbing Pillsbury pre-made dough, rather making your own.  Not using anything that came from a box or a bag (unless your veggies and fruits and herbs come in a bag, I mean).  It is the satisfying taste of braised meat in a stew or a homemade spaghetti sauce that you took the whole day (on purpose) to make from scratch.

The section on air is the world of baking.  When you are not even halfway through the section, you may find yourself figuring out how you too can get yourself into making a sourdough starter, tossing that granulated store-bought yeast by the wayside.  The feel of the bread, the quest for baking perfection - using white flour vs. using stone milled whole wheat (and he explains just what qualifies as "whole wheat" here in these United States...I bet you can guess...it doesn't mean a whole wheat berry ground up, sorry for the spoiler...), who bakes, how they do it, and his experimentation with it all.

Then comes the section I was most excited about.  Earth.  What on earth is earth in cooking, you say?  Oh my dears, it's fermentation, of course!  Without this section there would be no yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, beer, mead, cheese and on and on.  You know - the things your modern mind tells you that you couldn't POSSIBLY make yourself.  He throws that idea in the garbage as he meets and mingles with Sandor Katz, the guru of fermentation (and author of Wild Fermentation, ever heard of it?).  He makes beer in his basement.  He hangs out with a nun who makes cheese and spanks the FDA with her wooden paddle (okay, not literally, but if you read it you know what I mean).  He peeks at the philosophy of the grossies and our fascination with it.  He goes to a convention for fermentos who ask Sandor Katz for his autograph.  Even though you hate sauerkraut, you kind of want to make it anyway, just to see.

If you have any interest in food or in cooking whatsoever, you will want to pick this book up.  If you want to see how far we have come as a society in our definition of what cooking actually means, go get this book.  If you want to be inspired toward perfection in your kitchen, look no further.  This is one of the best books I have read in several years.  I rank this up there with the likes of Food is Your Best Medicine (Dr. Henry Bieler) and Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (Dr. Weston A. Price).  

Easy to read, spiked with humor, and overflowing with wonderful and interesting information and research - you are missing out if you miss this one.

Keep on reading,
Ms. Daisy

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