When Michael Pollan writes something, especially a book, the food community listens. Since the publication of The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006 there have been few voices as influential with regard to the national and international discussion of food than Pollan’s. He continues the conversation with his latest book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.
The book looks at food through four lenses—fire, water, air, and earth—which translate into the cooking techniques of barbeque, braising, bread baking, and fermentation. For those of you who know me, I was particularly excited to get to the part about fermentation because of my love of beer.
I’ll be generous and say that the book wanders. A person could easily claim that it reads like four separate ideas stitched into a larger narrative without the benefit of a true common thread save for the transformation of food.
Each method of food transformation serves as a clothes rack upon which hangers of tangents are affixed to make points about our modern food system. In a nutshell: our food system is screwed up (no big shock to anyone with open eyes and half a brain) and a lot of the problem has to do with the food industry trying to “save” us time (you mean frozen pizzas are bad for me?).
If there is one common denominator to all of the cooking techniques described in this book it would be…time. It takes a long time to slow cook an entire hog over the dying embers of a hardwood fire. It takes a long time to braise a chunk of meat in a shallow bath of water just below the boiling point. It takes a long time to develop a starter to bake bread and to wait for a batch of dough to be ready for the oven. For those of you familiar with various fermentation techniques, it is up to the community of microorganisms to decide when things are done. Think you beer is going to be ready for bottling after two weeks? Sorry sucker, but the temp in the basement dropped and retarded primary fermentation enough that you get to wait a few more days. If I sound bitter it’s because I have had this happen one too many times.
Real cooking teaches patience because real cooking takes time. It’s not always about taking a lot of time, but when you have two kids fighting over which show is going to be on the television even chopping a few onions seems like a Herculean task. Add in the troubles of any day for people who work outside the home and it becomes easy to see why we have outsourced the preparation of our food even if it might be killing us.
A criticism that is levied against Pollan, in general, and Cooked, including the essay that was the kernel of inspiration for the book, is that he romanticizes a very gendered notion of domesticity and cooking. I am sympathetic to the idea that romanticizing a time when more people cooked meals at home is a hearkening back to a time when women’s work was primarily in the home. However, it would be just as accurate to read what Pollan writes and say that he is romanticizing a time when McCarthy was on the warpath or the world faced impending nuclear doom. Whatever the reason, the decline of home cooked meals coincides with women leaving the domestic workforce en masse and transitioning into the mainline workforce.
I think if someone were to stop there, it would seem like Pollan wants women back in the kitchen “where they belong.” However, his ideas about the duty of people to cook, for themselves and for family, cut across gender lines completely. This is not about getting some people involved in the preparation of food, it is about getting everyone involved in the preparation of food.
Pollan himself deals with that issue, it’s as if people stopped reading in the pages before and started writing criticism bu failed to notice what he wrote on page 184:
Now, whenever anyone–but, especially a man–expresses dismay at the decline of home cooking, a couple of unspoken assumptions begin to condense over the conversation like offending clouds. The first is that you must be “blaming” women for the decline in cooking, since (and here is assumption number two) the meals no longer being cooked are women’s responsibility.
If there is one bone of contention that I have with Cooked it would have to be the scorn that Pollan heaps on the lowly microwave. From his writing you would think that this was the one technological change that skewed our dining habits toward the awful end of the spectrum. I do not understand why the microwave is anymore to blame for our bad dining habits than the freezer—couldn’t have those Hungry Man dinners without huge freezers, the drive-thru—can’t eat meals as easily behind the wheel when you actually have to get out of the car, or television—wouldn’t know about chicken that does not have skin or bones without a thirty second advertisement.
The microwave, in my opinion, is just a tool in the kitchen like a knife or a skillet. It can be used to help you make good food or bad food. I would much prefer to use a microwave to reheat leftovers of something I made at home for lunch rather than depend on the vagaries of quick service meal options near work. Is the microwave preferable to a freshly cooked or prepared meal? God no, but sometimes we just do not have the luxury of time.
If you get a chance check out Pollan and Michael Moss talking about food in a typical American supermarket.