Book Review: Pollan views culinary traditions in ‘Cooked’

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Pam Linn

In this time of food faddists touting everything from gluten-free to raw-only meals, journalist Michael Pollan dissects what really happens when foods are cooked in mostly traditional ways. 

His new book, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” is a dream for chemists, microbiologists—actually, anyone who loves food and cares about what they’re eating. 

It’s divided into four sections, each named for the classical elements used to cook: fire, water, air and earth. Each section delves into history and culture of basic food preparation. It’s what makes us human, he says of cooking. 

After reading previous Pollan works such as “The Botany of Desire” (2001), “Omnivore’s Dilemma” (2006), “In Defense of Food” (2008) and “Food Rules” (2009), I thought I knew just about everything to do with nutrition, but not so. Little did I realize how much more there was to it. 

Firstly, Pollan is creative and masterful in his structure and organization. The facts effortlessly flow into the reader’s consciousness and stay there. While his earlier works are shorter, lighter (“Food Rules” is little more than a pocket book, the perfect gift for busy folks who rely on precooked meals), at some 400-plus pages, “Cooked” is an investment of time. 

The first section, “Fire,” tells perhaps more than I needed to know about barbecue. But then, as a vegetarian, I could have skipped some of the secrets of pulled pork and the deep-south culture that thrives on it. Interesting, but not my gig. 

“Water,” which digs deeply into braising, better meets the needs of one who eschews meat. Crossing almost every culinary tradition, the similarities are more compelling than differences in seasonings that identify the country of origin. For instance, he boils (pun intended) down all such recipes into six steps: “Dice some aromatic plants; Sautee them in some fat; Brown pieces of meat (or other featured ingredient); Put everything in a pot; Add some water (or stock, wine, milk, etc.); Simmer, below the boil, for a long time.” 

Mirepoix, a dice of onions, carrots and celery sautéed in butter or olive oil, is French. But if you add garlic, fennel or parsley it makes an Italian soffritto. However, sofrito (no letters doubled) uses onions, garlic and tomato in place of celery and identifies the dish as Spanish. An Asian mirepoix, called a “tarka,” uses onions and different spices, usually sautéed in ghee (clarified butter) for Indian and other cuisines. 

Part Three, “Air,” is all about baking and various ways to lighten the loaf. Starting with a sourdough culture, what the cowboys call “starter,” is part of the secret of leavening. Too much trouble for most bakers, they rely on different forms of yeast to inject air into the dough of white breads. 

But what most interested me in this section was how to make reasonably light bread out of whole-grain flour, a talent that has so far eluded me — and most commercial bakeries. It’s complicated, but basically we’ve bleached and milled most of the nutrients out of wheat to produce white or nearly white baked things. Of course, those nutrients (mostly B vitamins) are added back (think enriched), so what’s the point? 

“Stand back far enough and the absurdity of this enterprise makes you wonder about the sanity of our species,” Pollan writes. 

In his quest for bread leavened by sourdough culture rather than commercial yeast, Pollan discovered “levain” means just that. Hence, on the labels of many French and artisan breads we find “Pain Levain,” one of my favorites. 

The section titled “Earth” deals mainly with the making of cheese. If ever you wanted to know anything about real cheese, its rind, its flavor and aroma, this is the place to find it. Pollan befriended a nun devoted to the making of Saint Nectaire cheese, who enlightened him about the invisible cultures that are responsible for fermenting milk. We learn even why humans are attracted to “stinky” cheeses, which has something to do with the disgust factor. I’ve always avoided the white rind on Camembert while savoring the soft, mellow part inside, but knowing why hasn’t changed my behavior. 

At the back of the book are four recipes, based on each of the four transformations. One doesn’t need to be a “foodie” to try them. Pollan notes they have been tested by a professional, but after faithfully following them at least once, he suggests improvisation. He himself cooks the dishes regularly, but they continue to mutate and evolve. 

Bon chance.