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A Natural History of Transformation

Michael Pollan

Start a stew with chopped onions, carrots and celery, sauteed in butter, you're on way to a French mirepoix. But add some parsley, and sautee with olive oil, and it's an Italian dish. Onions, garlic and tomato make it Spanish. Spring onions, garlic and ginger puts you in Asia.

This actual work cooking, whereas a bbq, particularly when run by a man, is a performance, with very little chopping and dicing.

To 'cook' today means anything served hot at home - a can heated up or a frozen pizza microwaved.

100 years ago, chicken dinner meant catching, killing, plucking and gutting a bird. Nobody does that today. And in another 100 years the cooking we do will seem quaint to our grandchildren.

So much pre-prepared stuff available - chopped onions just the start - can buy complete diced mirepoix and add pre-chopped meat.

Onions should be chopped very small, so that they melt away as they cook. And they should be cooked over a low heat until completely translucent and soft, given no chance to brown. What is it about onions that make them so ubiquitous in stews and braises? They aren't sweet, and if you don't brown them there is no caramalising to add flavour.

Our meats need lot more salt than we usually add. (As long as you're not eating a lot of processed foods, this isn't a problem.) Salting meat early draws water out of cut, but then drags the salted and flavoured cooking water back in. Ideally should salt the meat at least a day before cooking, rubbing small handfulls into the piece.

Unless you brown the meat, the flavour and appearance will be paler. Needs to be done in a little fat, with no water. For the Maillard reaction to go, needs to reach at least 250 degrees, and ideally, up to 330 degrees. Water can't get any higher than boiling point, 212 degrees F.

Then deglaze the pan - a little wine with alcohol boiled off, then incorporate all the chunky bits, and add to the casserole.

First step in cooking (as opposed to roasting over an open fire) was cooking stones - stones heated in fire and then dropped into an animal skin or woven basket filled with water. Still used today where people don't have pottery pots.

You probably don't need a stock. If you have enough flavour from herbs and veges you are adding with yr meat, why bother trying to add a chicken flavored stock or wine? Comes back to the fifth sense, umami, or savoriness. Our tastes have evolved either to protect us from harm (bitter often equates to toxic, sour to rotting food) or to get us to stock up (sweet is dense energy source, and salt we need). Umami activated by a lot of compounds, particularly glutamates which come from things like ripe tomatoes and parmesan cheese. Bacon is a umami-bomb - it contains all the compounds which trigger the taste.

The Stone Soup parable: strangers arrive a small town with nothing to eat, nobody gives them anything; they set up a stew pot with a stone and told them they were making stone soup, but it wd be a bit better if they had any herbs they cd throw in ... and so on ... people contributed potato peelings then a bone with a bit of meat etc etc and soon they had a great soup which they shared with all the villagers.

American industrialized food corporations have convinced people to like foods that are not much better than field rations. Now mothers think nothing of buying frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for kids lunches. The feminists got men into the kitchen - but it wasn't their husbands, it was the food scientists at General Foods.

Justify using pre-cooked meals bc we're so time-constrained that we need help - but what do we do with the half hour saved? drive to the restaurant?

We somehow find time to devote to computer and smart phone activities. But we eat while we do it - and because you can't chop onions and read your emails, you choose processed food that lets you multi-task.

And the reduction in 'time cost' has affected what we eat. A french fry used to be extremely time-consuming to prepare - peel and slice potato, cook it once, chill it then deep fry it. But now it is the most popular 'vegetable' in America, courtesy of the fast food industry. Similarly the mass production of cream-filled cakes, flavored chips and dips, cheesy puffs made of refined flour has transformed all these hard-to-make-at-home foods into the impulse buy you can pick up at a gas station for less than a dollar.

Americans are eating about 500 more calories a day than they were in the 1970's, and most of them come in the snacks and convenience foods cooked outside the home. When we don't have to spend the time cooking the food ourselves, we eat more of it.


When I was 10, and my family needed to take some kind of snack to parent-teacher conferences, I pulled out the Betty Crocker Cookbook and made croissants from scratch. (They recalled, in taste and appearance, those from a Pillsbury tube.) By 14 I was buying whole pumpkins from farmers down the road to make pumpkin bread, and at 17 I pickled a dozen eggs as a joke for a friend. I have always been, in other words, a cook - and one who wants to do it herself.

I bring this up because elitism is one of the most common complaints lobbed at Pollan. But I was pleasantly surprised to find myself far less bothered by Pollan's class privilege in reading Cooked. This is striking given how closely it mirrors Omnivore and draws on the two shorter (and also best-selling) books that served as its coda, In Defense of Food and Food Rules. This time around, Pollan has traded the farms for the kitchen, driven there by a question he is now often asked: "What is the most important thing an ordinary person can do to help reform the American food system, to make it healthier and more sustainable?" And his answer is simple: Cook.

Our collective failure to get in the kitchen is a big problem, according to Pollan, because it imperils the health of our bodies, our families, our communities and our land. We're more interested in cooking than ever before - witness the rise of the Food Network and its roster of celebrity chefs - yet we are spending less and less time in the kitchen. We've become disconnected from what anthropologists have identified as a defining human activity. And yet the amount of time spent cooking predicts obesity rates more than women going to work or their economic class. So how did we end up with this 'cooking paradox,' and where should we be going? Pollan sets off on a four-part journey to find out, exploring what he calls the transformations comprised by cooking. Each section is thematically based on one of the classical elements of fire, water, air, and earth, and Pollan learns to cook by methods that correspond to each. His monosyllabic directive, of course, turns out to be not so simple.

We begin with fire: barbecue, because man first cooked with open flame. For water, we learn to cook meat and vegetables in liquid, a development that required an agrarian society. Air is what yeasts impart to bread to make it rise, and people first fermented food in pits dug in the earth. In each section, Pollan approaches a culinary technique that is supposedly mundane, and then deconstructs it in multiple ways - as a social history, as pro-cooking propaganda, as a scientific explanation - so that it seems new.

Take, for example, the section on barbecue, which has Pollan following two North Carolina pitmasters at the top of their game - which, due to geography, means slowly cooking entire hogs over fire, served sans sauce. One of Pollan's gifts as a writer is his knack for deftly sharing the detail that you'll remember hours later and tell to friends. I'd never given thought to how Carolina barbecue is bound up with the rhythms of the tobacco harvest, or that while many of the best pitmasters are black, they often work at white-owned and -fronted establishments. These may not be investigative triumphs, but they will be things I remember for years - far more than the specifics of the Maillard reaction and its role in the development of crackling.

The two pitmasters are the narrative frame on which Pollan hangs his larger investigations; he spends just as much time on various folk tales and scientific theories about how we learned to cook with fire. He chronicles the work of Richard Wrangham, the Harvard primatologist who argues that we only evolved into Homo sapiens after the adoption of cooking. Then he brings in fables and Greek myth about the beginnings of our ability to use fire to feed ourselves. My favorite? A Chinese tale, by way of the British writer Charles Lamb, about a boy who accidentally burns down a house with piglets inside and, after touching the porcine corpses, puts his fingers to his lips. Delighted but embarrassed by the taboo of eating an animal, he and his father proceed to burn their house down every time a litter of piglets is born and feast accordingly.

At its heart, Cooked is a polemic in favor of cooking, and Pollan is most effective at making his case when he dives into the social science examining what it actually takes to cook. Primarily, this turns out to be time. Time is the recurring theme of all discussions about, 'Should we cook?' It is an expression of class difference - those with better jobs can pay someone to cook for them, or buy healthy pre-made food, or have flexible hours so they can cook themselves - and, in the U.S., deeply one of gender. Pollan knows this last point well; in 2009, when he published a precursor to Cooked in the New York Times Magazine suggesting that feminists had thoughtlessly trampled American cooking in their rush to get women out of the kitchen - a needlessly incendiary phrase that persists in Cooked - feminists offered plenty of rebuttal. (In Cooked Pollan notes that women now spend about 40 percent less time cooking than in 1965, with married unemployed women putting in just under an hour a day, and working wives 36 minutes. Yet he leaves out other, complicating - but arguably more interesting - numbers. For example, men spend about one-third less time in the kitchen than women, while low-income women spend slightly more time than the average woman.)

Pollan argues that the adoption of processed food at home is less about feminism and more about food-industry types capitalizing on the time-crunch and gender roles of the 1970s as middle-class women entered the workforce. And if the solution is to cook more at home, he says, it will probably get nowhere unless it challenges the traditional arrangements of domesticity, and assumes a prominent role for men in the kitchen, as well as children. This is a savvy line of persuasion - particularly given research showing that, for women, having a partner vies with employment in terms of predicting time spent in the kitchen.

The question, of course, is whether cooking is something that Americans are willing to do. Pollan brings in Harry Balzer, a veteran consumer researcher specializing in America's eating habits, to burst that bubble: "We've had a hundred years of packaged foods, and we're going to have a hundred years of packaged meals," he tells Pollan. "Face it: We're basically cheap and lazy."

This is a thorny thicket, and Pollan doesn't really counter Balzer's cynicism. But what gives Cooked real heft isn't its likelihood - or lack thereof - of convincing Americans to head back to the kitchen. Instead it's the careful rhetorical shift that is rolling along beneath the book's surface, a signal that our national conversation about food might be shifting, too. Some may read Cooked as just another book by a privileged foodie, but where Omnivore exhorted readers to buy things differently, Pollan is now urging us to do things differently: to alter, however slightly, the ratio of production and consumption in your life. Instead of a consumer movement, relegated to those with the funds to participate, Pollan is laying groundwork for something much broader.

This approach isn't flawless; it's curious to suggest individual solutions - Cook! - to a problem that Pollan has meticulously shown grew not from individual cooks fleeing the kitchen but an industrial food system hell-bent on shooing them out of it. But by focusing on self-reliance, Pollan is speaking to a core part of the American story, something that traces back to the founding fathers and even pioneer heroine Laura Ingalls Wilder, secret foodie.

More books on Food

(London Times)

Life is too short to read books about cooking. The same goes for sex, music, football, running, dancing and defecating: if you want to do it, then get out there and do it. But don't talk to me about it, and for God's sake don't expect me to read about it.

Michael Pollan expects us to read about it. At length - more than 450 pages in this latest volume - in which he observes the grand contemporary paradox that the more we watch television programmes about food, read books about food and worship the handful of men and women who cook food most publicly, the less we cook ourselves and the worse we eat. And then he observes it again. And again. And again.

It is a baffling one, admittedly. But now that I have reduced it to a sentence for you, you have had the best of it and I suggest that you go now and buy a good chicken, rub it with garlic and lemon and oil and salt, stick an onion and a bunch of thyme up its bum, put it in your oven on whatever heat you fancy in the last quarter of the dial, and leave it there for a little bit longer than an hour. Then turn the oven off, open the door and leave it another 20. Then eat it. But do not read on. Do not read another word of this food writer, writing about another food writer, writing about why we spend so much time reading about food when we ought to be cooking it.

For that is the only way to break this horrific chain, do you see? First, stop reading. Then, start cooking.

Chicken in? Fair do's. Then you can kill 20 minutes with the newspaper and not be in breach of my version of Pollan's 'out of the library and into the kitchen' programme. But do not, I repeat not, make the mistake of reading Cooked.

For to say that Pollan writes like a drain is woeful understatement. He writes like a soil pipe. Like the fat trap at your local Nando's. And he does it in that way that is peculiar to stalwarts of The New York Times bestseller list (on which Cooked made it to No 1), with a style that hitches ceaseless repetition of the toweringly obvious to misgrasped gobbets of popular philosophy and endless rhetorical questions.

If you want a sense of the rank pomposity with which this book positively swelters, then let me tell you that in dividing it into four sections about barbecuing, braising, baking and brewing, Pollan headlines them respectively: Fire, Water, Air, Earth. The four elements of an antediluvian, irrelevant and completely wrong theory of natural history. How long did that take him to think up? Twelve seconds? More likely, on the evidence of his plodding imagination in the rest of the book, fully six months of applied and continuous thought.

As he brings his philosophical grundrisse up to date it gets worse. Pollan first observes ad nauseam that food is quite often mentioned in the Bible and Freud, spouts some preposterous notions about evolutionary theory, and then dives straight into the anthropological guff of that old Structuralist fraud, Claude Levi-Strauss, as if it were Gospel. From there it is a short walk to that other great talker of bollocks, Roland Barthes, whose nonsense Pollan also swallows wholesale, repeating credulously: "The braise or stew that's been cut into geometric cubes and rendered tender by long hours in the pot represents a deep sublimation, or forgetting, of the brutal reality of this particular transaction among species".

Now at this point, one is inevitably awaiting the arrival on the page of Michel Foucault, whose The Order of Things was my own way into (and, thank God, out of) Levi-Strauss as an English student long ago. But Foucault never comes. Only that old lunatic Gaston Bachelard, a progenitor of Foucault and quite forgotten since the 1960s - the decade in which the Berkeley-based Pollan seems to be philosophically trapped.

Having enlisted the handful of philosophers he has heard of to persuade us that cooking food is important, Pollan then sets out to learn four ancient skills to show us how important it is that we pull back from the processed and hurried lives we lead. But he rogers his own argument by learning to do things that you and I will never, ever, ever, ever do: roast a whole pig on wood ash in a hole in the ground for 24 hours; create a sourdough starter from scratch and use it to bake bread from flour that has been stone-milled from ancient strains of wheat unsullied by 300 years of selective breeding; and brew proper beer. If that sort of all-consuming endeavour (which, bear in mind, very few people could ever do well at any stage in the history of human gastronomy) is what it will take to get back a bit of soul into this benighted fast-food world of ours then, sorry, I can't be arsed. (Pollan's fourth project, by the way, is to make a stew, which I grant is a realistic proposition, if not a subject for especially gripping storytelling.)

Nor does it help that every new element of these ancient cooking techniques is introduced with that nervous tic that we know so well from a thousand television food series voiceovers: "I was curious to find out how ... " Over and over again he writes this until all I can hear in my head is Heston or Gordon saying how passionate they are about cheesecake/turnips/toad-in-the-hole, which is why they are going on another bloody journey to discover how it was effing invented. You can't write a book about there being too much food on television in the plodding, mendacious manner of the ploddingest television food programme without looking a total dork. Like all pseudo-intellectual poseurs, Pollan brutally overuses such meaningless teenybop A-level words as iconic and protean and also, unforgivably, scatters his book with such folksy little phrases as - hands over your mouths please - 'major pet peeve' and 'way to go!'

Pollan is most famous internationally for an adage of his that is (uncharacteristically) quite brilliant in its concision and acuity, and which I have quoted many times in the past, always attributing it to 'some philosopher bloke', because I was fortunate enough until recently never to have read one of Pollan's books. "Eat food," he wrote. "Not too much. Mostly plants."

It is a brilliant injunction that, if followed, would in a stroke save the planet from the ongoing global catastrophes of obesity, famine and environmental decay. But that doesn't mean he should be allowed to whang on for nearly 500 pages about what he had for lunch. So allow me to follow his gnomic lead and implore you as follows:

Read books. Not this one.

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