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Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

Michael Pollan takes a seat at the dinner table

Reviewed by Jessi Cape, Fri., May 31, 2013

Read It and Eat

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

by Michael Pollan
Penguin Press, 480 pp., $27.95

Michael Pollan, whose name is synonymous with food culture writing, focuses the conversation of his seventh book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, around the dinner table. Cooking, he postulates, "situates us in the world in a very special place, facing the natural world on one side and the social world on the other." However, aside from occasionally romantic logic as related to political and philosophical reasoning, socioeconomic and environmental concerns, and even gender roles, Cooked wonders, "Why cook?" The act of cooking is largely considered a defining human characteristic, yet the corporate food industry is vying to redefine this measurement of humanity by shifting the definition of cooking. With suggestions that time spent in the home kitchen or grocery store is wasted, industrialized food swoops in to save us from ourselves.

Stuffed with an encyclopedic wealth of information, Pollan's latest manifesto is divided into sections corresponding with the four classical elements – fire, water, air, and earth. Cooked follows his journey toward a self-imposed higher education in culinary enlightenment as he learns from pit masters, chefs, millers, bakers, artisanal picklers, and expert fermenters. Pollan's storytelling rivets, steeping the reader in delicious details (gut bacteria, anyone?) and historical tales of ancient ceremonial animal sacrifice. Pollan's vividly recounted experiences of learning barbecue techniques, cheese making, craft beer brewing, and the history of white bread are fascinating to anyone remotely interested in food, culture, environment, or politics.

Yet herein lies the book's not-so-secret weakness: Though Pollan skillfully dances with the warring sides of modern cooking, he stumbles in his quest to engage the "passive consumer." Still, his passionate belief that "to join the makers of the world is always to feel at least a little more self-reliant, a little more omnicompetent" inspires, acting as a catalyst for change, especially for those with one foot already in the kitchen. Perhaps the way to build healthy, sustainable food communities is found in a home-cooked meal, surrounded by all sides of the human story.

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