Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

Michael Pollan takes a seat at the dinner table

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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Food Reviews
Restaurant Review: Bambino
Restaurant Review: Bambino
New Eastside pizza joint from L’Oca d’Oro owners has something to say

Melanie Haupt, June 7, 2024

Restaurant Review: Craft Omakase
Restaurant Review: Craft Omakase
This elite, 22-course omakase menu is exactly as filling as it sounds ... but we wouldn’t skip a single course

Taylor Tobin, May 31, 2024

More by Jessi Cape
The Long Game
True-life story of Mexican-American teens who make a run at the 1957 state golf championship

April 12, 2024

SXSW Panel Discusses Promoting DEI in the Workplace
SXSW Panel Discusses Promoting DEI in the Workplace
In challenging times, supporting diversity is more critical than ever

March 14, 2024


Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Cooked A Natural History of Transformation, food culture

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle