Book Review: Cooked by Michael Pollan

1899 illustration of brewing yeast.

Michael Pollan Cooked.Michael Pollan’s book is a mix of history, philosophy, personal memoir and cookbook, which amounts to an extended pep talk: cook more! Eat more dirt!

The book is built around the conceit that the four primary methods of preparing food each correspond to an element: grilling (meat) is fire; stewing is water; leavening bread is air; and fermentation with fungus and bacteria is earth.

Pollan’s approach to understanding the act of cooking is hands-on, which leads him to question repeatedly why anyone bothers to make their own bread, beer or sauerkraut. One of his conclusions is that preparing at home, at great expense and with highly variable results, versions of products that can be bought at the shops for next to nothing is enjoyable and meditative: it is ‘adult play’.

This is certainly a fair description of our own attempts at home brewing, and perhaps (no offence intended) even of some small commercial brewing operations.

In his exploration of ‘the Balkans of barbecue’, we found echoes of the debate over categories of beer in the UK. What ‘barbecue’ means in the US, Pollan explains, varies from region to region, state to state, city to city — some ‘tribes’ use sauce, others don’t; sauces can be based on mustard, vinegar or tomato; they might use the whole pig, the shoulder, the belly, or specific cuts thereof. Each region thinks the others is doing it wrong. Those differences, he suggests, are a form of social glue — a way for members of one group to bond, while also excluding outsiders.

When he quotes a friend saying ‘So barbecue is basically kashrut [kosher food law] for goys?’, and barbecue aficionados dismissing the slow-cooked pork from the next town with, ‘Okay, but that’s not barbecue,’ we hear the voice of a Campaign for Real Ale member or Brewdog shareholder: ‘Okay, but that’s not real ale/craft beer.’

Back-to-basics artisan, or rock-star?

Pigs

Throughout the book, Pollan grapples with a few problems which also affect the world of beer, such as the arrival of the ‘rock-star’ artisan. When he meets world-famous barbecue pit-master Ed Mitchell, he observes with some disappointment that not only is Mitchell a touch hypocritical (he uses both charcoal and propane for convenience, despite having railed against them), but is also a walking ‘brand’ whose job is to sell a particular vision of ‘authenticity’ (Mitchell is black) on behalf of the wealthy investors who actually own ‘his’ restaurant.

Some of this exists in beer already, and more of it is on the way.

‘Craft beer’ drinkers will also recognise the tale of how the $2.75 barbecue sandwich became the $8 ‘premium product’: it takes more time and uses more expensive ingredients, and, as a result, only people in suits can afford to eat them, in sanitised, theme park surroundings. With pork products, however, the argument is somewhat more compelling — the $2.75 sandwich uses factory-farmed ‘commodity pork’, while the more expensive version uses fattier and reportedly tastier meat from rare breed pigs. There is no such thing as battery-farmed malt or hops, as far as we are aware.

Craft: instinct and fingers?

There are also various compelling illustrations of ‘craft’ as a verb. For example, Pollan describes a miller knows when the grains are overheating because he literally puts his nose to the grindstone. Of a rockstar sourdough producer, he says this:

[Chad] Robertson seemed to be suggesting that success as a baker demanded a certain amount of negative capability — willingness to exist amid uncertainty. His was a world of craft rather than engineering, one where ‘digital’ referred exclusively to fingers.

‘Negative capability’, just to be clear, means ‘lack of ability’: it helps not to be technically competent. (See comment below.) We can imagine some brewers bridling at that, especially those who seem (to borrow another of Pollan’s pithy turns of phrase) ‘less like… cooks than twenty-something computer geeks trying to master a new software platform’.

Elsewhere, Pollan tells a familiar story of the march of progress and the resulting blandification of processed, industrialised food. He suggests that attempts by hippies to revive ‘whole grain’ bread in the nineteen-seventies did more damage than good, producing black, indigestible bricks that created an image bread-makers are still trying to shake-off forty years on. (We thought, once again, of ‘real ale’.)

‘The cheese and the sex’

When we finally got to it, the section on fermenting was, perhaps inevitably, a let down, though there were a few interesting nuggets which demand further research.

A long meditation on why people would voluntarily eat rotting shark meat or cheese that smells like toe-jam — ‘the erotics of disgust’ — applies just as well to sour and otherwise ‘funky’ acquired-taste beers. After consulting Freud, talking to a cheese-making nun, and reading the insane website of an apparent cheese fetishist, Pollan concludes that humans fundamentally love body smells (feet, shit, sweat) but (except in France…) are then socially-conditioned to pretend they don’t.

While making mead with wild yeast, he is told that they typically ‘crap out’ at around 5% ABV, which leads Pollan to suggest that is arguably the ‘natural’ strength for primitively-produced alcoholic beverages. European beer culture would certainly seem to have decided as much.

We were also amused and intrigued by his argument for why drinking is inseparable from socialising. When animals are given access to booze under laboratory conditions, he explains, not only do they love the stuff, but they gather together to drink in group ‘sessions’, apparently because being drunk makes them more vulnerable to predators, and there is safety in numbers. Suddenly, the pub makes much more sense.

* * *

Though it occasionally tips over into self-righteous disgust at the eating habits of the masses, and isn’t always successful in avoiding a certain middle-class smugness, Cooked is an entertaining, amusing book which anyone who has ever felt the urge to make pickles, bacon or beer ought to enjoy.

And we dare anyone to read it and not come away wanting bake a wholemeal sourdough loaf, or roast a whole hog.

We were given our copy as a gift by a friend but the recommended retail price for the hardback edition is £20.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Cooked by Michael Pollan”

  1. Working my way through this one, too. As a guy with a suburban veggie garden and professional degrees it is difficult to not be stuck with middle class (even in less class-ridden Canada) so maybe I associate with this stuff more than you but I highly recommend it.

  2. ‘Negative capability’, just to be clear, means ‘lack of ability’

    Sorry, you’ve got this wrong. “Negative capability” is a concept coined by the poet Coleridge in his Biographia Literaria (which isn’t in Latin, apart from the title), and he defines it pretty much exactly as Pollan does: “willingness to exist amid uncertainty”. Coleridge was writing about what made a good poet: a bad poet was one who knew what (s)he meant to say before sitting down to write, a good poet was one who let the ideas form on the page. It’s negative capability because it’s the capability not to jump to conclusions or force the poem you’re writing into a preconceived shape.

    1. You added the ‘mere’! Play is a good thing.

      And, to be fair to Pollan, that is only one of several benefits he sees in DIY food production.

      1. True, but I find that of all the reasons “play” doesn’t seem a primary motivating factor amongst people I know who DIY. Quality of product & sometimes economics of product (especially beer) are more practical and, I think, more common explanations. (Sure, if you factor in the old “cost of personal time” element the economics can start to look shot… but I’ve always thought that a bit of a dodgy argument.)

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