Cooked! – book review

By: Johanna Bergan – Education and Outreach Coordinator

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, by Michael Pollan

A somewhat smug disclaimer: I am wildly infatuated with the distinguished food journalist Michael Pollan and I did stalk him quietly around the Co-op during his visit to Decorah. My first discovery of Michael Pollan was as a student at Luther College. At that point in his career, Pollan was a journalist who loved to garden. Food was something you ate but didn’t think about too much. My continued admiration of his work stems from the staying power of a particular chapter of Second Nature regarding lawn mowing. My then-boyfriend, now-husband and I were able to clearly identify our different opinions on community participation, moral requirements and subject identification of frequent arguments to come. To mow or not to mow. Thanks Michael Pollan!

Cooked is a book easily laid out into four sections, each correlating with a natural element. Pollan’s journalistic nose connected to a growing love and understanding of good food, leading to the perfection of four master recipes. Feel free to jump in and out of the chapters at will. If Mrs. Fizzleby’s articles in The Scoop have you excited then read the baking (AIR) and fermenting (EARTH) chapters. Excited for barbeque – the Fire chapter is the place to start.

Many times I have been appreciative of Michael Pollan’s journalistic background and this book inspired several of those moments. Like a Bloodhound, Pollan tracked down enough expertise to ensure not only good food, but great food. My foodie brain is positively reeling from the collection of wisdom Pollan was able to draw from, creating a book of inspiration.

While reading about Pollan’s exploration of sourdough I made plans to start baking daily and found a resource for gluten-free sourdoughs. I flipped to the fermentation chapter and ended up online trying to find the best crock to make sauerkraut. My brain is still buzzing with the new ideas. Please remember, don’t skip the intro. The first few pages contain gems of importance, perhaps the most important of the entire work.

Despite my previously disclosed infatuation with Pollan and the orgy of food knowledge, I am put out by Cooked. In Pollan’s earlier food writing, any consumer of food (so all of us) could follow along – the words, names and instructions where simple. In fact, in our innate being, we already knew everything Pollan had to say. He says this himself – he is, after all, a journalist. His work is to review and present not to create anew.

Moving from his earlier book’s message “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” to fermenting in your kitchen is a giant step. I spend most of my time explaining, modeling and teaching how to follow Pollan’s earlier words in the daily lives of busy families. Some of the biggest hurdles to healthier diets and a healthier planet are time, energy and skills – all related to the kitchen.

There are nuggets of helpfulness in this book and an acknowledgement of the difficulties in the way of cooking good food at home. But there are a million steps and a whole lot of time between making a pizza with a store-bought crust, and homemade bread with good bacteria in your kitchen. I believe we need to focus on those steps in between and spread the basic knowledge in kitchens everywhere.

There is a spectrum to cooking. You can’t wake up one day and know how to cook. We all start somewhere and that’s the right place to start. Making pasta for example, can look like this: Boil water and cook noodles, dump on a can of premade sauce. It’s a start to cooking. Next time think about using a can of diced tomatoes and adding your own dried herbs. The following week, or month, try making a sauce from fresh tomatoes. The first two versions you can make without even owning a knife. This journey is not that which Pollan shares in Cooked, but it is a reasonable and fair method to practice in your own kitchen.

Now don’t get me wrong, if you like to eat food, cook food, and/or read books by Michael Pollan, this book is well worth the time it takes to read and discuss. However, if your last visit with Pollan was Food Rules, hold on tight and keep breathing as you make your way through the four sections of Cooked. Remember, your food journey doesn’t need to look like this. However, if your journey does look like this – please invite me over for dinner.