Book Review: Cooked

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Nicky Pellegrino bones up on the damage fast food does

Michael Pollan explains why we should reacquaint ourselves with "slow" food. Photo / Supplied
Michael Pollan explains why we should reacquaint ourselves with "slow" food. Photo / Supplied

Cooked: A Natural History Of Transformation by Michael Pollan

If US food writer Michael Pollan's latest book, Cooked: A Natural History Of Transformation, were a meal it would be a lengthy one made up of delicious morsels and bigger chunks that are harder to chew through but probably very good for you all the same.

Cooked is not a recipe book - although a few are at the back. Rather, it is part dissertation, part culinary journey of discovery, part paean to the virtues of food preparation.

Pollan begins with the premise that cooking is what separates humans from other animal species. He quotes anthropologist Richard Wrangham's theory that when humans learned to control fire it freed us from the effort of chewing and digesting raw food, providing faster, better nourishment; so we could get on with developing a culture.

Enthused by this idea, Pollan resolves to embark on an education in cooking.

He approaches it by dividing the whole business into its four transformative elements: fire, water, air and earth.

Fire takes him to North Carolina, where he is introduced to the tradition of southern barbecue - not a gas grill in the backyard, Kiwi-style, but fire pits in which whole hogs are roasted slowly over wood. This is the most entertaining section of Cooked, partly because of the personalities Pollan encounters as he learns to make the perfect barbecue sandwich, in particular, legendary pitmaster Ed Mitchell.

Water takes him to the kitchen where he learns the art of one-pot slow cooking. For home cooks this is the most practical part of the book as the chapters are constructed around a basic recipe and littered with tips to extract maximum flavour from cheap cuts of meat.

Air is all about baking the perfect sourdough but it also takes Pollan to a Wonder Bread factory where he sees how manufacturers carefully remove all the good stuff from grains of wheat before mass-producing their soft white loaves.

Earth leads us into the realm of fermented foods where Pollan steeps himself in sauerkraut, kimchi and healthy bacteria.

The core message in Cooked is much the same as in Pollan's earlier books. He is concerned about the industrialisation of food, the insidious creep of the processed and the packaged on to our dining tables, our love affair with fast and convenient, and what it has stolen from the rhythm of our lives as well as done to our health.

He manages to be opinionated without preaching. What he says makes so much sense that he almost shouldn't have to say it. Except that you have only to walk down the aisles of a supermarket to see how much we need to hear it.

Pollan is a realist. He understands all the elements of modern life that have contributed to the decline of culinary skills. Time in the kitchen, chopping and frying, neither hurried nor distracted is, he says, a great luxury of life at this point.

Cooked is written to inspire and inform, to help turn the drudgery of getting weeknight dinners on the table into something more vital for our health and our humanity. It's a big feed of a book, complex and difficult to digest at times, but nourishing to the soul as well as the brain.

- Herald on Sunday

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