by Michael Pollan
Penguin Books, 2014
Review by Ellee Prince
In one of my most vivid memories at age six, my mother, slim and soft, stood in the kitchen of my childhood home. She leaned over the sink, with the bright California sun shining through the square window, and peeled tart green apples one at a time. The peels slipped from her knife in paper-thin spirals. Holding one in my fingertips, I ate it slowly with small front-toothed nibbles from one end to the other, watching her move among the food as she hummed.
I believe some of our strongest memories are surrounded by food. Especially in our childhood years, where first tastes sometimes imprint themselves in profound ways. The memory of my young mother making pie is filled with the sharp sounds of her knife, the crisp scents of apples and cinnamon, the sticky touch of unbaked dough. That memory is also filled with feelings of safety, abundance, creativity, and connection.
Michael Pollan's book, Cooked, is all about food. It's about history and origins and technique and the culture that arises from "doing" food. But this somewhat whimsical book written in part how-to, part memoir, part journalistic narrative, is ultimately and most certainly about connection. As he attempts to understand food as a consumable—how it evolved, how it nourishes, how it sets us apart and draws us together—throughout more than 300 pages, Pollan slowly explains the connecting power of food.
Segmented into the four elements of life—Fire, Water, Air, Earth—Pollan puts himself in the role of novice barbecuer, sous chef, baker, and fermenter. He seeks experience with the outside forces we apply to our meals: the grill, the cook pot, the oven, and the microbiota.
In Cooked, Pollan explores an everyday necessity from a variety of angles. He tells us that everything we consume has an origin, whether we understand it or not. “The beer in that bottle,” he writes, “I’m reminded as soon as I brew it myself, ultimately comes not from a factory but from nature—from a field of barely snapping in the wind, from a hops vine clambering over a trellis, from a host of invisible microbes feasting on sugars.”
As we read, we begin to see the larger point he's trying to make: roughly, that eventually among the list of "this comes from that" we arrive at ourselves. We face our own origins and dependancies, which don't actually have a whole lot to do with a grocery store, a stove, a kitchen, a cook pot, but so much more to do with what these luxuries and evolved necessities have in common: food. And when we understand our relationship to food, we begin to understand each other.
“Cooking,” writes Pollan, “is all about connection, I’ve learned, between us and other species, other times, other cultures (human and microbial both), but most importantly, other people.”
I was raised on the edge of the microwave revolution. Our first microwave — a large chrome and brown-laminated beast — reminded me of the old station wagons with wood panelling on the doors. Though it took up most of the counter space, it was primarily used for reheating dinners from the previous night. It wasn’t until my late teens with a newer, slimmer, gleaming-white microwave stationed close to the sink, that entire meals were often prepared in six minutes or less. It allowed a family of four to eat different meals at different times, for the sake of preference or convenience.
What would my understanding of food be without my mother’s apple pie, without the apple skins and the smell of cinnamon-infused pastry dough slowly baking in the oven? Likewise, how would my connection to my family have changed without microwaved chili or meatloaf or lasagna in single-serve plastic bowls? One can only speculate in hindsight.
Yet, looking to the future, as we navigate GMOs, the rise in food allergies and intolerances, yearly outbreaks of e. coli and listeria, and recommendations over how much or how little grains/meat/eggs/fats/carbs we should daily consume, it seems the best step forward is to learn from the past. According to Pollan, we can do this by understanding our food; by learning how it came to be on our plate, and once again giving our meals a place of prominence in our connection to the world around us.
As Pollan asks early on in Cooked, “To barbecue or to braise? To roast or to boil? That, apparently, is the question, and much—about who we think we are—depends on the answer.”