Dig This: Wayne Kessler Reviews “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation”

COOKED: A NATURAL HISTORY OF TRANSFORMATION, author Michael Pollan, (Penguin Press: New York, 2013).

Dig This … COOKED is another good read.  Michael Pollan has become a champion of the food movement.  Some of my other heroes include Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Waters, and Frances Moore Lappé.   By food I mean natural food and not the processed food-like substances that merely taste good because of extra salt, sugar, oil, and chemical flavorings and preservatives.  By movement I mean the rising consciousness and adoption of ways to sustainably grow, market and eat local, fresh and organic food.

“The premise of this book is that cooking—defined broadly enough to take in the whole nutritious and appealing things for us to eat and drink—is one of the most interesting spectrum of techniques people have devised for transforming the raw stuff of nature into and worthwhile things we humans do” (11). But then we took a wrong turn and started processing food in such a way as to make it cheaper but a lot less nutritious.

Pollan takes us through the ways we transform food with the techniques of grilling with FIRE, boiling WATER, using AIR in baking and EARTH in fermentation.  Each section includes one basic recipe learned from a master of the technique.

I like COOKED for important reasons.  One is the way Pollan links cooking food with our various cultural heritages, some of which we have mostly lost.  Another is the insertion of explanations of how–and reasons why– the processed food industry is ruining our health and at the same time weakening our family life, showing that home cooking offers us a way to regain our health and our family life.  In addition, cooking for pleasure is to “declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into another occasion for consumption” (22).

I changed one word in a Thomas Jefferson quote in Edible Shasta-Butte (Summer 2013) to bring it up-to-date:  “If people let corporations [government] decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.” How true, how true.

Beyond enjoying cooking is another layer of learning.  Beyond reading or seeing on television, there is a deeper learning gained by doing it yourself.  Since Pollan is an experiential learner, his words match his actions. I’ve observed that it’s common for our words to extend far beyond our actions, and it’s rare for our actions to extend beyond our words.

I was especially interested in the section on bread making because I’ve been baking bread for many years.  I learned more from COOKED than from any of my bread books, especially about techniques and flours.  Since wheat accounts for 20% of human calories worldwide, it’s an important subject. I can read a recipe and techniques of baking bread, but the experience of getting my hands in the dough confirms what I learn and is personally satisfying.

During the process of making sourdough starters and baking loaves of bread, Michael Pollan consulted several renowned artisan bakers, including Dave Miller of Yankee Hill    near Chico, to glean info for this book and for his own desire to bake a perfect loaf. For comparison, he made a side trip to a Wonder Bread factory where he found that the breads were “nutritional conceits, clever ways to work the words ‘whole grain’ or ‘whole wheat’  onto a package,” implying healthy bread.  Pollan then proceeded to Miller’s Bake House where he jokingly presented loaves of Wonder Bread to the astonished baker.  Pollan describes Miller as “an uncompromising baker fiercely devoted to whole grains, wet doughs and natural leavens” (272).  Every time I’m at Chico Farmers’ Market I buy a $5.00 loaf of Kamut or Spelt (old wheat varieties) from Miller, even though I could have one of my loaves sitting in our kitchen. The bread is that good and is less than 50 cents more than Wonder Bread’s 100% whole wheat bread.

Speaking of wheat, did you know that most of the wheat grown in America is genetically modified by gene splicing or chemicals?  AND it’s being linked by doctors to the sudden rise of wheat intolerance in people.

Reading Pollan’s books make me think while enjoying stories of food, culture and cooking.  In COOKED, Pollan makes the point that home cooking from scratch may be the most important step that you can take to help the American food system become healthier and more sustainable.  May your mouth water.

Wayne Kessler is the former owner of Shambani Organics, former Peace Corps volunteer, and founding member of Growing Local.

Wayne Kessler

Following his grandfather's advice, "Grow food. People always need food," has led Wayne to a lifetime of cultivating and processing food. He spends much of his time encouraging people to become more food independent by growing their own.

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