Michael Pollan’s new book “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” takes up the whole idea of cooking and how it improves our food. Despite having written a number of books about food and rules for food, Pollan admits he really never learned to cook, and sets out to learn in this book.
The book is divided into four sections which he maps onto the mythological elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Fire is barbecue, Air is bread baking, Water is braising in various cuisines, and Earth (the most tenuous mapping) is really about fermentation in sauerkraut, cheese, wine and beer.
Supported by his publisher (we assume), Pollan dives into learning about barbecue in Wilson, North Carolina with pit master Ed Mitchell, by spending some time learning how barbecue is made and cajoles Mitchell into letting him assist at several barbecue events. This was the most interesting section of the book for me, even though it is not all that likely I’ll ever go to these lengths to barbecue pork.
Mitchell is considered the champion pit master of North Carolina barbecue, and unique in that he also is one of the few black men that have risen in this trade. As it turns out, Pollan quickly learns that Mitchell’s “practiced patter” substitutes for him doing much of the heavy work, which he farms out to family members, assistants and eventually Pollan as well. Barbecued pork in North Carolina is cooked very slowly over smoky fires but served with any sauce except a bit of vinegar and pepper flakes. The important thing is that the pork slowly reaches about 195º F when all the muscles relax and the collagen breaks down, making pull-apart tender pork.
The most interesting anecdote about Mitchell may or may not be true, stems from the fact the factory produced pork is really too lean, and the amount of fat collected from barbecued pigs is much less these days than the amount of lard needed to make the accompanying cornbread. Mitchell needs to bring in additional lard for that.
At one point Mitchell announced that he was going to start using traditionally raised pigs instead of factory farmed pigs, which led to a lot of resentment since that area of North Carolina is a center of CAFO (Concentrating Animal Feeding Operation) pork production. Within a month, his books were audited, his bank told him he was in arrears on his mortgage and he was being investigated for embezzlement. Some say he was just a careless bookkeeper, but others are sure that this was retribution for his criticism of factory farmed pork. His restaurant was lost, but he now goes around barbecuing at special exhibitions.
Pollan’s recipe in the back of the book for a barbecued pork shoulder requires 4-6 hours and a gas grill, and seems to be an awful lot of trouble. He also describes a whole pig roast that he has in his yard once a year or so.
The section on bread making deals extensively with sourdough bread, and how to catch and grow the microbes needed for good sourdough. While it was once assumed that the yeasts in San Francisco were unique to each of the bakeries, it turns out that the microbe strains are the same all through the city, and in fact all through the world. However, they are pretty much only found in sourdough bread cultures, rather a symbiotic relationship.
Pollan worked with a number of bakers, including Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery, Richard Bourdon of Berkshire Mountain Bakery and Dave Miller of Miller’s Bakehouse learning how to work with dough and what it should feel and look like.
He also spends a great deal of time discussing the nutrition of breads and pointing out how much nutrition is lost using white flours. In fact, he notes that during both world wars, the British government mandated a higher fiber content in bread as part of rationing, and “people’s health improved and the rate of type 2 diabetes declined.” He spends the last part of the section on baking whole grain breads instead of white flour breads.
He gives a recipe for his sourdough bread in the back of the book, but since it takes many days to get the starter going we probably will never try it.
In order to actually learn to cook, Pollan enlists the young professional chef Samin Nosrat to come to his house every Sunday for 4 hours for the better part of a year to give him cooking lessons: a privilege few of us would ever be able to duplicate.
Braising with Pollan and Samin amounts to learning to make many variations of the mirepoix or soffritto, basically chopped vegetables and onions sautéed in butter to which you add browned meat and liquid.
In this section, Pollan spends a lot of time on umami the Japanese name for the brothy flavor (savoriness) associated with glutamate. The nucleotides inosine and guanosine also contribute to umami flavor,
While you can extract glutamate from kelp, it occurs naturally in slow-cooked chicken stock, as well as tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese, and even breast milk.
This section also deals with manufactured food and the slow transition from family cooked food to the “let us cook for you,” that manufacturers spent years trying to convince women (mostly) was in their best interests. After spending a year learning to cook, Pollan describes a meal his family makes up of frozen microwaved dinners, finding that that all tasted of salt and umami but little actual flavor and that their appeal had declined greatly by the third bite.
The recipe at the end of the book for this section is a fairly simple Bolognese that is not difficult and doesn’t look to be anything different than most others of its type.
Within the text he does describe a really simple maiale al latte, pork chunks slowly braised in milk with a little garlic and sage that I really have to try. His recipe is even simpler than those found on the Internet.
The fermenting section deals with learning to make sauerkraut (his fails), making mead from honey (you can do this quite easily) make beer (you probably won’t) and learning how cheeses are made.
To learn about cheese, he spends a few days with the “Cheese Nun,” Sister Noella Marcellino a Benedictine nun in Bethlehem, Connecticut who also has a Ph.D. in microbiology. This is one of the most fascinating and best-written sections of the book, although it is not likely that we’ll ever learn to make cheese as she has, it is interesting to appreciate the processes and steps she goes through. And while you can order cheeses from her monastery, there are a number of other excellent cheesemakers in New England to choose from.
Sister Noella’s cheeses are made from raw milk, and she notes that raw milk is much more dangerous than it once was since we have many nastier bugs in the milk that we once did, including listeria. Probably the only substantially misleading statement in the book is in this section. He notes correctly that raw milk kills a number of people of every year, but then indicates than pasteurized milk does too, without noting that the microbes in raw milk are there from the outset, but that those appearing in pasteurized milk are introduced afterward by careless handling. Further, since only 1-2% of all milk drinkers drink raw milk, the sickness/fataliity rate for raw milk is 50-100 times higher.
Mark Twain’s copy of Moby Dick is said to have contained the scrawled note “Get on with it man!” and I found that I had made this note any number of times in the water, earth, air and even the fire sections of this book. It contains one digression after another, seeming almost like just “padding.” The book also begins with a 25 page preface of little import. Subtracting these philosophical digressions would make the book up to 100 pages shorter without any real loss of information.
You will find parts of this book fascinating and some of it just too lengthy without much point. Pollan is an excellent writer and his descriptions of the people and the science really shine in the more focused sections. In the others, just keep turning the pages past the digressions to the next part that interests you.
The book is 418 pages plus 50 pages of very welcome references and an index.