Once upon a time, food writers wrote more to romanticize food, cooking and the pleasures of dining. M.F.K Fischer, Escoffier, and other early writers explored their relationship with food in terms not so much of nutrition, but of pleasure and social interaction. After WWII, much of the writing on food devolved in to the realm of diet, with many writers demonized what and how we ate. Any fat – trans or other – were killing us, carbs were bad, South Beach, the Mediterranean, and pretty much every other exotic locales were the new location for healthy eating. Fasting, juicing, cleansing, all came and went.
Coming full circle, many of the naysayers are now squirming, tap-dancing around the previously “bad” foods like cheese and whole dairy (now healthy), one bad, now good. It turns out that the food revolution of industrial farming, refined sugars, and highly processed factory foods are deeply unhealthy. What was bad is good, what was good is bad, and no one knows exactly what we should eat any more. It’s frustrating for anyone trying to develop a better sense of food.
Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, explores four areas of cooking: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. The Fire chapter is subtitled “Creatures of the Flame”, and focuses primarily on barbeque. The Water chapter, subtitled “A Recipe in Seven Steps” focuses on cooking with water, with an emphasis on braising. Air, subtitled “The Education of an Amateur Baker” deals almost entirely with bread and yeast. The final chapter, Earth, subtitled “Fermentation’s Cold Fire” focuses on fermented products, such as cheese, wine, and sauerkraut.
In each chapter, Pollan immerses himself in the discipline he is addressing, working with specialists in the particular craft in an attempt to both master and explain the methods. Interspersed with his narrative are in-depth discussions of the history behind each technique, and how it helped to shape our perception of food, impact on diet, and how the development of each affected our development as human beings.
It is a rather weighty undertaking, and for the most part he succeeds in capturing the reader’s interest. Sometimes, the historical interludes are more drawn out than necessary, but Pollan pulls us back in rather quickly with his next adventure (or misadventure) in the kitchen. It’s an excellent reference for all of us who are developing a deeper interest in what we eat – and why we eat.