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From Fire to Fermentation: A Review of Michael Pollan's Cooked

I’m blessed to be part of a wonderful circle of friends who gather periodically for potluck suppers, and I've become well known for bringing venison dishes, particularly what, for the longest time, I’d been calling venison barbecue. The recipe was simple: add the meat, a few animal bones and a little ginger and garlic into a pot with enough water to cover everything, then cook it on the lowest heat possible for about six hours. The meat falls apart, and as I separate it by hand I mix in a little store-bought barbecue sauce and call it done. People eat it, are generous with compliments, and stroke my ego a bit; a nice deal.

CookedWhile friends were quite happy calling my recipe barbecue, others might not be so pleased with that label. Barbecue, to some, refers to a very specific recipe made of slow roasted pork, not venison, and by slow they mean s-l-o-w, as in roasting for 20 hours or more. This information, along with a lot more, came from a splendid book I recently finished: Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, written by Michael Pollan.

The book, like others Pollan's written, benefits from his exceptional storytelling. In the first section, entitled 'Fire', I found myself engrossed in the story of Ed Mitchell, one of only a few African-American barbecue pit masters in the US south and one who champions traditional barbecue preparation using heirloom breeds of pigs rather than those raised in confined feedlots. The story of Mitchell's trials, tribulations and notoriety was a fascinating one, as was Pollan's tales of cooking with the man at two events. The final section on fermentation is equally engrossing, as Pollan introduces his readers to Sandor Katz, an author in his own right and champion of a range of fermentation methods. This final chapter focuses on the process of fermentation, particularly on vegetable ferments like sauerkraut and kimchi, but also investigates dairy ferments and brewing beer. I'm not much of an alcohol drinker, but I know many are so this segment should delight.

While Pollan does talk recipes, the book overall seems more about the cultural basis of cooking, including the elements of gender politics, social hierarchy and consumerism connected with the practice. The detailed descriptions of cooking methods and Pollan's own cooking experiences serve as intriguing reads throughout the book, but I found the philosophical elements of the book most engrossing. Among the fascinating ideas Pollan puts forwards is that the myth of Prometheus, when you boil it down, is really about humans separating themselves from other animals by cooking their food. Cooking has become something of a ritual, one that non-human animals don't use but that humans certainly do. And not only has cooking become something of a ritual, it's also one many cultures associate with social hierarchies: a theme touched on repeatedly is that men - like Ed Mitchell, and Michael Pollan - cook meat, the most highly prized of foods, while women cook other lesser offerings. Coupled with a more philosophically charged book like Carol Adams' The Sexual Politics of Meat, Pollan's Cooked would be even more tantalizing.

Early in the book Pollan cites Richard Wrangham's Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human as the starting point of his philosophical exploration. I have to admit this made me groan. And it wasn't a light, gentle groan offered half in jest, but rather one of those deep, full-body groans that fill the room with lament so thick you can feel it against your skin as you head for the door. Wrangham's thesis is that learning to cook our food is what gave our ancient ancestors access to enough calories to allow our brains to grow and our culture to develop, paving the way for us to evolve into anatomically modern humans. I struggle with Wrangham's thesis for many reasons that I won't delve into here, but I will say that Pollan's repeated references to Wrangham don't drag Cooked down too much. Pollan's book stands strong on its own, and provides an engrossing, if not long, read for those interested in the philosophy and preparation of food.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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