Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Cooked by Michael Pollan (2013)

Michael Pollan’s contention in Cooked is that it is through the act of cooking food that we can address the health and environmental issues concerning food and food practices that permeate our culture. Not only is cooking at home healthier than eating processed food, it both encourages and allows consumers to be closer to the food chain process and, in the process through the act of sharing meals, foster a better family environment.

This is the first Pollan book I have read. I was familiar with his food philosophy – “Eat food. Mainly plants. Not too much”, which I think is an excellent way to approach eating (although, based on the amount of meat he says he eats in this book, he doesn’t practice what he preaches). I also like his idea that you can eat whatever you want – as long as you make it yourself. He argues that it is the easy access to high calorie foods that were previously labour intensive that has led to widespread health problems. Previously, making French fries or potato chips was a labour-intensive time-consuming process that, because it was difficult to do, was done less often. Now, not only is access to potato chips and French fries easy, it is cheap – cheaper than other nutrient-dense lower-calorie foods. In this book, Pollan extends his food philosophy to the practice of cooking by developing his basic cooking skills in four different cooking practices: grilling with fire (bbq), cooking with liquid (braising), baking bread and fermenting (brewing beer). He was “surprised and pleased” to find these elements just happen to coincide with the classical elements of earth: Fire, Water, Air and Earth. What a happy coincidence! Warning: do not read this book if eye-rolling is an issue for you because situations such as this abound throughout the pages of Cooked.

I had two thoughts when reading this book. Firstly, Pollan does go on a bit. He talked about onions for many more pages than I felt was justified – we get it, onions are a big deal. I imagine in person he’s a man who very much likes the sound of his own voice. I found this very wearying and I admit that I did skip the last chapter on brewing completely because I felt that if he can be so unbearable on the subject of onions, then what would he be like on the infinitely more wanky subject of homebrewing? I did find his tone quite offputting and, in places, a bit patronising.

Secondly, there seems to be a huge disconnect between Pollan’s understanding and interaction with the cooking process and actual real life. I am not implying that Pollan is some sort of cyborg and not a real person; rather, that he has no concept of how the average person interacts with food and cooking in their everyday life. For example, he makes a convincing point that cooking is important and that everyone should cook at home. But to develop his cooking skills, he hires a chef to come into his house once a week and teach him to cook. No one I know would consider that a reasonable option. In another section, he waxes lyrical about how well the bread-making process fits in to his personal writing schedule. If you work in an office to which you have to commute, fitting regular bread baking into your schedule is very difficult.  At one stage he realises that if you set aside time on the weekend to make meals in advance, it is cheaper and healthier than buying takeaway or microwaving meals. No shit, Sherlock – do you reckon? Not only is that information included in most cookbooks (which I have noticed now tend to contain a helpful key that indicates whether meals are freezer friendly, vegetarian, gluten-free, etc), the kind of person who would read a book called Cooked by a food philosopher and activist already knows that.
This leads me to the central paradox of Cooked. It says some really important stuff! The links between poor health and processed food are persuasively outlined and the case for cooking more (by both genders, he is clear to state) is convincingly made. But while he identifies the problem (current food consumption practices are bad for us and the planet) and the solution (cook more, especially more local food) there’s no bridge between those two positions. It’s like asking ‘How do I produce more knitted objects?’ and then answering ‘Knit more’. Well sure, but unless I stop paying rent or seeing my friends or exercising, that’s not actually a useful solution at all. I’m not sure there’s a point of identifying a solution, even a really really good solution, if there’s no way of implementing it. (Although, I do admit that after reading Cooked I put a book on making sourdough bread on reserve at the library and I’m going to have another go at creating a starter of my own…I’m very suggestible when it comes to bread baking!)

Cooked raises an important topic but is lacking in its delivery and execution. I give it a tentative three stars.

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