Despite the four recipes appended to it, Michael Pollan’s Cooked doesn’t actually belong on the shelf with the cookery books. A major work by an interesting thinker, this genre-busting volume will someday become a standard text in a standard university department — though no satisfactory one yet exists — that will teach and research the discipline of “Food Studies,” encompassing economics, history, philosophy, anthropology, several fields of life sciences and the humanities.
Pollan himself is not a philosopher, though he makes and analyses arguments scrupulously; neither is he an anthropologist, though there is a sense in which Cooked is the successor to Richard Wrangham’s ground-breaking work, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human; nor is he a medical man, though he researches and presents the latest evidence concerning the attention-grabbing subject of “gut health” and chronic disease. His day job is professor of journalism at University of California, Berkeley; in 2010 Time Magazine said he was one of the most influential people in the world.
The accolade stems from the attention given to his earlier books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food and Food Rules, the last two of which can be summed up in seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Like all the best prophets, he has an aptitude for aphorism, as in “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” “You are what you eat eats” and “Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting.”
Cooked is the story of his own mid-life further education, as he apprentices himself to masters who teach him to cook (and brew). The book and his training fall into four parts, each corresponding to one of the ancient elements, and to one of the skills developed by mankind to nourish itself. While it strikes the reader that he is being modest about his own culinary abilities prior to embarking on this program, his personal motives for doing it are endearing — to improve his family’s “health and general well-being” and “to better connect to my teenage son.” But also because learning to cook is “the most important thing an ordinary person can do to help reform the American food system, to make it healthier and more sustainable” and to help “people living in a highly specialized consumer economy reduce their sense of dependence and achieve a greater degree of self-sufficiency.”
By Michael Pollan
Pollan’s research is informed by Wrangham’s argument that man’s taming of fire affected the evolution of our species. Put simply, cooking flesh acts as a process of pre-digestion, making more calories available for less work; this means that the gut can get smaller, leaving some surplus energy that can be used for making brain tissue. So being able to control fire was key to the evolution of Homo sapiens; cooking, indeed, made us human.
How would you recapitulate that process today? Pollan takes cooking lessons from the guys who barbecue whole animals in the southern American states. This lowbrow project, dictated by highbrow theorizing, is relentlessly entertaining. It begins with the gift to the teenage Pollan by his New York Jewish father of a piglet called Kosher, and proceeds via a consideration of cutting-edge work on the biochemistry of taste, to reflections on the details of “the big eating scenes in Homer,” the rules of kashrut, ritual sacrifice and communal eating.