In the half-dozen years since The Omnivore’s Dilemma became the benchmark argument for knowing where the stuff you eat comes from, Michael Pollan has ascended to the top of the locavore food chain. He’s now arguably the most respected, and certainly one of the most visible, proponents of locally grown and sourced food. Alice Waters may have been doing it longer and Eric Schlosser louder, but Pollan’s influence on how we eat and what we think about it—through Omnivore and his subsequent books and articles—has been widespread and profound, enough to reach the ear of our current commander in chief and to spark a spate of serious activism around farm legislation. Waters coined a verb—“Pollanize”—for what happens to your relationship to food after reading his work, and the result has meant a whole lot of people changing the way they eat, or trying to. I realized the extent of Pollan’s influence several years ago in the wilds of the Paraguayan Chaco, where a self-professed former Big Agra booster told me that reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma had prompted him to quit his job at Unilever Argentina and to start raising his own cattle—grass fed, of course.
So it may come as something of a surprise to learn that the guy who’s turned on thousands of “Pollanites” to the deliciousness of farm-raised food isn’t much of a cook. Or at least he hadn’t been until he took up an extensive study of the art, science, and origins of cooking for his latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (Penguin Press, $28). The project grew out of a 2009 essay Pollan wrote for the New York Times, “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch,” which pondered the paradoxical phenomenon that Americans now seem to devote more time to watching people cook on TV than they spend cooking their own food. Although Pollan advocated that we all need to get back into the kitchen, the essay circled back to the larger question at the root of all his work: How has the agricultural-industrial complex infiltrated and altered our everyday lives, and what can we do about it? That’s really an ethicist’s question, not a cook’s.
Pollan has always been quick to point out that he is, in fact, a science journalist whenever an interviewer pegs him as a food writer, and readers of The Omnivore’s Dilemma will recall the arduousness, the anxiety, the trepidation with which he approached the preparation of his “perfect meal” in the final chapter. (Plus, he burned the top of his cherry galette.) Even when he’s championing his ethical concerns, Pollan is a researcher, a prodigious gatherer and synthesizer of vast reams of information. Having thoroughly scrutinized every other link in the food chain, he finally turns his skills to the one link missing from his repertoire. And in the process, he learned to cook.
But don’t expect “Michael Pollan’s Favorite Recipes” from Cooked. There are recipes, but only four: one for each section of this four-part book. In this instance, the chapters and their signature recipes are meant to stand in for the traditional four elements (water, earth, air, and fire). And each of these natural forces, Pollan writes, signifies one of the “great transformations of nature into culture we call cooking.”
Taken at face value, it all sounds, well, elementary, almost reductive. “Fire” is about grilling; “Water” covers cooking with liquid (think braising and sauce making); “Air” tackles bread baking; and “Earth” introduces us to the varied and sometimes wild world of fermenting.
But the author’s project is, in fact, nearly as all encompassing and essential as the elements themselves, ranging across several disciplines, embracing perspectives both stringently objective and deeply personal, and introducing us to a novel’s worth of colorful characters whom he enlists to teach him the cooking method at hand. In “Fire” we meet pit master Ed Mitchell, the rare African-American celebrity among the many white practitioners of that highly contested food tradition called barbecue, who reveals to Pollan not only its secrets but its singular place in southern history as a race-transcending ritual. “Water” introduces us to Samin Nosrat, the young Iranian-American chef whose joyful approach to home cooking transforms Pollan’s desultory attitude toward kitchen duty into ardent advocacy. In “Air,” we encounter the intense surfer-cum-baker Chad Robertson (so obsessed with tending his starter that he used to take it with him to the movies), who schools Pollan in bread’s “enduring uncanny power” and who produces a loaf so headily aromatic that Pollan is “tempted to push my face into it.”
The sensual properties of food are further explored when we meet the unexpectedly earthy cheese maker Sister NoŽlla Marcellino—nun, microbiologist, and cultivator of a funky, fungal-ripened Saint-Nectaire from a centuries’ old recipe. Her practice embodies the essence of fermenting, wherein, as Pollan explains, “deliciousness is the by-product of decay,” or, putting it more pithily, “rot interrupted.”
Cooked, perhaps his most personal and engaging book, reaffirms why Pollan is such a phenomenal success at selling his message, much of which involves explaining subject matter that might otherwise be stultifying and pressing points that, in lesser hands, would sound unbearably strident: He is a breathtakingly fine writer and a mesmerizing storyteller. Even when he draws material from other sources—works of science, history, and anthropology, all generously cited—his skill at weaving those separate strands into a compelling narrative is singular and has rarely been equaled by any of the multitude of food critics, celebrity chefs, and nutrition-obsessed crusaders. Pollan’s writing conjures an eminently reasonable, fair-minded persona, the gently inquisitive guide who cares more for the truth than for any particular agenda, even when he passionately argues for his agenda with every elegant sentence.
Not that he doesn’t have his detractors. Naturally, Pollan has raised the ire of food-industry officials, but critics on the opposite end of the spectrum—vegetarians who question the ethics of his refusal to eschew meat—have taken him to task as well. Raw foodists will doubtless look dimly upon Pollan’s objection to the gospel of going raw: If humans hadn’t learned to cook their food, he argues, we’d still be swinging from the trees with the monkeys.
That he’s thoroughly versed in the most recent evidence from evolutionary science makes it pretty difficult to refute his claims. That his research is seamlessly wedded to his own intrepid adventures in cooking makes for surprisingly thrilling reading. In each chapter, Pollan takes the reader on a dizzying tour of the very particular science behind cooking: what happens, for instance, to an onion when you chop it up—the inherent sweetness of its liquid interior defensively exploding into a volatile compound of sulfurous acids upon penetration—as well as the magical permutations of taste that evolve from the slow excretion of flavors as you sweat the humble vegetable into a sauce. He caps that with a personal reflection on how, under Nosrat’s instruction in the Zen-like properties of cooking, the boredom of chopping onions becomes an opportunity to contemplate what Pollan elsewhere calls the “mystery, doubt, uncertainty” that accompany waiting for results—whether for the fire to yield a mahogany-glazed pile of barbecue from a hog or for fermentation to transform a cabbage into kraut. This is the constant in the art of making food, and it may be one of the chief reasons why we don’t do it in our multitasking-mad world.
Cooking requires, Pollan asserts again and again, a yielding of control, the very thing that the manufacturers of ready-made, packaged food attempt to elide with the certainty of efficiency and speed. But, he argues, that efficiency is an illusion. In a scene that approaches slapstick, the author describes an evening meal that he, his wife, and their teenage son “prepared” from an assortment of frozen dinners, an experiment designed to test the advantages of yielding the job of cooking to the corporation, as so many harried consumers are wont to do. Juggling the varying times required and the stubborn limitation of being able to prepare only one microwave entrťe at a time, Pollan and his family found not only that “convenience” prohibited sitting down together for a meal, but also that it was far more costly—both in time and expense—than throwing together a simple repast out of real food. Of course, the latter approach is healthier, too. It may seem paradoxical, but Pollan uncovers evidence that people who cook are thinner than those who rely on convenience foods for sustenance.
So why don’t more of us do it? “Cheese is all about the dark side of life,” muses Sister NoŽlla in “Earth,” the final chapter of Cooked, which fittingly turns into something of a meditation on the contemporary state of our fraught relationship with food. After all, Pollan nudges us to ask, what is the “Dionysian magic” of fermentation, the pungently pleasurable stink of cheese or heady ale, but a reminder of food’s intimate connection to sex and death? It’s a connection conveniently obscured and sanitized by the food-industrial complex, which sells us a myriad of “food-like substances” drained of elemental meaning as well as flavor. And it may be a connection we’re loath to contemplate when so many competing demands vie for our attention. But through cooking, Pollan argues, we clear a space, allowing ourselves not only to consider our sometimes troubled bond with nature but to reestablish our ties to one another, and to become makers instead of consumers. Cooked is a potently seductive invitation to discover—or rediscover—our most primal connection to the natural world, and it will likely induce more than a few readers to dust off their little-used pots and pans and to brush up on some essential knife skills. The only problem with Cooked is that, at a lengthy—albeit entrancing—450-some pages, it’ll be quite a while before you get back into the kitchen.
Linda DeLibero directs the Program in Film and Media Studies at Johns Hopkins University. She writes about film and food when she isn't cooking.