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Michael Pollan uses the four elements – fire, water, air, and earth – to explore the art and practice of cooking.


by Michael Pollan,
Penguin Group,
480 pp.

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The term cooking conjures up a variety of emotions: It can mean something delicious is bubbling on the stove. It can mean absolute drudgery. It can mean relationships, as in “I love my husband’s cooking.” But what is going on really, in the process that transforms animal protein and active yeast into barbecued meat resting on a pillowy bun? And if more people knew about those techniques, would they actually cook?

Food journalist Michael Pollan thinks so. In Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Pollan explores four elements – fire, water, air, earth – to breathe new life and understanding into an activity that he calls essential and exclusive to the human experience. Unlike his previous food-related books (“The Omivore’s Dilemma,” “In Defense of Food,”), which scrutinized agribusiness practices and questioned consumers' choices at the supermarket, this time Pollan has subjected himself to his own thesis. He admits that while has he always dabbled in cooking, he counts himself as one among many who hadn’t thought that much about it.

“Cooked” is a do-it-yourself solution to the food consumerism Pollan feels has gone out of control.

In some ways, it seems odd to declare that many Americans are dispassionate about preparing their own food, choosing to watch cooking shows than stir a pot themselves. This is not to say that Americans aren’t doing some kind of cooking – just not the type of meals that take longer than 30 minutes, about the same amount of time it takes the contestants on “Chopped” to mince, sauté, and braise their way through three courses.

In “Cooked,” Pollan invests three years in being mentored by various gifted teachers – an eternity in the world of microwaves and fast food restaurants. First, he heads straight into the fire to grill with Southern pit masters such as Ed Mitchell, the “pope” of barbeque, learning everything from preparing (and in some cases, blessing) whole pigs before they are smoked, tending to the coals, and shredding pounds and pounds of cooked meat into pulled meat for thousands of New Yorkers at a street festival.


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