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Next, exploring the component of water, he takes private weekend “Grandma cooking” classes from one of his own writing students at Berkeley, who also is a local chef and a daughter of Iranian immigrants. Together they dice onions, braise meat, and make stews that simmer for an entire day. So what happens when an investigative journalist turns his piercing attention to the simple act of caramelizing onions in a pan? Something like this: 

“Cooking with onions, garlic, and other spices is a form of biochemical jujitsu, in which the first move is to overcome the plants’ chemical defenses so we might eat them, and the second is to then deploy their defenses against other species to defend ourselves.”

In other words, onions are spicy on the tongue, cooking makes them sweet, and they have health benefits. Perhaps this kind of cooking chemistry verbiage will attract new people into the kitchen – the kind who like to drop random bits of trivia around the dinner table. But sometimes these deep-dives, which come with regularity throughout “Cooked,” up the urge to click on the TV and see what’s entertaining on the Food Network.

Regardless, Pollan who is an excellent storyteller, places cooking within cultural histories and folk lore, writes engaging mini-profiles of his mentors, and reveals a fascinating underworld of microbes and bacteria busy at work in the foods that we eat.

The section on air examines the complicated and sometimes infuriating process of baking a loaf of bread. Pollan visits the San Francisco bakery of Chad Robertson, who “looks less a baker than the surfer he also is.” Robertson is the epitome of an artisan baker, working tirelessly and obsessively until he created a signature leaven of young yeasts that smell “fruity, sweet, and floral.” He tends to his bread “starter” as if it were a newborn, feeding it on regular intervals, controlling its temperature, and mourning deeply when it once got accidentally tossed out.

Pollan downscales this intensity in his own kitchen but still pursues baking his own loaves until he feels a sense of mastery and accomplishment. “A good-looking loaf of bread declares itself as an artifact ... something that cannot be said of too many other foods,” he writes.

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