Michael Pollan dissects cook's dilemma in 'Cooked'

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Clearly, Michael Pollan has food issues.

The longtime New York Times contributor who became known for the mantra "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants" in his 2006 "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" spends the first 121 pages of "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation" on roasting pigs.

It's not just about how to roast a pig. It is an homage to roasting pigs: pig roasting as an expression of masculinity; pig roasting as a cultural event. Pig roasting elevated to such heroic levels that even Homer would blush, that is, until he even brings Homer into the discussion of barbecue.


By Michael Pollan
Penguin Press ($27.95).

But, being Michael Pollan, he notes that the industrial production of the pig means that pigs aren't the same as they used to be. You get the distinct impression that eating barbecue will eventually kill you.

Though "Cooked" is not a cookbook in the classic sense, the reader does learn a great deal about cooking. Changing food through heat or fermentation -- cooking -- is what made civilization possible. Humans developed larger brains because of more densely nutritious food that required less energy than raw vegetables to digest.

"Cooked" is separated into four sections: fire, water, air and earth. "Fire" refers to the previously described pig roast. "Water" is about pot cooking -- not recipes, but more a philosophical treatise on the importance of pot cooking. While barbecue has a masculine and more public bent, pot cooking was taken indoors to be women's work. (Feel free to call Mr. Pollan a sexist here.)

A proper dish from a pot according to "Cooked" takes four hours. Four hours! There are long periods of chopping onions, half an hour to saute them properly and the slow simmering of the actual cooking. This is not a process that can be accomplished by the average family with two or more kids involved in extracurricular activities.

The exchange of "time spent cooking" for "time spent working," so that we can outsource our food production to corporations, is why we are falling apart, according to Mr. Pollan. In a tremendous act of arrogance, he caricatures what he imagines the average American family does by picking out separate microwaveable meals and then cooking them individually to try to eat together. He individually heats, then reheats them so all of the entrees are hot at the same time.

"Time spent this way might be easier than cooking, but it is not enjoyable and surely not ennobling. It is to feel spiritually unemployed, useless to self and humanity," he writes. Holy schmoley, sometimes a frozen dinner is just a frozen dinner.

This is not to say that there was nothing interesting or useful in the section. His explanations of foods, their tastes and how they work together has informed my own cooking, which has become more creative and more thoughtful as a result.

The section on "Air" about making sourdough bread can be succinctly boiled down to 40 pages. Then follows an explanation of how white flour used to make the bread has caused every major disease that afflicts those who eat a Western diet, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer. So make the bread, but it will kill you!

Mr. Pollan concludes with research on the bacteria that reside in the intestinal tract. Again, he takes it to the extreme, with fermentation of alcohol being the sole reason for becoming an agrarian society. He blames the lack of true fermentation, the type you get from allowing vegetables to pickle naturally instead of soaking them in vinegar, for obesity, allergies and asthma. Maybe, but much of what he writes is so overblown it is hard to take some of his health claims seriously.

And there's the rub: "Cooked" is a well-researched and interesting read about the history of cooking and the social transformations it produced, but Mr. Pollan's claims are often so over the top it is hard to resist the urge to microwave dinner and call the whole thing off.

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Ann Belser is a staff writer in the PG's Business section (abelser@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1699).The Briefing Books column is off this week.


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