Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
Michael Pollan, Penguin Group, 2013. 480 pages
As the title suggests, Michael Pollan has written something more than a cookbook. He notes that cooks are really alchemists, working with the primal elements of fire and water, earth and air. How many of us, he asks, still work with those fundamentals of the material world. Cooking, anthropologists tell us, was a defining human activity, maybe THE single activity that defines us as human. So for us to hand over that power to hawkers of additive-laden fast food is even more dangerous than you may think.
Cooking, says Pollan, gave us not just better food but different bodies. When we ate raw food, we had little brains and big bellies, and spent hours every day just chewing and digesting whatever food we captured. We hunted food alone and ate it alone. Perhaps today, as we grab food from gas stations and eat in our cars rushing to and from work, we are in danger of becoming solitary again.
Cooking made us social; we began to eat together, to share food, to sit around the fire becoming human. Cooking, says Pollan, “implicates us in a whole web of social and ecological relationships: with plants and animals, with the soil, with farmers, with the microbes both inside and outside our bodies, and, of course, with the people our cooking nourishes and delights.”
We live in an age where we’re told to specialize. One restaurant guide, reports Pollan, even suggests that people should stay an extra hour in the office doing what they do well, and let bargain restaurants do what they do best—feed the workers. This is the classic argument for division of labor, which has blessed our civilization as it has changed it. While Pollan admits that this view of progress is what allows him to make a living writing while others “grow my food, sew my clothes, and supply the energy that lights and heats my house,” he insists that such specialization also “breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance, and eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility.”
Maybe this explains what seems to be happening to our culture!
Specialization, says Pollan, obscures the lines of connection, so we don’t understand our responsibilities. We no longer understand the consequences of our actions. “Specialization makes it easy to forget about the filth of the coal-fired power plant that is lighting this pristine computer screen, or the back-breaking labor it took to pick the strawberries for my cereal. . . . neatly hides our implication in all that is done on our behalf by unknown other specialists half a world away.”
Is this why some of us don’t understand that in order to keep the air breathable, the water pure enough to drink and enough food on the table, we need to decide our priorities?
“The Big Problem,” Pollan continues,” is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us. . . . and the rest of them made by others in the name of our needs and desires.”
A lot of people talk about “changing the world,” and anyone planning to do that has to work hard in the public eye, but Pollan suggests such work is no longer sufficient. “We’ll have to change the way we live, too,” and that means that what we choose to do with our kitchens, gardens, houses and cars will “matter to the fate of the world in a way they never have before.”
In a world where so few of us really have to cook, then, to choose to do so “is to lodge a protest against specialization. . . . Against the infiltration of commercial interests into every last cranny of our lives,” he asserts. “To cook for the pleasure of it, to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption.”
Yes, Pollan provides recipes—but only four or five in the whole 480 pages of the book because he wants us to understand what’s truly behind each of these eating experiences. I was especially intrigued by the chapter on bread-baking, since, as he notes, baking bread is merely “an ingenious technology for improving the flavor, digestibility, and nutritional value of grass.” Grasses occupy two-thirds of the planet’s landmass and are particularly efficient at collecting solar energy. Before we learned to eat grass, we began eating the ruminants that ate it and sometimes the predators that ate them, consuming our grass second- or third-hand—a wasteful way to use energy.
Cows have four stomachs so they can process all parts of the grass into sustenance. Our single stomach isn’t nearly as efficient, so we needed to figure out a way to use the grass seed more directly. Baking bread enabled us to eat lower on the food chain, and was a lot less work than chasing an antelope and beating it to death with a club.
The book is huge, of course, but full of fascinating information, a blend of history and personal narrative, though occasionally he drops into journalistic reporting. This is not a book to be read quickly, though depending on your interests, you may skim a bit. Still, take time to think about his comments; this is definitely one of the two or three best books I read in 2015. Every day since reading it, I’ve been delighted to trot into the kitchen and fight corporate takeover by cooking something wonderful. I recommend you do the same.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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