This is a book that is hard to describe. It is a bit genre defying or genre busting as one critic called it. It is obviously a book about food and cooking, but it is a lot more than that.
Pollan begins the book by saying that he has spent years writing about the industrial food system, nutrition and health. He’s explored the production end of it and the consumer end of it but he has somehow never focused on the the process in the middle: cooking.
That is what he tries to do in this book. He explores the different processes of cooking by apprenticing himself to experts…barbecue pit masters, chefs, bakers, cheese mongers, brewers and fermentos.
So the book is a memoir of sorts, a record of his experiences in the process of learning to cook. It is clear that he’s had a lot of fun and that he’s worked hard and learned a lot of new skills. That in itself would have made interesting reading.
But the book is more than a memoir. There is the history of barbecue, the science of sourdough bread, the mechanics of sauerkraut and the social and political implications of handing over the business of cooking to corporations.
Through the book he stresses the importance of cooking for yourself. “Cooking is a political act,” he says. By buying fresh, local ingredients and cooking for yourself you are choosing against food companies and industrial farms.
These are themes that he has explored before, but he weaves these ideas rather deftly into his exploration of cooking and makes the discussion more nuanced than it would otherwise have been.
The book begins with a trip to Aiden, North Carolina to sample authentic whole hog barbecue. Then Pollan chronicles his experience learning to cook with barbecue pit master Ed Mitchell.
The next section is about cooking with water, in covered pots the way women have done for centuries. Here Pollan apprentices himself to a chef, Samin Nosrat, a woman who was once his student.
Then comes baking and learning to bake bread. For this he goes to Chad Robertson of Tartine bakery. He learns to bake bread but is then forced to face the fact that his beautiful loaf of white bread is nutritionally empty. This leads to the exploration of whole grain flour and the challenge of baking with it.
Then there are all the intricacies of fermentation from yoghurt to sauerkraut to beer to kimchi to cheese. And the whole science of gut bacteria.
The book has a very broad range and it is fascinating. It is well researched and extremely well written. And despite the history and science and philosophy of the different kinds of food and cooking that Pollan includes here, he manages to keep it interesting.
This is not easy reading by any means. It is information heavy and I found it easier to read in bits and pieces than straight through.
Cooked is a good book. It is an important book and one that will make you think whether you are interested in food or not.