Book Review : Cooked by Michael Pollan

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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.

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Do audio books count as reading?

This was the question asked on an episode ofBooks on the nightstand that I was listening to yesterday (episode #263 aired January 15th 2014). The hosts of the show (Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman) were of the opinion that it does.

According to them, listening to an audio book counts as reading because while you may not be physically reading the book, you hear and absorb it exactly as the author wrote it. You hear every single word exactly as it was written and you have an opportunity to visualize the places and the characters in the book the same way you do when you read it yourself.

The voice of the narrator may add or detract something from the experience, but otherwise it is the same as reading the book. I tend to agree. But I’ve never quite taken to audio books, perhaps because I am so used to reading them myself that I haven’t really tried any other way of doing it.

My kids listen to audio books all the time and they seem to enjoy it. So I thought I’d give it a shot. After all, I listen to the radio while cooking and working around the house. Why not listen to a book instead?

So I got my first audio book. It is ‘Cooked’ by Michael Pollan. It is a book that I’ve wanted for a while and when I found that it had been read by the author himself, I knew I had to have it.

I’ve been listening to it off and on for the past month and It is…a very different way of experiencing a book. The reading is excellent and because it is Pollan himself, his words carry the same conviction that they would on the page, if not a little more.

I’m enjoying it thoroughly. But I cannot help feeling that I would absorb more of the book if I was reading it myself. Maybe that is habit talking or maybe it is because I only listen to the book while I’m doing something else, so it never gets the kind of attention that it would if it was a regular book…