Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
Penguin Press, 2013
480 pp., $27.95
Rachel Marie Stone
"I had little reason," he writes, "to believe I'd be, or ever become, any good at [baking bread.] To the contrary. I had baked one or two loaves years before with only middling results, and had concluded baking was probably not for me."
At which point I scratched my head and turned back to The Omnivore's Dilemma (page 408) and found that not only had Pollan's bread garnered praise from a culinary professional, he'd also known to refer to the "alveolate interior" of bread as "the 'crumb' " long before he began "hanging around bakers":
"Angelo reserved his most enthusiastic praise for my bread, which I'll admit did have a perfect crust, an airy crumb, and a very distinctive (though not at all sour) flavor."
Even forgiving the obviously stagy premise, Pollan's goal seems to be a worthy one—I wrote about it with (literally) evangelical fervor in my own recent book on food: to persuade people to cook; to convince them that cooking is not only good for the health of the body, but as Robinson's Glory knew, for the health of the soul; for the Proustian (or, if you prefer, Passover-esque) qualities of calling to mind the hominess, comfort, and provision of Days Gone By. In writing about the fertile and fraught exchanges happening on the microbial level in fermentations of milk or hops, Pollan is without peer. I know of no other writer who can explain the scientific rationale for slow-braising meat in ways that are equal parts eloquent, appetizing, and intellectually stimulating. And Cooked, like The Omnivore's Dilemma, is peopled with distinctly drawn characters: the Southern barbecue celebrity; the exuberant Iranian American chef who patiently "teaches" Pollan how properly to mince onions for a braise, and so on.
But while the Michael Pollan of In Defense of Food (2008) was happy enough to let us simply play around in the kitchen to the betterment of our bodies and souls (cf. Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb, 1966), the Michael Pollan of 2013 seems to be engaging in a literary form of the extreme Food Network performances he writes of with faint disdain. Is Pollan's goal for us all to feel as if we're rushing things if we sauté the onions for ten minutes instead of a "half hour at least" or if we bake homemade bread with (gasp) commercial yeast instead of a natural levain? While he intends his extreme Slow Food project to lodge a protest against "the total rationalization of life," he (perhaps unwittingly) makes the whole endeavor of cooking seem a lot more esoteric and difficult than it is. It's not hard to imagine that many people will put down Cooked believing themselves incapable of making a good meal, simply because they can't, like Pollan, devote several years to casual apprenticeships with expert brewers, bakers, pit-masters, and chefs. The oyster crackers and "little fruit pies in paper envelopes" of Robinson's perpetually drifting Sylvie will seem more attainable than Glory's "chicken and dumplings"; far from giving readers confidence that they, too, can serve sacramental comfort from the kitchen, Cooked leaves them hungry and reliant on the next offering of the magieros.
Copyright © 2013 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.