altCooked:  A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan (Penguin, 2013)

(This is a long post, with many excerpts from the book.  Consider it an appetizer.)

I almost always start writing reviews in my mind before finishing the book.  I'd planned to begin this one with, "I've never met a Michael Pollan book I didn't love.  Having made my way through the 468 pages, I can still say that with honesty, though honesty also compels me to admit the last quarter of the book was somewhat of a trial.

For all his interest in food, Pollan hadn't given cooking much thought.

Until, that is, I began trying to unpack a curious paradox I had noticed while watching television, which was simply this:  How is it that at the precise historical moment when Americans were abandoning the kitchen, handing over the preparation of most of our meals to the food industry, we began spending so much of our time thinking about food and watching other people cook it on television?  The less cooking we were doing in our own lives, it seemed, the more that food and its vicarious preparation transfixed us.

I see this less as a paradox and more as a repeated pattern:  the less we commit to and invest of ourselves in the heart and meaning of something, the more we extravagantly value the form, and set others to doing it for us.  When the marriage itself was the raison d'être of a wedding, a reception created and overseen by "women of the church" was sufficient to honor the couple and the guests.  Now we have devalued the marriage vows and it's the reception, professionally catered, decorated, and orchestrated, into which the time, money, and attention are poured.  The less we make music ourselves, in our families and communities, the more we value the concert tickets, recordings, and iPods that bring the work of the professional musician into our lives.  How many sports fans, ever-ready to critique the missed basket, the dropped ball, the faulty kick, get any closer to a real game than driving their children to practice?

But I digress.  What Pollan did was to get serious about cooking for himself and his family.

[The decline of home cooking] is a problem—for the health of our bodies, our families, our communities, and our land, but also for our sense of how our eating connects us to the world.  Our growing distance from any direct, physical engagement with the processes by which the raw stuff of nature gets transformed into a cooked meal is changing our understanding of what food is.  Indeed, the idea that food has any connection to nature or human work or imagination is hard to credit when it arrives in a neat package, fully formed.  Food becomes just another commodity, an abstraction.  And as soon as that happens we become easy prey for corporations selling synthetic versions of the real thing—what I call edible foodlike substances.  We end up trying to nourish ourselves on images.

It has been argued that it is more efficient to work an extra hour at the office, doing what we do well, and let restaurants do what they do best.

Here in a nutshell is the classic argument for the division of labor, which, as Adam Smith and countless others have pointed out, has given us many of the blessings of civilization.  It is what allows me to make a living sitting at this screen writing, while others grow my food, sew my clothes, and supply the energy that lights and heats my house.  I can probably earn more in an hour of writing or even teaching than I could save in a whole week of cooking.  Specialization is undeniably a powerful social and economic force.  And yet it is also debilitating.  It breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance and, eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility.

Pollan divides his cooking adventures, cleverly and classically, into Fire, Water, Air, and Earth.  Fire is a dissertation into the earliest and most primitive cooking method:  meat over flame.  Along the way he explores the "cooking hypothesis," a recent theory that attempts to explain the development of Homo erectus, "the first primate to bear a stronger resemblance to humans than apes."

Anthropologists have long theorized that the advent of meat eating could account for the growth in the size of the primate brain, since the flesh of animals contains more energy than plant matter.  But ... the alimentary and digestive apparatus of Homo erectus is poorly adapted to a diet of raw meat, and even more poorly adapted to the raw plant foods that would still have been an important part of its diet, since a primate cannot live on meat alone.  The chewing and digestion of raw food of any kind requires a big gut and big strong jaws and teeth—all tools that our ancestors had lost right around the time they acquired their bigger brains.

The control of fire and discovery of cooking best explain both these developments. ... Appliying the heat of a fire to food transforms it in several ways—some of them chemical, others physical—but all with the same result:  making more energy available to the creatures that eat it. ... [C]ooking opened up vast new horizons of edibility for our ancestors, giving them an important competitive edge over other species and, not insignificantly, leaving us more time to do things besides looking for food and chewing it. ... [Anthropologist Richard Wrangham] estimates that cooking our food gives our species an extra four hours a day.  (This happens to be roughly the same amount of time we now devote to watching television.)

By freeing us from the need to feed constantly, cooking ennobled us, putting us on the path to philosophy and music.  All those myths that trace the godlike powers of the human mind to a divine gift or theft of fire may contain a larger truth than we ever realized.

Yet having crossed this Rubicon, trading away a big gut for a big brain, we can't go back, as much as raw-food faddists would like to. ... By now, "humans are adapted to eating cooked food in the same essential way as cows are adapted to eating grass," Wrangham says.

Pollan discusses animal sacrifice, and why fire-cooked meat-eating grew up as a sacred act, hedged in by a multitude of rules and governed by a priestly class.  From there he moves naturally to the modern barbecue, which retains obvious vestiges of those ancient cultures.  I dare you (unless you happen to be a diehard vegetarian) to read this section of the book without your mouth watering.  For the record, "authentic barbecue" has nothing to do with what you do when you slap a steak on your gas grill.  It is pork, pork alone, and preferably the whole pig, cooked with as many rules as any ancient sacrifice.  It's a pity I didn't know anything about barbecue culture when my in-laws lived in South Carolina!

Cooking with water came later in our history, since it required the development of some sort of pot.  It also almost universally became "women's work," whereas fire cooking, full of ceremony, drama, and religious significance, was the purview of men.

There's nothing ceremonial about chopping vegetables on a kitchen counter, slowly sautéing them in a pan, adding a liquid, and then tending the covered pot for hours.  For one thing, there's nothing to look at.  (And please don't even try, since a watched pot never boils.)  For another, this sort of cooking takes place indoors, in the prosy confines of a kitchen.  No, this is real work.

So why would you—why would anyone?—do it if you didn't have to?  When you could go out or order in or pull "a home meal replacement" from the freezer and nuke it in the microwave?  This is of course precisely what more and more people are doing today instead of cooking.  Cooking is no longer obligatory, and that marks a shift in human history, one whose full implications we're just beginning to reckon.  No one has to chop onions anymore, not even the poor.  Corporations are more than happy to chop them for us, and often at bargain rates.

Somewhat more than half of the evening meals an American eats today are still "cooked at home," according to the market researchers.  That sounds like a lot, until you discover that the meaning of the verb "to cook" has been defined radically downward in the last few years.

I learned this from a veteran food-industry market researcher named Harry Balzer ... with whom I've now spent several illuminating, if discouraging, hours discussing the future of cooking. ... "People call things 'cooking' today that would roll their grandmother in her grave," he explained.  "Like heating up a can of food or microwaving a frozen pizza." [So his firm] decided to tighten up, at least slightly, the definition of what it means to cook. ... To cook "from scratch," they decreed, means to prepare a main dish that required some "assembly of ingredients."  [Under this definition, pouring bottled dressing on lettuce counts as cooking, as does making a sandwich.] ... I kept asking him what his reasearch had to say about the prevalence of the activity I referred to as "real scratch cooking"—the kind of cooking that begins with chopping onions. ... Apparently the activity has become so rarefied as to elude his tools of measurement.

"Here's an analogy," Balzer offered.  "A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking, and gutting a chicken.  Do you know anybody who still does that?  It would be considered crazy!  Well, that's exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren.  Like sewing, or darning socks—something people used to do when they had no other choice.  Get over it!"

Discouraging, indeed.  But Pollan has hope:  "[I]t could simply be that [Balzer] subscribes to the general view in a modern specialized consumer culture that 'leisure activities' should involve consumption, whereas any activity involving production is leisure's opposite:  work."  And work, of course, is something to be avoided.  Fortunately for future generations, that belief is not universal.  In our extended family nearly everyone cooks—including the younger generation, from preschool to college student.  Several sew, some knit, and if none raise and eat their own chickens, we know people who are "crazy" enough to do so.

Which raises an interesting question:  As a political matter, is home cooking today a reactionary or a progressive way to spend one's time?

Water is mostly about braising, and I never knew there was so much to it.

Porter and I are presently watching The Everyday Gourmet:  Rediscovering the Lost Art of Cooking, a very enjoyable Great Courses DVD class.  A constant source of amusement has been to note how free the chef is in his use of salt as a seasoning.  The chef who taught Pollan to cook feels the same way:

"Use at least three times as much salt as you think you should," she advised.  (A second authority I consulted employed the same formulation, but upped the factor to five.)  Like many chefs, Samin believes that knowing how to salt food properly  is the very essence of cooking, and that amateurs like me approach the saltbox far too timorously. ...

Samin prefaced her defense of the practice by pointing out that the salt we add to our food represents a tiny fraction of the salt people get from their diet.  Most of the salt we eat comes from processed foods, which account for 80 percent of the typical American's daily intake of sodium.  "So, if you don't eat a lot of processed foods, you don't need to worry about it.  Which means:  Don't ever be afraid of salt!"

If cooking with fire made the nutrition in flesh more available to humans, cooking with water did the same for plants.

Many of the important crops humankind has domesticated require boiling (or at least soaking) for us to be able to eat them....  The cook pot is a kind of second human stomach, an external organ of digestion that allows us to consume plants that would otherwise be inedible....  These auxiliary clay stomachs made it possible for humans to thrive on a diet of stored dry seeds, which in turn led to the accumulation of wealth, the division of labor, and the rise of civilization.  These developments are usually credited to the rise of agriculture, and rightly so, but they depended as much on the cook pot as on the plow.

Cooking food in pots also helped expand the human population, by allowing for earlier weaning of children (thereby increasing fertility) and a longer life span, since both the very young and the very old could now be fed soft foods and nutritious soups out of the pot, no teeth required. ...

According to the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, the invention of the cook pot (and its offshoot, the frying pan) is the last innovation in the history of cooking until the advent in our own time of the microwave oven.

Braising brings out the taste of umami, or savoriness.

The most important chemical known to stimulate the umami receptors [which are in the stomach as well as on the tongue] is the amino acid glutamate and the nucleotides inosine and guanosine, all of which are by-products of the breakdown of protein.

Which is of course precisely what is going on in a long-simmered stock....  In fact, chicken stock is loaded with glutamate, which has been contributed not only by the protein-rich meat but by the slow cooking of the aromatic vegetables as well. ... But though umami can make a food taste "meaty," meat is only one of the many sources of glutamate. ... Ripe tomatoes, dried mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, cured anchovies, and a great many fermented foods (including soy sauce and miso paste) ... can be added to a dish to boost its quotient of umami. ... And the reason we sometimes, à la Julia Child, [brown] our meat in bacon fat?  Because bacon is a veritable umami bomb, containing all of the umami compounds that have thus far been identified.  [emphasis mine]

Pollan calls the Japanese fish stock, dashi, "a cooking water designed, albeit unwittingly, to contain as much umami and as little of anything else as possible."  I use it in making a version of katsudon; the last time I did so, I commented that it was so rich that next time I was going to leave the pork out altogether, since what I liked best was the broth/rice/egg combination.  Pork-less katsudon is an oxymoron, but I'll bet it will taste delicious even so.

In the "who would have guessed?" department, it turns out that breast milk is rich in umami, and contains nearly as much glutamate as dashi.

Cooking with water may have made grains edible, but Air is the element that made them into that divine food, bread.  Most of the third part of Cooked is devoted not only to bread, but specifically to bread made with a sourdough starter and its wild yeasts and bacteria.  My sourdough bread is good, but is based on commercial yeast.  I'm going to have to try again to make a natural starter, having now learned that my previous attempts were too timid:  I didn't leave my flour/water batter open to the elements nearly long enough.  I still wonder how well it will work with Florida's combination of microbes.  Interestingly, Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, which is critical to the process and the flavor, is not, as was once thought, limited to San Francisco, but is found in bakeries all over the world.  It is also found only in sourdough bread cultures.  So maybe my success or failure will be dependent on how many other sourdough bakers there are in Florida ... no wonder San Francisco reigns supreme.

For [bread baker] Richard Bourdon, the problem with most bread is that it is essentially undercooked, and therefore more difficult to digest than it should be.  This is why he favors long fermentations and unusually wet doughs.  Wet dough was the norm before the mechanization of baking.  Human hands can't handle dry doughs very well (even if they are easier to shape, they are much harder to mix and knead), and machines can't handle wet ones at all.  But they make much better breads.  Bourdon is fond of saying, "You would never cook a cup of rice in half a cup of water."  Even more than flavor or beauty, Bourdon is after the perfect nourishment that only the most thorough cooking can ensure.  He came out of the macrobiotic movement, and is something of a poet of human digestion.  Which, he explains, begins in the mouth the moment you bite into a bread.

"This is why the acids in sourdough are so important!  They make your mouth water, so the enzymes in your saliva can begin to digest the starches.  That's how you can tell good bread from bad:  Roll a little ball of it and put it in your mouth.  What happens?  Does your mouth feel dry, like you want a sip of water, or is it nice and wet?"

I'm a head-over-heels fan of King Arthur Flour's White Whole Wheat flour, which they claim has all the nutrition of "regular" (red) whole wheat but a lighter color and flavor.  They also say to use it like red whole wheat, mixing it with white flour in recipes, but I've found I sometimes prefer it at 100%.  I still make my bread with a mixture, but for cookies, brownies, and even cakes I now find I prefer the flavor imparted by the white whole wheat flour.

King Arthur calls the red wheat "traditional whole wheat," but I began to question that when, in my genealogical research, I came upon newspaper ads advising farmers to throw over their old-fashioned white wheat for the new and "better" red variety.  Cooked confirmed my suspicions.

More than just a new food product, white flour helped usher in a new food system, one that would extend all the way from the field to the loaf of presliced and fortified white bread, which now could be manufactured on an assembly line in three or four hours without ever being toughed by human hands.  The wheat plant changed, too.  The new roller mills worked best with hard-kernelled red wheat; the big, tough bran coat on this type of wheat could be sheared cleanly and completely from the endosperm, whereas softer white wheat left infinitesimal specks of bran in the flour.  So, over time, breeding changed the plant to better suit the new machine.  But because hard wheat has tougher, bitterer bran, it made whole-grain flour even coarser and bitterer than it had been before—one of several ways that the triumph of white flour made whole wheat less good.

Whole-grain bread has been enjoying something of a renaissance. Actually, that renaissance got a first, false start during the 1960s, when the counterculture, steeped in romantic ideas about "natural food," seized on white bread as a symbol of all that was wrong with modern civilization.  Brown bread, being less processed than white, was clearly what nature intended us to eat.  They probably should have stopped there, but did not, alas.  Baking and eating brown bread also became a political act:  a way to express one's solidarity with the world's brown peoples (seriously), and to protest the "white bread" values of one's parents, who likely served Wonder Bread at home.  These ideals resulted in the production of some uncompromising and notably bricklike loaves of dark, seedy bread, which probably set back the revival of whole-grain baking a generation.  "That hippie texture" is a cross that whole-grain bakers still bear today, along with the widespread belief that whole-grain bread promises rather more nutritional and ideological rigor than eating pleasure.

Using commercial yeast to leaven whole-grain flour so rapidly may present another problem for our health.  All whole grains contain phytic acid, which locks up minerals not only in the bread but, if you eat enough of it, in the body of the bread eater as well.  One of the advantages of a long sourdough fermentation, as we've seen, is that it breaks down the phytic acid, freeing up those minerals.  It also makes the gluten proteins more digestible and slows the body's absorption of starch.  That's why a sourdough white bread actually has a lower glycemic index than a commercially yeasted whole-grain bread.

That doesn't sound like great news for my cookies and brownies and cakes, which are not fermented.  But they still taste better.

Earth was simultaneously the most interesting—because I know less about fermentation than about cooking—and the most depressing section.  If you've successfully waded through all the quotations above, you'll be relieved to know that I placed very few sticky notes in the Earth section.  The book was due back to the library....

The information about fermentation—which Pollan views as a form of cooking—is fascinating, as are the sections on probiotics, prebiotics, and the human gut.

For years nutritionists were mystified by the presence in mother's milk of certain complex carbohydrates, called oligosaccharides, which the infant lacked the necessary enzymes to digest.  Evolutionary theory argues that every component of mother's milk should have some value to the developing baby, or else natural selection would be likely to discard it as a poor use of the mother's precious resources.  So why would she produce nutrients her baby can't metabolize?  It turns out the oligosaccharides are there to feed not the baby but certain of its intestinal microbes:  Their presence in the diet ensures that certain optimal species of bacteria, and specifically Bifidobactgerium infantis, proliferate and get established before less savory characters gain a toehold.

Medical researchers are coming around to the startling conclusion that, in order to be healthy, people need more exposure to microbes, not less; and that one of the problems with the so-called Western diet—besides all the refined carbohydrates and fats and novel chemicals in it—is the absence from it of live-culture foods.  The theory is that these foods have a crucial role to play in nourishing the vast community of microbes living inside us, which in turn plays a much larger role in our overall health and well-being than we ever realized.  Bacteria-free food may be making us sick. ...

The biggest problem with the Western diet," Stephen O'Keefe, a gastroenterologist at the University of Pittsburgh, told me, "is that it doesn't feed the gut, only the upper GI....  All the food has been processed to be readily absorbed, leaving nothing for the lower GI.  But it turns out that one of the keys to health is fermentation in the large intestine." ... We have changed the human diet in such a way that it no longer feeds the whole superorganism, as it were, only our human selves.  We're eating for one, when we need to be eating for, oh, a few trillion. ...

A growing number of medical researchers are coming around to the idea that the common denominator of many, if not most, of the chronic diseases is inflammation—a persistent and heightened immune response by the body to a real or perceived threat. ... One theory ... is that the problem begins in the gut, with a disorder of the microbiota, and specifically of the gut wall.  For when the integrity of the epithelium has been compromised, various bacteria, endotoxins, and proteins can slip into the bloodstream, causing the body's immune system to mount a response.

[T]he case for getting more live-culture foods in the diet (especially of our children) is already compelling and growing more so.

Pollan tackles fermented vegetables (kimchi, traditional sauerkraut, miso, fish sauce, and much, much more), then the wonders of cheese, and finally, beer and other alcoholic drinks.  That's all good, but his dissertation on disgust, and why we (though not I) like stinky cheeses, natto (Japan), and rotted shark (Iceland), gets downright weird, and yes, disgusting.  The taboo, the forbidden, sex, death, decay, bodily excretions and odors, the attractiveness of hideous things ... well, as I said, it nearly ruined the book for me.  I still highly recommend 97% of Cooked, but if your stomach isn't a lot stronger than mine, you might consider avoiding the worst by skipping pages 359 to 370.  It's a long book; you won't be missing much.  What's impossible to avoid is the random sprinkling, mostly in the last two sections and usually when quoting someone, of words that until recently never showed up in a "decent" book—at least none that I read.  Now I can't avoid them, and I think literature is much the poorer for it.  Then again, I don't like stinky cheeses, either....  So even though it feels like a slap in the face every time, I grit my teeth and endure.

On to happier things:

Knowing how to bake bread or brew beer with your own two hands is to more deeply appreciate a really good beer or loaf of bread—the sheer wonder of it!—when you're lucky enough to come across one.  You won't take it for granted, and you won't stand for the synthetic.

But even better, I found, is the satisfaction that comes from temporarily breaking free of one's accustomed role as the producer of one thing—whatever it is we sell into the market for a living—and the passive consumer of everything else.  Especially when what we produce for a living is something as abstract as words and ideas and "services," the opportunity to produce something material and useful, something that contributes directly to the support of your own body (and that of your family and friends), is a gratifying way to spend a little time—or a lot.

Of all the roles the economist ascribes to us, "consumer" is surely the least ennobling.  It suggests a taking rather than a giving.  It assumes dependence and, in a global economy, a measure of ignorance about the origins of everything that we consume.  Who makes this stuff?  Where in the world does it come from?  What's in it and how was it made?  The economic and ecological lines that connect us to the distant others we now rely on for our sustenance have grown so long and attenuated as to render both the products and their connections to us and the world utterly opaque.  You would be forgiven for thinking—indeed, you are encouraged to think!—there is nothing more behind a bottle of beer than a corporation and a factory, somewhere.  It is simply a "product." ...  To brew beer, to make cheese, to bake a loaf of bread, to braise a pork shoulder, is to be forcibly reminded that all these things are not just products, in fact are not even really "things."  Most of what presents itself to us in the marketplace as a product is in truth a web of relationships, between people, yes, but also between ourselves and all the other species on which we still depend. ... The beer in that bottle, I'm reminded as soon as I brew it myself, ultimately comes not from a factory but from nature—from a field of barley snapping in the wind, from a hops vine clambering over a trellis, from a host of invisible microbes feasting on sugars.

[S]urely the most important of all the relationships sponsored by this work is the one between those of us who elect to do it and the people it gives us the opportunity to feed and nourish and, when all goes well, delight. ... Cooking is one of the more beautiful forms that human generosity takes.

And just as surely this puts the calling and profession of homemaker in a new light.  But I'll leave the elaboration of that thought to my able—and hopefully less bleary-eyed—readers.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, May 31, 2013 at 8:24 am | Edit
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All of this is quite interesting. I do feel the Swiss/American cultural divide, though. Both main grocery stores provide free recipes that mostly start with chopping something if not onions. There are convenience foods, but the don't take up most of the store, as they do in America. I wonder if the bread quality is better, because it certainly tastes better, but they don't sell sour dough.

I laughed at the second about bacon, because I've discovered on my own that a little bacon makes everything taste better, and is a good way to satisfy the desire for meat when it is too expensive to have all that often.

I would love to develop the idea of being more of a producer than a consumer, and a good amature in daily life than a specialist. This is where I disagree with Tim Ferris the most. His idea is to specialize to free us from the "daily" so we can do what we want so we can find pleasure ("not be bored" in his words). I find pleasure in being a decent amature in the daily, from family music making, to baking bread, to collecting milk and veggies from the local farms (and trying to grow my own!). It takes time, for sure, but it's the kind of time I have as a mother. I have very little time to sit and write or even take a shower, but all those daily activities the children can be involved in, so it uses a certain type of time that I have a lot of. This also flies in the face of the division of labor and "childcare." I don't entertain my children much, I involve them in doing laundry, going shopping, making bread, etc. They love it. The best way to get them to obey is to threaten to send them out of the kitchen if they fail to. Just this morning Vivienne took great delight in restocking the toilet paper. Your point that the modern definition of "work" and "pleasure" is messed up is clearly illustrated here. Our natural state isn't at all to avoid "work." At least it's not the whole picture.

And hurray for salt! My midwife said I should eat more for my low BP, but this gives me permission to not worry about the kids too much either.

I love the idea that cooking for someone is one of the best ways to share and give, that "Cooking is one of the more beautiful forms that human generosity takes." I certainly feel that way, but never put it into so many words. As a Mom with toddlers, I can't give much time or attention to others, but inviting them to a meal I have to make anyway is one area where I feel I can bless others. It also explains why I feel slighted if they eat and run! I used to do that, too, but now that hour we take for both lunch and dinner as a fmaily together have become almost sacred parts of the day.

So much to think about!

Posted by Janet on Saturday, June 01, 2013 at 3:56 am

Janet, if you're ever looking for another Power of Moms article suggestion, you could develop the thought, "It takes time, for sure, but it's the kind of time I have as a mother." I think you're onto something.

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, June 01, 2013 at 8:57 am

This reminds me of the Penzeys catalogs, which are so much more than simply catalogs. "Love people. Cook them tasty food."

And now it's time for me to cook dinner. (:

Posted by joyful on Wednesday, June 05, 2013 at 5:40 pm

I, too, thought of Penzey's when I read it.

Posted by SursumCorda on Thursday, June 06, 2013 at 5:24 am