By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton
If you are satisfied with America’s move toward the fast-food diet, you don’t want to read this book. Michael Pollan isn’t. In fact, Pollan is concerned that people are forgetting how to cook and its obvious benefits, as increasingly food preparation is turned over to manufacturers. Is cooking really worth the time and trouble?
Pollan does cite what he regards as hopeful trends. The organic farm movement, a method of growing that tends to support smaller family farms, is gaining momentum. And perhaps healthier food. The much-publicized idea of having at least one family sit-down meal encourages a return to the kitchen. Food network’s increasing popularity suggests that more people are interested in food preparation. The amount of salt in processed food is constantly being cited as an area of concern. Pollan sees that concern as a positive. Yet the demand on our time remains a problem that the food manufacturers and fast-food restaurants are glad to solve.
As America has become more and more removed from food production, people’s concept of what food is has changed. What is the connection to nature; is nature even a factor in the burger we order? Something gave its life so that I could have a quarter pounder. Was it grass-fed beef or the product of forced feeding? What are French fries, really?
Michael Pollan set out to explore the art and skill of cooking in a hands-on manner but seeking out experts and being mentored by them. He was on a quest to explore cooking and develop what he found into a book. The book has four main sections: “Fire,” “Water,” “Air” and “Earth.”
In “Fire,” Pollan explores the concepts involved in cooking directly over fire; i.e., grilling in one form or another; animal plus fire plus time. He is particularly interested in the cooking of whole hog — the predominantly southern practice of barbecuing. “People have known that the smoke of roasting meat is pleasing to the gods at least since the Time of Genesis …. ” For this exploration, Pollan travelled to North Carolina. He also discusses how the use of cooking to aid digestion made the development of modern man possible.
Somewhat surprisingly, the section called “Water” starts by talking about chopping onions. It is less surprising when he explains that chopped onions tend to be called for in “pot” dishes: soups, stews, and braises. “Pot dishes make much more use of plants — vegetables, herbs, spices …. ” They often depend for flavor on their interdependence when combined with hot liquid and perhaps meat. Pot dishes are organized around these elements: Dice some aromatic plants; sauté them in some fat; brown pieces of meat; put everything in a pot; add a liquid; simmer below a boil for a long time. To learn this type of cooking, Pollan hired an expert chef to come to his house on Sunday afternoons and give him lessons
Air in cooking turns out to be the art of baking, primarily yeast baking, especially the capturing the wild yeast used in sourdough.
“One way to think about bread … is simply this: as an ingenious technology for improving the flavor, digestibility, and nutritional value of grass.” Pollan cites grasses: wheat, corn, and rice. Pollan’s primary tutor for bread was a book by Chad Robertson. Since Pollan had an ideal loaf in mind, he began by making a sourdough starter. Sourdough starter is designed to capture the wild yeast that exists in nature. The background of sourdough complete with a scientific explanation of sourdough is provided. Pollan also describes time spent in a bakery. Additionally, he explains what air has to do with it. Finally, he explains why we probably shouldn’t be satisfied with white bread.
The final section regarding cooking is named “Earth.” Much of his concern here is with fermentation. There is a discussion of raw milk cheese — before any pasteurization takes place. Alcohol uses the process of fermentation, as does several food products, most notably sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is usually processed somewhat differently today. It is important to note that fermentation was primarily used as a means of maintaining food value prior to refrigeration and modern canning methods. “Considered a method, or set of methods, for food processing — for turning the stuff of nature into safe, nutritious, durable and delicious things to eat — the ancient arts of fermentation have yet to be improved on.” The process is explored extensively.
The problem of time remains; Pollan does not solve that in “Cooked.” He apparently feels that when one cooks, the results deserve priority. “Each of the different methods I learned for turning stuff of nature into tasty creations of culture reflect a different way of engaging with the world …. ” Perhaps if you read the book, you will be motivated to turn the “stuff of nature into tasty creations.” There are some recipes at the end of the book.