My wife believes I have a problem. Where I would say I collect cookbooks, she would counter that I hoard them. “You’ve cooked from a fraction of them!” she throws in. But I come right back about how cookbooks do the work of a fistful of pharmaceuticals: aiding with disturbed sleep, anxiety, attention deficit, flagging inspiration. Not to mention the beneficial side effects in the form of countless home-cooked meals.
Before reading Michael Pollan’s latest foray into food — “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” — I never would have thought a book with recipes could also brilliantly and coterminously fire one’s sense of moral comprehension and political imagination. Toss in a shot of spiritual zeal, and you have that rare, ranging breed of narrative that manages to do all of this, and then some.
Pollan’s best-selling “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” while a tour de force and special variety of eater’s manifesto, was at the same time more politics and peril than a soul-feeding, home cook’s love train. Here, he deploys a narrative strategy not unlike “Omnivore’s Dilemma.” He breaks the book up into four investigations, organized by fire (barbecue), water (braising), air (bread-baking), and earth (fermentation). This approach often turns out to be little more than gimmicky construct with discussions that tend toward “variations on a theme” and chapters that repeat in shopworn fashion the claims of predecessors. But to Pollan’s credit — more like his literary chops — each of these sections both stands on its own, and more importantly, coalesces into a unique brand of organic whole.
Not only do the sections feel robust in their own right, they gather collective force the deeper you venture. The final installment on fermentation practically takes on the intensity of great mystical texts. It’s nothing short of important, possibly life-altering, reading for every living, breathing human being.
In the barbecue chapter, Pollan joins pit masters in North Carolina. The typical food writer might fall prey to the authenticity trope: Look at how I’ve located the real and remote and hard-to-find thing! Yet Pollan makes authenticity his prey. What comes out the other side is a reality that feels less nostalgia-soaked and therefore closer to the way things really are. It’s a refreshing, if sometimes sobering, vantage to strike. Take the scrumptious, very cheap pulled pork sandwiches that Pollan samples. He doesn’t merely rest at untangling what makes for such simple magnificence (and in a fashion helpful to any home griller); he also mercilessly examines why the sandwich costs only $2.75, riding as it does on the back of an industrially maltreated pig.
It’s critical to note that this book contains more than its four journalistic accounts told by a very good writer who joins temporary ranks with artisans, after which he uncovers their trade secrets in glib, atmospheric fashion. Pollan’s aims turn out to be deeper. He digs into the social history (and prehistory), then shoots forward and rappels the latest science in comprehensible prose without ever diluting his narrative. All along he pulls out highly pertinent observations by an amazing range of thinkers, novelists, poets, science women, and renaissance men. If only Horace (“No poems can please long or live that are written by water drinkers”) or Nietzsche, trumpeting the aesthetic benefits of intoxication, knew that they’d be pressed into 21st-century gastro service!
Both the explorations of water (transmogrifying cheap meats into insanely tasty braises) and air (whipping water, salt, and pulverized grass into an airy, caramelized boule) will grip anyone with the slightest interest in cooking. But the last chapter about fermentation feels truly groundbreaking. In digestible fashion, it clears a cultural space for a language — and a deeper conversation — that usually takes place on scientific, and thus foreign, terrain.
The thinking, or “microbial gospel,” is not only that live culture foods are very, very good for us — think yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi — but also, as Sandor Katz, the famous fermentation advocate sees it, that we human beings are “a superorganism, a symbiotic community of several hundred species, with Homo sapiens serving as unwitting front man and ambulatory device. We need them and they need us.”
In Pollan’s dexterous hands, we get the science, the history, the inspiration, ultimately the recipe. What feels like all of it. It doesn’t hurt that he also happens to be very funny. Fittingly, by means of an expert kimchi-maker he apprentices with in Korea, Pollan closes the book with the idea of “hand taste,” or how a home-cooked meal “bears the unmistakable signature of the individual who made it — the care and thought and idiosyncrasy that that person has put into the work of preparing it.” This, he suddenly understands, is the taste of love, something you’re very likely to feel for “Cooked.”
Ted Weesner Jr., a writer in Somerville who teaches at Tufts University, can be reached at email@example.com.