A box of seed potatoes, for fingerlings, arrived the other day, recalling a few hours I spent years ago harvesting potatoes in a garden in Europe where my daughters did their first sprouting.
When it comes to food and growing things, Michael Pollan has a gift for making you think outside the box. In his new book, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” he immerses himself in four types of cooking that he links -- in theory, fact or informed fancy -- to the ancient elements of fire, water, air and earth.
By tracing the roots of barbecue, braising, baking and fermentation while learning the techniques himself, he hopes in part to share the joys and whys of cooking. Ultimately he seeks to transform the heedless eating habits of a nation of consumers who think a square meal comes in a take-away carton.
This is familiar Pollan territory: hands-on, heart-felt and with more than a touch of homily. In “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” (2006), he writes, “The way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world.” In “The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World” (2001) he finds startling connections between the human and vegetable.
With his Dantesque opening in “Cooked” (“At a certain point in the late middle of my life”), Pollan enters the inferno of “whole-hog barbecue over a wood fire.” His guru is pit master Ed Mitchell, who beat Bobby Flay on the Food Network.
Pollan’s backstory here includes the inevitable Prometheus and a recent addition to evolutionary theory known as “the cooking hypothesis”: By applying fire to meat, our forebears found a source of protein and energy more efficient than raw flesh and vegetables and so made the big leap past our emberless cousins.
With water and braising, we move further along the culinary timeline. Pollan doesn’t mince words as he learns about the mirepoix, the soffritto, the tarka and other finely chopped braising bases of different countries. For those who fret over how time-consuming kitchen work can be, he notes that these meals usually provide tasty time-saving leftovers.
Air brings us to bread and a baking guru who schedules his 250 artisanal loaves a day around his surfing needs. Pollan also visits an industrial bakery that shoots out 155,000 a day, the perfect foil for a screed on what is lost beneath the grindstone, namely all the grain’s good stuff: “People who eat lots of whole-grain foods significantly reduce their risk of all chronic diseases.”
Germophobes may want to skip the closing course, on fermentation, yet they do so at their peril. Pollan takes a knowledgeable tour through the helpful bacteria, the intestinal flora, the tiny creatures we’ve been slaughtering since Pasteur, only to learn in recent years they were our little buddies in countless ways.
Among other things, this means it’s not a bad idea to consume beer, wine, kraut, kimchi, cheese, miso, sake, prosciutto -- all products of fermentation, or controlled decomposition.
The star of this show is the cheese nun, Sister Noella Marcellino, of the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Litchfield County, Connecticut. She makes a version of Saint-Nectaire cheese using an old wooden barrel and a beech-wood paddle that are happy hosts to countless bacteria.
When a cheese inspector balked at the absence of stainless steel, the fervent fermenter made two batches, one in her wooden tub and one in germ-free metal, and inoculated both with E. coli. The sterile vat’s finished cheese was rife with the bug, while the wooden one had almost none. Good bacteria in the old barrel had created “an environment in which (the E. coli) couldn’t survive.” The inspector relented.
As if this nun weren’t already cool enough, her older brother is Jocko Marcellino, who co-founded the 1950s-nostalgia band Sha Na Na.
Pollan is well-informed and earnest, maybe a bit overwhelming. Sometimes the message gets lost as the tireless researcher -- his “selected sources” fill almost 12 pages -- digs around for another glint of relevance, the better to press his case.
The past half-century’s national embrace of processed food and packaged meals “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.”
It boils down to once again taking the time to cook and gather round a table to share good food and chew the fat. Maybe getting back to that would help us evolve into something even better someday.
“Cooked” is published by Penguin Press (468 pages, $27.95). To order this book in North America, click here.
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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