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Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

While a displaced group of Satanists (and those curious about them) wandered Harvard Square in search of a venue to perform a black mass after the on-campus event was canceled due to rabid controversy, I waited in line to see Michael Pollan, who was giving a talk about his latest book, Cooked. Michael Pollan is a witty and engaging speaker. I can’t say the same for whoever performed the black mass—though finding out their costumed procession, reportedly including a caped man in a white suit and horned mask, led them to the sometimes-infamous Hong Kong restaurant, was highly entertaining in itself. Sadly, no photos have been posted that I can find. 

The Michael Pollan event hosted by Harvard Book Store, however, was as orderly and interesting as one would expect from the august shop. The author discussed the evolution of his books, starting with the Omnivore’s Dilemma, which explores the development of industrial agriculture and the food business and how it connects to any number of dietary fads and the dangerous rise in diseases such as type 2 diabetes. In Cooked, he gets to the source of food production, and takes the reader back to the origins of cooking and its relationship to the natural world. 

Divided into the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, the book discusses man’s initial use of fire and subsequent evolution. With the advent of agricultural societies came steaming and boiling, and cooking became a collaborative effort. To explore each element, Pollan takes on a mini-apprenticeship. He begins with fire, at a famous BBQ place in North Carolina. He’s given a tour by the pitmaster—a place flanked by grills, where the meat is slow cooked at low temperatures overnight. Out of this “smoky crypt” comes the whole hog sandwich, a delight of various cuts of meat. The practice harkens back to ancient times, when priests were in charge of sacrifices. 

For water, he describes the process of processing grain. Soups and softer foods provide an opportunity to wean babies at a younger age, and the ability for elderly people to better eat. Life is prolonged. Civilization grows. 

With air, he takes us to breadmaking. He spent time with Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, where he learned everything about the importance of sourdough starters and how the smell of a starter is key to the success of the finished product. An avid surfer, Robertson balances two passions, and Michael Pollan spoke with great enthusiasm about his time at the bakery. What we learn is that in cooking, the essential factors are practice, patience, and presence. You have to be there—no dithering about on social media—lord knows how often I’ve burned something after losing track of time while answering an email, leaving an abandoned pot of something to burn on the stove. He’s right. It’s a consummate hobby that requires keen focus. 

But industry sped things up, and it’s become the norm. Recipes are falsely sped up to shorten preparation and cooking times. Best-sellers carry titles like “30-Minute Wonder Meals.” Many people are clueless in the kitchen without the help of a microwave. Pollan’s argument is that it all needs to slow down. Let the dough rise for hours. The slower the process, the more flavorful, the more nutritious the result. 

With the invention of the flour mill came pristine white flour. The nutrients were stripped. Immediately, people began to get sick. So industry added the nutrients back in—but in the form of fortified stuff…like Wonder Bread. It was all fake, filled with chemicals, and it’s been hurting us ever since. He made an interesting comparison: with the rise of the labor movement, Europe fought for time. They spend more time cooking than we do. In the US, we fought for money, and there is a difference in rates of diabetes and obesity, though numbers are now rising all over the world. 

Finally, with earth, he talked about cheesemaking. As someone who adores naturally produced cheese—the more odiferous the better—I was fascinated by his description of cheese left to age in barrels. While steel is industry standard, it’s been found that the powers of lacto bacilli kill of dangerous bacteria, which actually flourishes in steel. The barrel is more effective, and produces a more authentic and flavorful cheese. 

“Cheese is all about the dark side of life,” Pollan said. While other scents are more thoroughly described, there is a tendency to avoid describing cheese in too much detail. Its earthiness is visceral, it “puts us back on all fours.” 

This unique perspective of cooking and how humanity and civilization evolved with food production was a powerful experience. It led me to think more deeply about how food is portrayed in fiction. Fiction is about transformations—primarily in characters, but also in places and situations. How are characters impacted by their food supply? In an apocalyptic scenario, how does a linchpin serve to cause an environment collapse? If a society is in the early stages of collaborative cooking, how does it change as more people build settlements and rely on grains? What happens if a crop is blighted? In a futuristic setting, what would happen if a city entirely dependent on high tech went black, and people couldn’t access proper food? 

There are any number of ways the essence of this book could be incorporated into a story. One of the best things about worldbuilding is to sit back and think—what if? Cooked provides plenty of fodder to answer that question. 

(post originally published May 17, 2014) 

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