I have been a fan of Michael Pollan’s work for quite a few years now, and I’d been meaning to read his newest one for almost as long as it has been out. I finally got around to it this past week, and I enjoyed nearly every minute of it. In Cooked, Pollan enters into the world of cooking and why it is important via the four main elements: fire, water, air, and earth.
From the beginning I was hooked. In the introduction, Pollan comes to the realization that many of the questions he had in his life could be answered singularly: cook. “What was the single most important thing we could do as a family to improve our health and general well-being? And what would be a good way to better connect with my teenage son?…What is the most important thing an ordinary person can do to help reform the American food system, to make it healthier and more sustainable?…How can people living in a highly specialized consumer economy reduce their sense of independence and achieve a greater degree of self-sufficiency?…How, in our everyday lives, can we acquire a deeper understanding of the natural world and our species’ peculiar role in it?” (Cooked, 1-2). He argues that in America, we have become so dependent on the industry and its companies for our sustenance and it has affected our health, the welfare of farmers, and our society as a whole. We have forgotten how to cook. We eat in separate rooms from our family members, or in the car with our customized meal, and we have lost the art of conversation and creation. Pollan takes us back to our roots and explores why these things have happened and how bringing back home cooking can turn things around.
Using the four elements as guides, the reader is brought through the secrets and mysteries behind barbeque, braises, bread, and fermentation. What we learn through all of this, is that the more intimately acquainted you are with your food- when you see where it comes from, learn how to prepare it, invest your time in it, and share it with loved ones- the more self-sufficient you can be, and a tiny vote is made against the system that has been in charge of how we eat. You become the one in control, and Pollan argues that the control is over more than just what food you are eating. “I also learned things about the natural world (and our implication in it) that I don’t think I could have learned any other way,” Pollan says. “I learned far more than I ever expected to about the nature of work, the meaning of health, about tradition and ritual, self-reliance and community, the rhythms of everyday life, and the supreme satisfaction of producing something I previously could only have imagined consuming, doing it outside of the cash economy for no other reason but love” (p 12). Cooking is a way of carrying on traditions, of building community and self-sufficiency, and improving our general health, happiness, and relationships.
I highly recommend Cooked. I was fortunate enough to be raised by a mother who made lunch and dinner for her family every day, but it has been only in recent years that the desire to produce my own food has come about, and this book increased the desire even more. I see a world filled with the sick and broken, and while it may sound trite, I really believe in the healing power of a good, healthy meal. As Pollan says so well, “Is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for people you love” (p 23)? I think not.