Cooked- A Natural History of Transformation
By Michael Pollan


Cooking is one thing that makes humans stand out from the rest of the animals on this planet. Other species eat only ingredients as they exist in nature but humans season the ingredients, combine them with others and then cook them (most of the time, anyway) before serving them. If we're lucky enough to have the means, we can eat for pleasure, rather than necessity.

With Cooked, Michael Pollan (who also wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma, which is about how food lovers can eat both well and responsibly), explores cooking but gives very few recipes. In his introduction, he writes that because humans learned to cook, we were then "sitting down to common meals, making eye contact, sharing food and exercising self-restraint [which] all served to civilise us".

The first chapter is, naturally enough, about fire, the basic element our distant ancestors used to cook food before the advent of such things as electricity and sous vide. Barbecuing was - probably inadvertently - the first cooking method, although it's been refined through the years. Pollan writes about barbecuing in North Carolina, learning the craft from "barbecue fundamentalists", who cook whole hogs over oak and hickory coals and eschew "modern" inventions such as charcoal. He writes about living as a child in an apartment in Manhattan, New York, and his father giving him the gift of a live piglet. Enticed by the smell of a cooking steak, on one occasion "Kosher", the swine, stole a neighbour's dinner by toppling over the barbecue grill and making off with a half-cooked piece of beef.

The book continues through the elements. In the Water chapter, Pollan writes about learning how to braise from an Iranian-American woman who had been one of his students in a writing class. The Air chapter is about the "education of an amateur baker" as Pollan attempts to bake a loaf of bread to a recipe from Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. Tartine baker Chad Robertson gives 34 pages of instructions for it in the Tartine Bread book. In Earth, Pollan writes about the intricacies of fermentation as it's used in everything from kimchi to brewing beer to cheesemaking.