“Cooked: a Natural History of Transformation”
Written and read by Michael Pollan
Produced by Penguin Audio
Approx 13.5 hours
I knew I was getting into more than just a cooking book when I requested to review this audiobook, but I was not prepared for the depth of information covered. In “Cooked:…” the author covers more than just the different methods of cooking but he uses the four elementals (Fire, Water, Air and Earth) to present 4 methods of preparing foods and to provide lessons in anthropology, sociology and even some mythology.
Each section of this book presents a different type of cooking, and a reason for that method of cooking that is explained from many different views of a general education elective equal to any college course.
The author is one of the few brave souls that set out to narrate their own audiobook. Many have tried and fare pretty well, but some authors aren’t quite able to pull it off. Pollan falls in to the fares well category. He presents the subject matter with passion. His side ventures into other subject matter that relates to the cooking method being discussed in the audiobook has a feel of sitting with the author over a good meal and having an educated discussion. Very conversational in delivery, Michael Pollan is the best choice for reading this book.
The first section of the book, “Fire” begins with one of my culinary favorites, Barbecue. Not just any barbecue but North Carolina style pit barbecue. The formula for North Carolina barbecue is pretty simple: 1 pig plus a wood fire (smoke a must) plus time equals great taste. In this section not only is the listener treated to a lesson in how to roast the perfect pig but also a bit of a lesson in anthropology in how the cooking of our foods allowed our energy to be spent on thinking and not foraging thus allowing the brain to grow larger and more complicated. This chapter also throws in some Freudian philosophy, lessons from the Bible and some chemistry rounding out a nice course worth digesting both in intellectual and dietary methods.
The second section, “Water,” discusses recipes and methods of cooking used for braises, stews, soups and other water based food preparation. Immediately the listener learns why onions are so important in cooking. He even explains why a cook tears up while chopping onions. More chemistry thrown in to this semester, er, um I mean section and to round it all out Pollan discusses the tastes of salt, bitter, sweet, sour and the newly discovered taste, Umami. If you’ve ever smelled and tasted bacon (who hasn’t) then you have experienced Umami.
The third section, “Air,” is all about baking. Trying to bake the perfect loaf of bread is Pollan’s goal in this section. But not just able to give you a recipe, he dives into cultivating sourdough yeast culture and the multiple day process that has to happen before the dough can be put into the oven. The fascinating thought process that goes into this is one to ponder, the all-in-all the baker is taking grass (wheat) and turning it into an edible form (bread). Once again throw in some chemistry and a little bit of engineering and the art of baking becomes a well rounded education that smells delicious.
Finally the author comes to the “Earth” elemental section of the book. This is the section where yogurts, cheeses and rotting vegetables (saur kraut, kim chee and others). From a dairy farm to a nunnery Pollan covers in depth some interesting facts about cheeses. Then hanging out with fermentos Pollan talks a bit of biology with good and bad bacteria and how the bacteria in our bodies need to be replenished and through these ancient forms of making food that is achieved. As an extra bonus there is some good information on home brewing beer.
The audiobook came with an enhanced CD which contains some recipes that I am just dying to try out. Not only does “Cooked:…” give you some insights on how to be a better cook but also Pollan throws in enough added material to prepare you for a well rounded Liberal Arts degree.