Cooked

Michael Pollan’s latest book, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” is a must read. But if you don’t have the time, we narrowed down some of the most prescient themes about what it means to be the “cooking animal.”

Very few of us are immune to the temptations of convenience. For the most part, we misunderstand what it really even means. When it comes to what we eat, modern convenience is highly conditional. In the last century, we’ve entrusted corporate “chefs” to determine the most expedient delivery mechanisms. Except, it seems, the convenience is mostly theirs—cheap, subsidized ingredients sold to us for their profit and gain, not our health, and often times, void of real flavors beyond the salt, sugar and fat they’ve helped us come to crave. Is it truly more convenient to microwave a frozen dinner that may make us sick, send an unreasonable amount of waste to landfills, and require excessive fossil fuel consumption than it is to cook for ourselves? Michael Pollan explores this and more in “Cooked.”

Like 2006’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Pollan once again took the role of reporter and subject in “Cooked.” He sought experts able to help him better understand the many elements of cooking, and then drew a well-crafted story from not-so-subtly subjecting himself to test each practice, repeatedly. “[I]n almost every dish, you can find, besides the culinary ingredients, the ingredients of a story: a beginning, a middle, and an end,” he writes in the introduction. It’s a simple concept, maybe one that we intuitively already know, but reading those words is a refreshing reminder of, beyond the health or environmental reasons, why cooking our own food is so vital to our sense of self. I imagine even the most skilled chef forgets the fairy-tale like quality a made-from-scratch meal can have. It’s unquestionably a far less interesting story when we’re removed from most of the process aside from opening a bag or pulling up to the drive-thru window. It’s a bit like tuning into every movie just for the last fifteen minutes. It may be exciting to watch, and even make a bit of sense, but there’s a whole story there we will never get to appreciate.

We can also look to cooking as the unique creations each meal is—temporary masterpieces never to be duplicated exactly again. We eat these works of art, becoming both the cooking animal and the cooked animal—as what we eat becomes us most literally.

So, aprons off to Mr. Pollan for sharing his journey with us. It’s a fantastic read, one that made me both grateful and envious. (Even though I’d never set foot near spit-roasting a whole hog, I give him props for the exploration and understanding the sacrifice the animals make.) No summary can do “Cooked” justice, but as always, there are quite a few important words to cook and eat by. Here are 23 favorites:

  1. “A good pot holds memories.”
  2. “So maybe the reason we like to watch cooking on television and read about cooking in books is that there are things about cooking we really miss.”
  3. “For is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for people you love?”
  4. “Cooking is now baked into our biology (as it were), something that we have no choice but to do, if we are to feed our big, energy-guzzling brains. For our species, cooking is not a turn away from nature—it is our nature, by now as obligatory as nest building is for the birds.”
  5. Sharing is at the very heart of ritual sacrifice, as indeed it is in most forms of cooking.”
  6. “…it seems as though we can no longer imagine anyone but a professional or an institution or a product supplying our daily needs or solving our problems.”
  7. “It may also be that, quite apart from any specific references one food makes to another, it is the very allusiveness of cooked food that appeals to us, as indeed that same quality does in poetry or music or art. We gravitate towards complexity and metaphor, it seems, and putting fire to meat or fermenting fruit and grain, gives us both: more sheer sensory information and, specifically, sensory information that, like metaphor, points away from the here and now. This sensory metaphor – this stands for that – is one of the most important transformations of nature wrought by cooking.”
  8. “Cooking is no longer obligatory, and that marks a shift in human history, one whose full implications we’re just beginning to reckon.”
  9. “The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending.”
  10. “With a modicum of technique and a little more time in the kitchen, the most flavorful food can be made from humblest of ingredients.”
  11. “Time is the missing ingredient in our recipes—and in our lives.”
  12. “Consider the French fry. Fried potatoes did not become the most popular “vegetable” in America until the food industry relieved us of the considerable time, effort, and mess required to prepare them ourselves.”
  13. “There’s something about a slow-cooked dish that militates against eating it quickly, and we took our time with dinner.”
  14. “In the microuniverse of a sourdough culture, the baker performs in the role of god, or at least of natural selection.”
  15. “Air lifts food up out of the mud and so lifts us, dignifying both the food and its eaters.”
  16. “The fact that a whole food might actually be more than the sum of its nutrient parts, such that those parts are probably best not “put asunder,” poses a stiff challenge to food processors. They have always assumed they understood biology well enough to improve on the “unsophisticated foods of Nature,” by taking them apart and then putting them back together again.”
  17. “Indeed, much of the innovation in industrial baking has gone into speeding up what has traditionally and perhaps necessarily been a slow process.”
  18. “Alcohol has served religion as proof of gods’ existence…”
  19. “If there is a culture that does not practice some fermentation of food or drink, anthropologists have yet to discover it.”
  20. “To ferment your own food is to lodge a small but eloquent protest—on behalf of the senses and the microbes—against the homogenization of flavors and food experiences now rolling like a great, undifferentiated lawn across the globe. It is also a declaration of independence from an economy that would much prefer we remain passive consumers of its standardized commodities, rather than creators of idiosyncratic products expressive of ourselves and of the places where we live, because your pale ale or sourdough bread or kimchi is going to taste nothing like mine or anyone else’s.”
  21. “It is the infinitely more complex experience of a food that bears the unmistakable signature of the individual who made it—the care and thought and idiosyncrasy that the person has put into the work of preparing it.”
  22. “But the very best cooking, I discovered, is also a form of intimacy.”
  23. “When chopping onions, just chop onions.”

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