Review: Cooked, By Michael Pollan

No such thing as too many cooks

The premise of Michael Pollan's book can be summarised in a simple entreaty: please, please cook. He is desperate for us to get back to our kitchens, to reacquaint ourselves with the processes of producing food. And, as we go, we'll be connecting with our families, with our bodies and with nature.

It's a compelling case. That said, the somewhat plaintive introduction is off-putting in its sincerity – and occasionally, his loathing for pre-packaged food suggests that he's not quite the everyman he'd have us believe. Is time spent staring at a spinning plate in the microwave "to feel spiritually unemployed, useless to self and humanity"? Maybe for you, Michael – but some of us have things to do.

Once Pollan gets on to the meat of his argument (and the sauerkraut) things improve tremendously. He divides the processes of cooking into four sections – Fire, Water, Air and Earth – and for each sets out to acquaint himself with core techniques. The writing is passionate and filled with useful – and delightfully useless – information; I now know how to brew mead, and a close-up photograph of bread is called a "crumb shot".

Those who often gobble up food writing will recognise the pilgrimage to sample Southern BBQ, to unlock the secret of dashi, to taste the perfect loaf. Yet Pollan's enthusiasm is such that the experiences feel fresh and exciting, and his descriptions of the food are so vivid you may find yourself drooling on to the page; who could resist a piece of crackling that is "a densely allusive poem of flavours: coffee and chocolate, smoke and Scotch and overripe fruit …."

Best of all, as Pollan guides us through the physics of the stockpot, the biochemistry of dough and the microbiology of fermentation, the purpose of home cooking becomes clear. If you've always been reluctant to bake sourdough using a wild starter culture or pickle your own cucumbers, this book might just change your mind.

It's hard to imagine anyone on a diet of ready meals tackling many of the recipes he mentions. But Pollan is leading by example. It's hard to put the book down without a twinge of desire to mess around with pots and pans. And, in that sense at least, Cooked is a delicious triumph.

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