Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

  • Michael Pollan
Penguin: 2013. 480 pp. $27.95 9781846147500 | ISBN: 978-1-8461-4750-0

Michael Pollan is one of the most influential food writers of recent times, and has secured a position as the conscience of a new movement dedicated to local, sustainably produced cuisine. Given this position, it is a surprising admission that until recently he had little interest or skill in the craft of cooking. Cooked is the entertaining story of his journey to learn from a series of master cooks, artisan bakers, cheesemakers and brewers.


Pollan is a wonderful writer and his account is told with great wit and humour, which makes for a very entertaining read. The masters he chose are great characters — both in life, and under Pollan's pen.

Other writers have also sought to document their culinary apprenticeships. But Cooked has much higher ambitions. “My wager in Cooked,” Pollan says, “is that the best way to recover the reality of food, to return it to its proper place in our lives, is by attempting to master the physical processes by which it has traditionally been made.” This isn't just a well-told tale of how he came to master those processes, it is a book with a mission: to inspire readers to get into the trenches of their kitchens, and to stop letting other people prepare, process and package their meals. It succeeds in making its case, despite occasional lapses.

Many advocacy-oriented books use a direct argument. You should eat this because it is delicious, or because it is fun to make, or because it is healthier. Although each of these is mentioned in Cooked, they are sidelines compared with the main purpose: to score intellectual and political points.

Politically, a strong anti-corporate theme runs through the book, blaming food companies for making us their “prey” with “edible foodlike substances”. Much as I agree with Pollan on the sorry state of what is on supermarket shelves, surely we, the eaters, bear at least some responsibility for what we consume.

Intellectually, Pollen grapples, with varying degrees of success, with a fundamental contradiction. On the one hand, he wants to bring food “back to earth” rather than allow it be “abstracted” from the traditional methods and values, the “labor of human hands” or the “natural world of plants and animals”. For Pollan, food is meant to be grounded in the context of a traditional kitchen or farmyard; that is how it achieves legitimacy. Yet, on the other hand, he abstracts food by pulling it out of the kitchen and into the salon as a prop in his very philosophical arguments. When he mixes quotes from obscure French philosophers with dialogue from barbecue pitmasters, the result ranges from interesting in some passages to unsuccessful in others. The book's sections mirror the ancient taxonomy of the elements — fire, water, air and earth. But what they are really about is barbecue, bread, beer, pickles and cheese. Put in the patois that his informants might use, if the book is about restoring honesty to food, what's up with the highfalutin words?

In discussing the newfound interest in traditional gastronomy, he asks a rhetorical question: “Can authenticity be aware of itself as such and still be authentic?” It's a very perceptive point in an age in which 'authentic' cuisine — like 'real' southern barbecue or artisanal bread baking — has been seized upon, marketed and branded to a high degree, turning its once humble practitioners into television stars. This is Pollan at his best, honouring tradition while gently calling it into question. In the same spirit, I will observe that it is also a question that readers could ask about Pollan's own work, which self-consciously tries to draft on this same authenticity to serve its intellectualism.

Tradition and authenticity are his ideal, but many of his informants aren't as pure as Pollan would like them to be. His barbecue pitmaster uses a proportion of supermarket charcoal, his artisanal baker uses some white flour, his cheesemaking microbiologist nun strikes a nuanced position on raw milk and his pickle guru makes an ersatz kimchi. When this occurs, Pollan wrestles with the issue, sometimes conceding, but often contradicting them or quoting other, more “fundamentalist”, sources that call them out for their apostasy.

A scientific perspective on food makes a token appearance, and includes footnotes to papers in scientific journals (including Nature). But this is mostly for show; like most books based on traditional cooking, its explanations deviate from scientific accuracy. This book is, at its heart, about what people feel about food, rather than what science has shown to be true.

Pollan's proselytizing that we all ought to cook more can seem a bit strident given that we are living in the golden age of organic, sustainable artisanal local food. Interest in cooking has never been higher (even if many people still don't do it); indeed, that is why Pollan's previous books have been best sellers, as this one is also likely to be. In one passage he marvels that an artisanal baker sells his loaves for only 41 cents more than the giant Hostess Brands sells its Wonder Bread. The unspoken irony is that Hostess itself recently went bankrupt. Times have changed, and many parts of Cooked read like a call-to-arms for a revolution that is already well under way, thanks in part to Pollan's previous books. Cooked will add to that legacy.