SPOILER! Michael Pollan finally discovers BBQ! It might have taken him a little bit longer than the rest of us out in the sticks, but we’re glad he finally did. America’s authentic culture of food gets a nice little spotlight shone on it in the first chapter of his latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.
For some reason it took me a long time to read Cooked. I got an advance copy, but it took me almost two months to get through the whole thing (I think I read about five other books in between). I enjoy his familiar voice and expected unexpected twists of perspectives on everyday things. And I like that he really goes deep into researching everything and somehow makes it understandable in a new way. But his writing often leaves me with mixed feelings. If he is trying to get more people to cook, this isn’t really the book for that. If you are interested in deconstructing the chemistry of our food and understanding its history, then this book is right on target.
In his first chapter, “Fire,” I was actually thrilled to see that he exposes a never-discussed aspect of the Old Testament, God’s obsession with animal sacrifice and the fact that “the smell of burning meat is pleasing to the lord.” When I first read the entire Bible about 10 years ago, I was stunned at the intense attention paid to animal sacrifice. People use the Bible to validate the current attention to God’s alleged aversion to gay marriage, which hardly gets a mention—if any—and yet no one talks about its statements regarding animal sacrifice? God gets truly furious about it in the Bible many times, if it’s not done and not done right. The smell of burning meat being pleasing to the lord is right up there in prominence in the Bible with things like stoning teenagers and women for any sort of offense to the male ego. (OK, religious folk, do NOT comment on this post until you have read an official academic version of the Old Testament such as the New Oxford Annotated Bible—all 1,355 pages of it, not including the Apocrypha or New Testament, which, by the way, totally contradicts the Old Testament. You kind of have to choose one or the other to believe in, not both, if you are being honest with yourself.)
Pollan dabbles in the discussion about women’s work in the kitchen and how it equates to modern-day discrimination, still. But then confirms the whole stereotype by following a more “male chef” story line of trying to MASTER something really complicated. I would have LOVED to see a chapter on making dinner for his family every night for a whole month. Or a year! And how about for three picky kids, including at least one who is gluten free? Now we’re talking!!!! But I guess that’s what people like me are for. As I said to my annoying teenager last night, “My job is to keep you healthy, happy, and well fed.” Not easy.
Where he really starts to shine is in his final chapter, “Earth,” where he gets into the microbial, bacterial, and germy wonder of fermented food and how essential it is to our health and our microbiota. Here he truly is on the forefront of research and wisdom and insight into things that are actually rather ancient. He shines the light on our dark minds and points a way forward that illuminates the living and dying of our bodies, our food, and our soil…WHICH HE WOULD HAVE UNDERSTOOD BETTER if he came to visit us at the Rodale Institute!
It’s not until the last few pages that he shows that he truly understands what true cooking is all about when he says, “The very best cooking, I discovered, is also a form of intimacy.” And he describes learning about “hand taste” rather than “tongue taste” from a Korean woman.
To me, this is where cooking really begins.
Ultimately, this is a very important, wonderful, and fascinating book, despite my complaints. And he really does break ground in many areas that are essential to our evolution and understanding. I enjoy watching Pollan and his thinking ferment over the years and am thankful to those fermenters for seeding him with their wild microbiota.
(Everything is everywhere).
Please read it. But a fair warning, you should start reading it near a good BBQ joint because you will want some to go with it.