This book was recommended to me by the sourdough baker whose course I took. It turned out that I had already one of Pollan’s books – The Botany of Desire, which was awesome and looked at various plants in light of the general idea of desire. (My biggest take away message: the Agricultural Revolution was the grasses using humanity to destroy the trees. Also that all edible apples are clones.)
This book is Pollan’s attempt to learn more about cooking, having looked at the gardening and the eating side for a long time. He divides the book into four sections: Fire, Water, Air, Earth. Or, basically: barbecue, braise, bread, and fermenting.
Pollan makes a lot of interesting claims for cooking throughout the book. That individuals cooking can help “reform the American food system, to make it healthier and more sustainable” (1). That cooking can help people feel a measure of self-sufficiency and stick it to the big corps who want to do everything for us (at a price); that people may well be healthier if they cook at home. It was important for me to remember that this book is firmly embedded in an American culture. He quotes the stat that American households spend 27 minutes a day preparing meals – which is half that of 50 years ago. Now, of course there are lots of reasons for that, and Pollan is certainly not saying that people ought to be spending hours every day making food. He uses this stat more as a way of pointing out that things have changed, and that in America at least people are “handing over the preparation of most of our meals to the food industry” (3). I did a scratch poll of friends and the vast majority say they prepare their dinner ‘from scratch’ (which may not be the scratch of 50 years ago, but whatever) most nights of the week. Maybe I have particularly foodie friends? I don’t know. But I feel that Australians are probably more likely to cook meals… of course with all the caveats about having time and who you’re cooking for etc.
At any rate, like I said, this book is an attempt to show that cooking can be a delight rather than just a chore; that cooking can be a wonderful experience, that it can have serious ramifications for our health (variety = better gut micro biome), that it can have social implications, and so on. And before you get worried that this is a man telling women to get back in the kitchen, he is firmly saying that everyone – men and kids as well as women – would benefit from hanging around in the kitchen more.
Fire: as an Australian I am bewildered by the barbecuing of America, and that in some places ‘barbecue’ is reserved for the cooking of an entire hog. Perhaps this is the legit origins but it’s not how it is here! Anyway, while I can’t ever imagine going to a southern barbecue place in America – I don’t love pork – this chapter was deeply fascinating both for the discussion about barbecue but, more than that, for the discussion about the people (let’s be real here, men) involved at the celebrity level.
Water: I quite like a casserole or braise but I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated what’s going on at a molecular level. And I definitely don’t dice my onions minutely enough. This chapter probably deals most with the change in attitudes towards cooking, and the idea that women moving out of the kitchen was a fundamental part of women’s lib. Interestingly Betty Friedan thought all housework a form of oppression, while Simone de Beauvoir wrote that cooking could be “revelation and creation”… and apparently Joan Gussow says there’s “no evidence that cooking is, or was, a hated chore from which the food processors … liberated women” (186). All of which is to say women’s history, and indeed women’s lives? CONTESTED. Who knew. There’s also a fascinating discussion of ‘secondary eating’ – eating while doing something else – and the difference between eating something that is hard to make vs just buying it. Who’s making their own hot chips at home, from scratch? At any rate I may need to investigate the braise a bit more.
Air: look, it’s about bread. And especially sourdough bread. You know I like making bread, right? I loved reading about the chemistry, and Pollan’s experiences with the bakers, and the history of bread and white flour, and was a bit horrified about what goes into Wonder Bread (um, cellulose. As in, bits of trees). This chapter resonated most with me I think because of my experiments this year. And it gave me some ideas of things to try with my own baking…
Earth: the arena with which I have least experience: fermentation. Again, the chemistry aspect is deeply intriguing, as is the discussion about societal expectations and tastes – feeling smug about something that the neighbours can’t stand. This is where Pollan talks about beer and experiments with home brew; he goes to visit cheese makers and is amused by the OHS implications of the moulds that happen in cheese places. And he challenges the Pasteurian idea that getting rid of all bacteria from food is a good idea…
The book ends with four recipes – the basics of each chapter – and a bibliography that makes me want to alternately weep tears of ‘I’ll never get through all of those’ and indulge in delirious book-buying madness.
It’s a delightfully readable book, and one which wants to at least challenge you to consider your cooking and, indeed, eating habits. We don’t have to go back to making our own sausages from scratch. But maybe we could spend just a little more time thoughtfully considering our food and meal options, and attempt to think about cooking as a craft and an opportunity to create rather than just a chore. That’s the challenge that I’m taking away; sometimes it’s really hard to think that way, and it’s then I’m grateful to live in the modern world: because choice is a wonderful thing. And choosing to cook a bit more is a good option, when you can, for a whole bunch of reasons.