Saturday, July 20, 2013

Cooked by Michael Pollan (audio)



Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
by Michael Pollan
narrated by Michael Pollan
Penguin Audio, 2013
13 hours and 25 minutes
source: review copy provided by publisher

Summary (from Goodreads):

In Cooked, Michael Pollan explores the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen. Here, he discovers the enduring power of the four classical elements—fire, water, air, and earth—to transform the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink. Apprenticing himself to a succession of culinary masters, Pollan learns how to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer.

Each section of Cooked tracks Pollan’s effort to master a single classic recipe using one of the four elements. A North Carolina barbecue pit master tutors him in the primal magic of fire; a Chez Panisse trained cook schools him in the art of braising; a celebrated baker teaches him how air transforms grain and water into a fragrant loaf of bread; and finally, several mad-genius "fermentos” (a tribe that includes brewers, cheese makers, and all kinds of picklers) reveal how fungi and bacteria can perform the most amazing alchemies of all. The reader learns alongside Pollan, but the lessons move beyond the practical to become an investigation of how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships. Cooking, above all, connects us.

The effects of not cooking are similarly far reaching. Relying upon corporations to process our food means we consume large quantities of fat, sugar, and salt; disrupt an essential link to the natural world; and weaken our relationships with family and friends. In fact, Cooked argues, taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable. Reclaiming cooking as an act of enjoyment and self-reliance, learning to perform the magic of these everyday transformations, opens the door to a more nourishing life.

My thoughts:

Yes, I'm a Michael Pollan fan. Years ago, his book The Omnivore's Dilemma helped change the way I thought about food. I became more conscious of where my food came from and began cooking with local, organic ingredients whenever possible. A couple of years later, In Defense of Food further fueled my efforts. As a result, my family's diet is 'cleaner' and healthier than it was in 2006.

In this book, as the title suggests, Pollan examines cooking - an activity, he notes, which distinguishes humans from animals. Cooked chronicles his three-year adventure learning, and trying to perfect, techniques involved in barbecue, braising, bread baking, and fermenting. He regales his reader with tales of time spent alongside barbecue pit masters, in cheese caves, hanging out with "fermentos", and cooking away leisurely Sunday afternoons in his own kitchen. I especially enjoyed Pollan's obsession with baking the perfect loaf of bread, and I plan to experiment with braising techniques myself when cooler weather arrives.

As good as this book is, however,  it does nothing to refute the argument that Pollan is an elitist. I am fortunate to have readily available ingredients, financial resources, and enough time to prepare healthful meals for my family, and to experiment with the various techniques covered in this book. However, this is not necessarily the case for a majority of Americans. There is an excellent article in the latest issue of The Atlantic entitled "How Junk Food Can End Obesity" by David H. Freedman. It provides another interesting perspective on the issue... the food processing industry got us into this mess and they have the ability to get us out of it, too.

I enjoyed Cooked immensely and recommend it to anyone interested in food, cooking, or eating... so just about everyone. I'm also going to make a prediction: I think probiotics may be Pollan's next big thing. He seems poised to jump on that bandwagon. Kombucha, anyone?

A note on the audio production:
I loved Pollan's easy, conversational narration style. It was like listening to a friend tell you all about his adventures. Not to take anything away from Scott Brick, but I wonder why Pollan didn't start narrating his own books sooner.  In all honesty, I think I would have struggled a bit with Cooked in print, and remember thinking the same thing about The Omnivore's Dilemma, so I'm very glad I listened to this book. Micheal Pollan is definitely an audio author for me.

My rating: 



Highly recommended.



Weekend Cooking, hosted at Beth Fish Reads, is open to anyone who has a food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up over the weekend.

39 comments:

  1. I have this on audio and have been waiting to listen. I first learned of Pollan when he published Botany of Desire (a friend gave me a copy). My hesitation was this: Although his last two books include new information, they just reiterate his earlier message. I too am a fan,, but wasn't sure I wanted to listen to another version of the same ole.

    So I'm happy to learn this is a different sort of Pollan book (albeit with the same message).

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    1. Thanks for the link to the Atlantic article. Printed it out for my husband. You and I could spend hours chatting about these issues the next time we see each other. :)

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    2. Beth F - Cooked does seem to be a different sort of Pollan book... loved his take on various cooking methods and self-sufficiency. The barbecue section was also fascinating (as was braising, cheese-making, and bread -baking). He actually set up a barbecue pit and roasted a pig on his front lawn! The Atlantic article raises some good points about the food-processing industry. Not everyone, in fact very few, will actually approach food and cook it as Pollan does in this book. You're right - we could spend hours talking about this stuff!

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  2. I heard about Kombucha recently on The Splendid Table radio show. I haven't read any Michael Pollan books, and I doubt I ever will. Reading reviews like this one gives me enough of the gist of them, I think!

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    1. Laurie - I learned about Kombucha from my daughter. I have tried it, but think it must be an acquired taste! You do get most of Pollan's basic ideas from reading reviews... the books just go into much more detail and theory.

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  3. I've never listened to any books on food. Guess it must be a wonderful exp. I'm listening to Stephen King's Under the Dome now while driving. That's quite an exp. too. ;)

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    1. Arti - I decided I really like food books on audio after listening to Fast Food Nation many years ago. Salt Sugar Fat may be next!

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  4. I know that my family eats WAY too much processed stuff. It's a terrible habit and I'd love to STOP it. Thanks for this review and for the link to the Atlantic article. I'm off to read that now!

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    1. Jennifer - Would love to know what you think of the article... processed food tastes so good, is much easier, and often less expensive.

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  5. A thought: I wonder if, instead of trying to promote healthy cooking, we should be trying to promote inexpensive healthy eating that doesn't require cooking. Just a thought.

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    1. Deb - That's basically what the Atlantic article is saying... the food processing industry may be able to help with that.

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  6. I look audio like this - I am going to look into it.

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    1. Sheila - I really like this type of audiobook, too, because I often won't stick with it in print. Hope you get a chance to listen.

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  7. This book has been on my list since it came out. Perhaps I will give the fantasy series a break and dive into Pollan's latest book. Great review.

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    1. Tina - Thanks. Pollan makes a lot of sense...

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  8. Thanks for the link to the Atlantic article, that sounds intriguing as well.

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    1. Diane - The Atlantic article is a nice counterbalance to this book.

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  9. I don't know much about him - but am starting to take probiotics myself - the jury's still out on whether they are doing anything for me. Cheers

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    1. Carole - I've yet to jump on the probiotics bandwagon, and haven't acquired a taste for Kombucha either. Will be curious to know if the end up having an effect for you.

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  10. I have this checked out of the library but I'm not sure I'll get to it before I have to give it back.

    I'd like to see home cooking more highly valued in our society, say, on par, with scientific or mathematical ability, since it uses both. Arguably, home cooking is a better prevention of cancer and other diseases than anything that's likely to come out of a research lab.

    Joy's Book Blog

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    1. Joy - I agree. Your views are similar t Pollan's... hope you get a chance to read the book before it's due.

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  11. Your review did way more to convince me that I might like this title than the publisher's description -- which is kind of strange, considering I have also enjoyed Pollan's work in the past. I had to look up Kombucha -- and having done so, I'm pretty sure I can live without it a bit longer :) Thanks for this review!

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    1. Col - Thanks! Kombucha must be an acquired taste. My daughter loves it, but I think it's pretty vile stuff. Hope you decide to read or listen to Cooked.

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  12. I've got this audio, but haven't listened to it yet. Good to know that the audio is the way to go here. I always do struggle with books like this in print.

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    1. Sandy - If you struggle with this type of book in print, like I do, audio is definitely the way to go. I loved Pollan's narration.

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  13. I appreciated that article in the Atlantic :)

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    1. Terri B. - It sure offers an interesting point of view.

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  14. I've never been that interested in picking up Pollan's books in print, but the audio option may sway me to try them - I could do other things while listening. Like cook! Or clean.

    I'm off to check out that article in the Atlantic. Thanks!

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    1. Cecelia - I know I'd struggle with this book in print, but just loved listening... definitely check out the audio option!

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  15. Interesting article--thanks for the link. I liked The Omnivore's Dilemma a lot, but I assumed this book would be more of the same. Maybe I'll check it out on audio as you suggested. Thanks!

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    1. Heather Webb - I initially thought this would be similar to The Omnivore's Dilemma, but the focus is actually quite different. The audio was very well done!

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  16. It's interesting how some books seem more suited to audio. I've never actually successfully listened to a whole audiobook before though, as I'm too easily distracted I think

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    1. olduvaireads - It's funny, but I think listening (just like reading) is a skill that takes practice to develop.

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  17. I gave this book to my son for his birthday. He has now lent it to me and it sits beside my chair - awaiting its turn. I, too, have enjoyed Pollen's books. I also share your concern in regard to those that can't afford the ingredients I can.

    So glad I saw this. Will move that book up on my list.

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    1. Midlife Roadtripper - If you have enjoyed Pollan's previous books, then you're in for a treat. So much great information... and his stories. He talks about the NYC barbecue party hosted every summer in Madison Square Park. I was disappointed to miss it by a week this year!

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  18. I need to read his first book which I actually have a YA version of it on my bookshelves at my MS library! I agree with your take on the elitism. Many people just don't have the financial resources nor the knowledge about eating better. We're so inundated with commercials about easy, fast, and processed food that so many people don't realize that they could eat better for comparable costs!!

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    1. Syaci - I didn't realize they had published a YA version of his earlier book... guess they need to start 'em young! That article in the Atlantic is the perfect counterbalance to the elitist label Pollan has acquired. It's well worth the read!

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  19. I have never read Pollan and I'm thinking a book that makes him sound like an elitist might not be the best place to start. But I am thinking we'll be reading some Pollan for book club soon.

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    1. Lisa - Pollan is like a cult hero that can write really well, but I don't think any of his cooking experiments in this book are likely to be embraced by the masses. It still makes for very good listening and inspiration.

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