Sunday, May 19, 2013

Book Review: Cooked by Michael Pollan

Title: Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
Author: Michael Pollan
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Personal Copy

A few nights ago, Michael Pollan was here in Salt Lake. We weren't going, of course, because I don't do anything at night these days that doesn't involve lying on Eli's floor while he falls asleep, but I couldn't help fantasizing about what he would say if he showed up on our doorstep for dinner. We were eating taco salad, and as I got dinner ready, a commentary of what he would say kept running through my mind:

Lettuce (iceberg, ick-- no nutritional value and it's not organic)
Tomatoes (hothouse, or from Chile. Either way, your carbon footprint is too big)
Chili (meat from a factory farm)
Shredded Cheddar (cows were fed antibiotics, no flavor profile to speak of)
Guacamole (why did you use a seasoning packet instead of onion, limes, garlic and your own spices? That's not real cooking)
Salsa (Pace-- how lowbrow)
Tortillas (white flour, lots of preservatives)
Doritos (do you seriously expect me to eat this?)

The thing is that I really, really want to like Michael Pollan. I want to like Cooked. I want to be a devotee who bakes her own bread and uses up her CSA veggies every week. I want to feed my children healthy food and pay attention to things like how meat is raised and where my food comes from.

And for the first few weeks after I read a book like this, I can usually get into the spirit of things. But in Cooked, Pollan writes about how the amount of time people spend on preparing food has decreased, and I firmly believe that in order to feed my family in a Pollan-esque way, I would have to spend as much time thinking and working at it, and as much of our family income paying for it, as the hunter-gathers did. It would have to be my passion, and while I can feel passionate about baking a birthday cake or a killer pan of brownies, putting dinner on the table every night just doesn't get my juices flowing.

In Cooked, Pollan explores four different cooking methods. And he does it like a man. He even picks manly subjects like barbecue and beermaking. What I mean by "he does it like a man" is that he is able to explore these subjects like an ardent hobbyist, not like someone who has to put food on the table 21 times a week. He's making things like whole hogs and braises that take days to prepare, food where everyone will bow down and worship him when he sets it on the table (because he is, after all, a man who is cooking. When my husband makes rice and throws a little curry in it, we all act like he could get hired by Bobby Flay).

I understand the importance of cooking, but this book does little to communicate the everydayness of cooking. When Pollan wants to learn about bread, he bakes with the guy who just wrote a cookbook. When he wants to learn barbecue, he works with a pitmaster with a James Beard award. He is Michael Pollan, after all. But he doesn't seem to realize that the opportunities he has when he decides he wants to be a cook are not what most people have. What I'd love to see is how Pollan would feed my family-- six kids, one of whom eats only a dozen things, all running every which way after school, while also driving those six kids to the places they need to go. There's a scene in the book in which Pollan and his son visit one of the evil "middle aisles" of the grocery store (the freezer aisle, to be exact) and buy frozen dinners. Pollan buys an Amy's, which already feels a little out of touch with the 98%. Then they cook them and eat them, while he analyzes the nutritional qualities of each (and denigrates the microwave). I wonder how long Pollan would hold out against the microwave and the chicken nuggets if faced with my brood.

Defensive much? I guess so, but the book touched a nerve. I feel like it told me all the hundreds of ways that my kitchen (and therefore my children) were on the wrong track, but not much practical advice on how to fix it.


Luisa Perkins said...

The everydayness definitely can get old, especially when kids are little.

Shelly said...

I 100% agree. That is what frustrates me about Pollan. He complains a lot but no "real" solutions. Have you read anything by Jaime Oliver? It's most helpful and realistic.

Katie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katie said...

I haven't read this book by Pollan, but I have read some of his others. I follow the blog 100 Days of Real Food by Lisa Leake who applies Pollan's ideas to her family of 4. She finds ways to make it work for a family, but then again, she spends 3X as much on groceries and at least 2X as much time in the kitchen and has semi-accidentally made a career out of her blog. Over the last year and a half I have tried to keep making small changes (real maple syrup and real vanilla instead of the imitation/high fructose corn kind, always 100% whole wheat bread with only 5 ingredients, etc.), but I don't know how I could possibly live up the Pollan's standards without making it my strongest passion.