The 'food culture' on many levels: Michael Pollan's 'Cooking' presents various culinary conflicts
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
It's entirely scrumptious that the Contra Costa County Public Library's 2013 Summer Reading Program sprang into action with a sold-out author talk and book signing by Michael Pollan at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center for the Arts on June 20.
After all, this year's theme purports "reading is so delicious" and Pollan's newly released book introduces a revelatory, retro definition of the term "cooked."
"Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation" (The Penguin Press, 2013) unleashes Pollan's zealous journalism in pursuit of the elemental Holy Grail of fire (grilling), water (cooking in pots), air (baking bread) and earth (gustatory fermentation). Propelled by personal curiosity as much as by his lifelong, professional literary journey along the food chain -- previous books and articles explore food sources and rules -- Pollan investigates how food lands on the family table.
A visit to one of agricultural corporation Monsanto's potato farms in Utah ("They were cooperating, because they thought of me as a benign garden writer," he said) popped the lid on a book he never expected to write. He observed "Big Ag," using a pesticide so toxic farmers couldn't go outside for five days after spraying; resulting in potatoes requiring six weeks of "off-gassing" before they were edible. Back home in Berkeley, he saw proliferating CSA's (Community Supported Agriculture) and health reports proving the best predictor of a healthy diet was whether or not a human fixed the food. Commercial food processing slammed up against a do-it-yourself movement -- and their conflicting messages collided with a third incongruity he uncovered: statistics showing the average person spends only 27 minutes (half of what it was in 1965) fixing food, but millions of people now watch hours of television shows about cooking.
To a food culture vulture, the paradox was like candy to a sugar-deprived addict. In "Cooked," Pollan attacks his subject with enthusiasm; stretching analogies (yeast's proliferative properties explain Christ's ability to feed enormous crowds; God was so pleased by the aroma of charring meat he took "worldwide doom completely off the table for all time") and simultaneously, providing near-encyclopedic historical references and cutting-edge, science-based research.
But "Cooked" is something other than a polemic against big agriculture or an accusatory finger pointing at those who don't love being buried to their elbows in pig crackling, caramelized onions, sensuous bread dough ("That chapter is the sexiest in the book," he claimed, during his Lesher talk) or fermenting, odoriferous cheese. It is a hugely entertaining--yes, deliciously so--and humorous homage to what may define us as humans even more astutely than our thumbs and propensity for fashioning tools. Engaging experts in each area of investigation, Pollan uncovers a yeoman-like theory of evolution. Cooking reduced the time spent chewing, allowing for bigger brains and smaller guts compared to other primates, he theorizes. More factually, it promoted life: killing harmful bacteria and boosting select foods' nutritional profile.
"What the cooking hypothesis gives us is a compelling modern myth," he claims.
A myth is a story and Pollan is a masterful storyteller, both on paper and aloud. At the Lesher, he strode back and forth, resembling a slouchy, ex-basketball player more than a man who stirs soup and dreams of its "umami," a fifth sense of taste he related to "savoriness." Dropping statements like appetizers ("Some of my best friends are bacteria;" "The family meal is the nursery of democracy") Pollan built his suspenseful narrative.
The climax? The happy meal served with dessert? In his book and his personal account, Pollan's ultimate message is one and the same. The family cookstove and table are, in many ways, a secular communion. They are a force of nature, bringing generations and cultures together, teaching us about science, art, time, and the evils of microwaving. And "cooked," a term no longer limited to meaning "washed up" or "modified into dishonesty" or "heated," hereafter defines a human playground where the tastes of laughter, love and luscious reading, especially when ingested together, are sweet.