Cooked is the first Michael Pollan book I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. Loosely, it’s a history of cooking through Pollan’s personal experience of learning to cook. Alongside this journey he develops theories about how cooking fits into human evolution, and what it means that modern humans are spending an ever-diminishing amount of time in the kitchen.
The book postulates what’s known as the “cooking hypothesis”, which is the argument that, rather than being a consequence of humans’ advanced brain development over other primates, cooking is actually the source of this development in evolutionary terms. That is, the great calorie and nutritional advantage that cooked food confers over raw is actually the reason for the massive increase in brain size that occurred a few million years ago, when humans first began to cook food.1 Cooking was a way of externalizing the digestive process in order to save both time and energy, and made food safer and more nutritious in the process. In this view, group control of cooking fires would have selected for cooperative humans, and this, combined with the amount of time freed by the calorific advantage of cooking food, led to the birth of culture.
The argument is of course made in greater depth in the book, which offers much compelling evidence, though I’m in no way qualified to assess it. But if one takes his view with a grain of salt (or even with loads of salt, as one of his cooks suggests is needed to properly braise meat), Pollan uses this idea to great effect to explore the fundamental nature of cooking to humanity. Given the primal nature of cooking, Pollan returns to the classical elements to organize his chapters: fire (roasting), water (braising), air (baking), and earth (fermenting).
This does not stop him from inflecting the journey with plenty of tantalizing information from cutting-edge scientific studies, which keep the book relevant to the present. However, the strength of his approach is that it permits and encourages the vivid description of the pleasures of cooking, as well as the nutritional and cultural loss we’ve suffered by allowing corporations, rather than people, to cook an increasing proportion of the food we eat. Particularly when describing the magic of transformation and the fundamental urges that cooking satisfies, Pollan’s prose is excellent, sometimes transcendent.
Because of this, the book is no less than life-changing; reading it will make you want to cook from scratch. Before I had even finished the book, I had baked my first loaf of bread:
The point of this is not that this bread was amazing—though it was surprisingly good for a first effort—but rather that as little as two weeks ago I would never have thought of making bread, nor could I have identified its essential ingredients with much certainty, or have roughly described the process by which it is made. Reading Cooked has not just told me the simple answer to the latter (water, flour, yeast, salt, and quite straightforward), but inspired in me the desire to do it, and the genuinely deep satisfaction of having done it. Since finishing the book I’ve also done my first braises, and I’m quite tempted to try my hand at brewing beer and fermenting kimchi.
It may all seem a bit bourgeois, and out of touch with the majority of the population. It’s true that Pollan learns from world-class chefs, bakers, barbecue men, and academics who would be totally inaccessible to the average person. And yet here the book surprises again, because in some cases—with the notable exception of whole-hog barbecue—the cost of ingredients is cheaper than buying prepared food, and sometimes the cooking process (only weeks ago a mystery to me) is surprisingly simple. Moreover, it’s clear throughout the book that not only are the professionals refreshingly humble and generous, but that the communities surrounding each type of cooking are helpful to newcomers and enthusiastic to share their knowledge and joys. All of this turns cooking, which to an increasing number of people must seem an arcane and impenetrable ritual, into something achievable, and the book’s reader cannot help but feel encouraged to learn it (though it never preaches). Cheesy as it sounds, the book truly is inspirational and life-affirming. What more can one ask?
- This hypothesis was apparently first put forward by Richard Wrangham in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. It’s worth noting that my own very cursory research suggests that the mainstream anthropological view is that human control of fire was much later than Wrangham proposes (a few hundred thousand years ago rather than nearly two million years ago). By this more common view, the brain growth that occurred 2 million years ago, about which there seems to be consensus, arose from calorie advantages afforded by weapons and tools facilitating an increase in meat consumption, rather than from the advantages of cooking. [↩]