Not a cookbook but an enticing starter for foodies

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

The Pollan effect has become something of a thing in the world of food politics. His succinct phraseology — “eat food, mostly plants, not too much” — fluid style and research have made him a foodie’s hero.

This book is a step into chef-world. While there are recipes, and while he practically engages in a range of natural food processing techniques, Cooked is not a cookbook.

Instead, Cooked explores transformations — social and physical — that happen to and through foods.

The style is personal and conversational, which stems from Pollan’s self-realisation, that, although he was a dedicated food issues writer, he didn’t really know how to make, prepare or, essentially, cook food — at least not very well.

Thus unfolded an epic voyage with varying parts Americana road trip, Greek Odyssey, globetrot and alchemy: the latter melding hard (microbiology) and very soft sciences (psychology, sociology and anthropology).

Cooked is structured around four sections — fire, water, air and earth — which represent the classical, pre-periodic table elements. These four elements are represented by recipes related to meat, specifically whole pit roasted hog (fire); pot cooking (water); bread, mostly sourdough (air); and fermented foods (earth), especially raw milk washed rind cheeses.

Pollan relies on various experts to help him cook, prepare and process natural foods.

The first, fire section read in parts like the best US road novels. Memorably, he takes the reader into “the vestibule of hell” — the smoky infernal depths of the last remaining hog roasting pits. This reveals plenty about the American south, about how food expressed and repelled race problems over the years, and how cooked, outdoor meat expresseth the man, and not the woman, for eons.

Water, the most self-consciously foodie chapter is weaker than the rest. While fascinating in breaking down the core techniques of pot cooking, in revealing the delicate dedication of cooks, and even in sociological understanding of feminism and cooking, Pollan unfortunately reverts to rant mode at times.

His diktats can be exclusionary disconnected from the real world of actual local (mostly working class) people who must make a virtue of necessity through cheaper but nutritionally appalling foods.

He’s back on form with section three — the element air and bread — though 20 pages of (yes, clearly explained) science to introduce the processes of real bread-making may be too much for some.

The final, fourth section, on earth and fermentation, positively sparkles. This section’s beaded bubbles don’t so much wink at the brim as overfloweth with exuberance, flamboyance and a piquant edge forged by science, religion and those two tabloid headline-grabbers — death and sex.

So expect to hear more of Sandor Katz, Chad Robertson, Sister Noella Marcellino, and Jim Stillwaggon.

Buy this book

More in this section

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day.

great irish summer

From walking and hiking, to day trips and camping, your guide to holidays at home in 2021


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up