Bee Wilson reviews ‘Cooked,’ by Michael Pollan

Bee Wilson in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_171 Apr. 28 18.47In each of the sections — neatly themed as “Fire,” “Water,” “Air” and “Earth” — Pollan seeks wisdom from masters who will teach him one of the four basic elements of cooking. In “Fire,” he learns barbecue from a “slow-moving bear of a man.” In “Water,” he is taught pot cookery — casseroles and braises — by a lively ­Iranian-American woman who once worked at Chez Panisse. “Air” refers to the rising of bread as he trains himself in the magic of sourdough. Finally, “Earth” is devoted to fermentation, following sauerkraut gurus, cheese makers and craft beer enthusiasts to find out what microbes really do for us, whether in our guts or in our food.

A life involving no home cooking, Pollan convincingly argues, is a life diminished. It’s not just that you probably eat food that’s of worse quality (in Pollan’s world, cooks seldom burn things or give their guests food poisoning). It’s also because the noncook suffers a loss of engagement “with the material world.” And cooking may be the best line of defense against obesity: Pollan cites a 2003 Harvard study that correlated the increase of obesity in America with the decline of home cooking.

If such an absence is indeed disastrous, you might expect that “Cooked” would examine how to get more people to change their habits. Now, Pollan notes, the typical American household devotes “a scant 27 minutes a day” to food preparation. Pollan rounds up the usual enemies of home cooking: “longer workdays and overscheduled children,” and, of course, convenience foods. But instead of considering ways to make cooking easier to fit into time-pressed lives, he sets off on a personal quest — albeit written with all his trademark lyricism — to master techniques that are perversely slow and difficult, from cheese making to kimchi fermentation.

More here.