Book review: Back to basics with Michael Pollan

A foodie discovers pleasures of cooking
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Michael Pollan is a great storyteller. He shapes seemingly random observations about the way we eat into a larger cultural and historical narrative that's always thought provoking and often persuasive. At times, the broad themes are obvious (such as the pernicious effects of fast food on the American diet), but Pollan's wide-ranging research, eye for interesting detail and ability to weave the two together make good reading.

Cooked has a simple structure. The book is divided into four parts (Fire, Water, Air and Earth) that correspond to stages in Pollan's personal odyssey to become a more engaged cook.

The book opens with an exploration of North Carolina whole-pig barbecue (Fire), then returns to Berkeley to unravel the mysteries of stews and braises (Water) with a local chef. Next up, we follow Pollan's quest to make the perfect loaf of bread (Air), with visits to a Wonder Bread factory in Sacramento and trendy Tartine in the Mission District.

Pollan ends up in the DIY world of fermented foods (Earth), stopping along the way to brew Irish ale in a neighbor's backyard and prepare kimchi in suburban Seoul.

Pollan relies on a series of larger-than-life characters to sustain his culinary journey. Sister Noëlla Marcellino, a Benedictine nun with a doctorate in microbiology, makes a stinky French-style cheese at an abbey in rural Connecticut.

As she teaches Pollan to make raw milk cheese, we learn that Sister Noëlla spent a year at Sarah Lawrence before seeking refuge from '60s counterculture at the abbey, and that her brother co-founded the '50s nostalgia band Sha Na Na. If only Hollywood could make up such unlikely and intriguing backstories.

The degree in microbiology was part of a calculated plan to protect the abbey against public health authorities and defend their use of a trusted wooden paddle (safety regulations call for stainless steel) to stir the curd. The story has a happy ending: The microbiologist-nun prevailed.

Cooked is populated by a dozen similarly engaging artisans who have dedicated their lives to transforming raw ingredients into great food. Their stories are inspiring. But these vignettes don't answer the fundamental question posed by the book: Why have Americans abandoned the joys of the kitchen, especially when the consequences have clearly been so dire? Are Americans "lazy," as one food industry spokesman tells Pollan? Is more leisure time on our various devices really so appealing? Are corporate interests conspiring to make us dependent on their cheap, addictive products? Have cultural changes doomed from-scratch cooking?

Pollan confesses at the outset of Cooked that, until recently, he had tepid interest in cooking. As America's best-known foodie intellectual, he recognizes that "in retrospect, the mildness of my interest in cooking surprises me." I suspect many readers will be surprised, too. At times, Pollan comes off as a dilettante in the kitchen, and he doesn't squarely answer the burning question: What's for dinner tonight, and who is going to make it?

That's not to say Pollan doesn't make an impassioned argument for regular from-scratch cooking. He clearly believes that more cooking (and less reheating and assembling) would improve our health, family life, local communities and environment. Cooking at home is a vote "against the infiltration of commercial interests into every last cranny of our lives." Amen!

Pollan's writing, however, focuses on artisanal project cooking (like home brewing and barbecue) and gives short shrift to the daily preparation of food, which, after all, is the problem that our society must address. His topic selections make sexy prose, but this kind of cooking doesn't put dinner on the table.

Is food preparation a rewarding weekend hobby or a necessary nightly routine? I believe it is both, and I suspect Pollan would agree. But the culinary adventures in "Cooked" make cooking seem challenging. The four recipes in the appendix require 19 pages of instructions! If Americans are going to reclaim our place in the kitchen, cooking must become a daily (or near daily) habit, and the recipes have to be simpler.

Cooked is thoughtful and entertaining. But as someone who has spent 25 years working to coax Americans back into the kitchen, I wish it were more practical and more prescriptive. Pollan supplies plenty of romance, but isn't that part of the problem? As Pollan points out, our society has become obsessed with food, yet home cooking continues to decline.

I'm also dismayed by the fact that it took an affluent, educated, self-aware foodie so long to discover the joys of cooking. Pollan's honest admission doesn't give me much hope about the rest of the population.

Cooked might succeed in cajoling the privileged back into the kitchen, at least on the weekend, but what about the fate of daily from-scratch cooking in homes with fewer advantages? Unfortunately, Pollan's remedy isn't targeted to those most in need of one.