Prime Edition


Michael Pollan

Penguin India

Pages: 468 Rs. 599

Cooking is elemental, not elementary, argues Pollan

Michael Pollan’s book is a masterly treatise on the uniquely symbolic and universal nature of cooking. Read it to discover how the act itself is often transcendental, writes Abhirup Dam.

Abhirup Dam  3rd Aug 2013

Michael Pollan

n the first volume (The Raw and the Cooked — a felicitous title in the context of this review) of his now iconic and seminal study Mythologiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss observes, "certain categorical opposites drawn from everyday experience with the most basic sorts of things — e.g. 'raw' and 'cooked,' 'fresh' and 'rotten,' 'moist' and 'parched,' and others — can serve a people as conceptual tools for the formation of abstract notions and for combining these into propositions." One can substitute a cause for another cause for effect here and say that probably the entire enterprise or idea of cooking is an abstract notion forwarded by the cumulative usage of propositions — methods and techniques. But the French anthropologist's premise is as basic as understanding linguistic and social constructions through the generation of a frame of reference by binaries —something is so because it is not like the other. In the light of the aforementioned, it is perhaps judicious to state here that Lévi-Strauss's book is not about 'cooking' per se. But, stating so, Lévi-Strauss does provide us with a register to situate cooking within the contending binaries of 'primitive' and 'civilised', the 'raw' and the 'cooked'. So when Michael Pollan, the bestselling American food writer and campaigner, references him in his latest treatise Cooked: A Natural History of Human Transformation, it is with the understanding that for Lévi-Strauss "cooking was a metaphor for the human transformation of raw nature into cooked culture." Contention: Yes, no doubt about it, but this idea is not of prioritising a "cooked culture" over its "raw" other. Cooking for Strauss is hardly a celebratory instance of human endeavour, rather it obfuscates what generally gets accepted as 'civilised' and 'primitive'.

One has to give Pollan his due for compiling a compendium on the most intriguing aspect of any culture, though the book centres on the US primarily (I would urge the reader not to misunderstand this as a limitation. One wasn't trying to base the merit of the work on the presence or absence of a universal appeal or context. On the contrary, Pollan does acknowledge the assimilated nature of American food), through well-informed, lucid and dextrous metaphors. But the primary focus of the book is to reintroduce America to cooking, which according to Pollan not only aids in consuming 'healthy', but also fosters camaraderie and sociability, within families and peer groups. He writes, "Cooking, I found, gives us the opportunity, so rare in modern life, to work directly in our own support, and in support of the people we feed. If this is not 'making a living', I don't know what is. In the calculus of economics, doing so may not always be the most efficient use of an amateur cook's time, but in the calculus of human emotion, it is beautiful even so." For Pollan, the book is as much a "how to" (but quite a different one) as it is a documentation of his own journey of discovering the fascinating world of comestible chemistry. The book is divided into four broad parts, categorised under the four classical elements of fire, water, air and earth, which Pollan claims still broadly forms the basis of every kind of cooking, even after the dismissal of them as elements by science. Each of these sections deal with an elemental recipe —barbeque, braise, bread and a small collection of fermented fare.

The book is divided into four broad parts, categorised under the four classical elements of fire, water, air and earth, which Pollan claims still broadly forms the basis of every kind of cooking, even after the dismissal of them as elements by science.

Before going into talking about each section, let us lay bare a particularly interesting enigma of modern culinary existence that Pollan delineates. Through what he calls the "food paradox", Pollan posits the rather growing obsession with food shows and cookbooks on one hand, with the growing aversion to cook on another. A food philosophy which emphasises a return to simple home-style cooking involving few ingredients is what Pollan professes. It is this urge that necessitates his quest beginning with the great pit masters of Northern Carolina, and ending with the "fermentos" who dismiss the modern repugnance of living microbes by making their own pickles, cheese and alcohol. The first section 'Fire' takes off from Pollan's reading of anthropologist Richard Wrangham's book Catching Fire, where he proposes that it was the discovery of fire, and not tools that advanced the human race from their primitive ape like existence. Cooking meat over fire was perhaps the first instance of cooking n the history of human development as pots and pans were invented way later. Pollan's journey to the south introduces him to the most basic principles of cooking directly with fire — animal, wood, fire and time — where barbeque translates into a whole hog slow cooked over embers and served alongside freshly made cornbread.

he next section on 'Water' involves the techniques of boiling and braising. For Pollan, the transition from the outback to the cosy confines of a kitchen also marks an attitudinal shift in the approach towards cooking which came in with the introduction pots and pans, and the fact that a liquid could be used not only to tenderise items but also release locked flavours. Learning from the young Iranian-American chef Samin, who once worked at the Chez Panisse, Pollan discovers the slow yet wonderfully exhilarating technique of making braises and casseroles which uses water (either introduced in its natural form or through wines, broths, stocks, or even meats and vegetable which releases their own juices and water)as the cooking medium. The following section 'Air' follows Pollan's own obsession with the sourdough bread which does not encourage the adding of yeast externally but relies on all the good and wonderful microorganisms present in the environment to work their magic — a large section speaks of the blitzkrieg with the achievement of a healthy 'living' culture which feeds the dough with its required pliancy and 'air'.

We read of the fascinating cheese-making nun, Sister Noella Marcellino, who bent the law when she demonstrated that the microbes in her mangy old Provençal wooden barrel were better at killing e-coli than the sterile stainless-steel tools she had been ordered to work with the last section 'Earth'. Sauerkraut, cheese, kimchi, beer — wondrous products of fermentation that contribute towards the existence of the controversial fifth taste 'umami', characterised by the presence of a substantial amount of glutamate which is aided by fermentation. In the afterword, titled 'Hand Taste', Pollan looks back at his journey, and in retrospect applies all that he has picked up in his own kitchen, frequently sliding into anecdotes and reminiscences.

Reading Pollan's book might not be a revelation but it does compel you to think about cooking beyond cooking — it is not only about the process, the eating or the sense of community that a conjugal meals instils, it is an understanding that differentiates between eating and consuming, between food as a commodity and food as a necessity, a sort of a jihad against the "infiltration of commercial interests into every last cranny of our lives. To cook for the pleasure of it, to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption."

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