What if there was a super simple way to tackle all of America's food-caused health problems all at once? What if we could simultaneously address the obesity crisis, heart disease and diabetes in one fell swoop? Author Michael Pollan suggests that we can do just that in his latest book, "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation," about his favorite subject — food. Specifically, how cooking, in its various incarnations, can help us to eat more healthfully, with the added bonus of connecting us to our local food systems. How can the simple act of cooking have this kind of impact?
"Time spent cooking matters — a lot," Pollan writes, in the introductory part of the book, backing it up with pretty convincing data that connects time spent cooking at home to lower obesity rates and a more healthful diet across cultures and even incomes. "Research supports the idea that home cooking is a better predictor of a healthful diet than social class," Pollan writes, backing it up with: "A Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that poor women who routinely cooked were likely to eat a more healthful diet than well-to-do women who did not." The corporatization of too many of our meals and the outsourcing of cooking, which costs more and is less healthy (and arguably, less tasty; food made with care for a smaller group always tastes better) might just be killing us, softly.
The argument Pollan makes is definitely convincing, and made me think back to all the delicous meals my grandmother cooked for me as I was growing up — and how little I cook myself. As a non-cooking-oriented person (trust me, I've tried to be more interested, but mostly I just like the eating part!) the book made me want to live in a place where I could possibly hire someone to cook for me on a regular basis; home-cooking's healthful benefits accrue even if you aren't doing the work yourself (which is why partners of those who cook are also healthier than those in relationships where neither cooks). But watching my waistline expand over the last few years makes me think twice, since it's documented that, as Pollan writes, "... obesity rates are inversely correlated with the amount of time spent on food preparation."
Much of the book's intent seems to be to convince all of us non-cookers (and we are legion — and growing — according to the numbers that Pollan quotes) that cooking is a hobby, craft or chore worth putting time into. It's a tough sell, but one worth making. Seeing as I currently cook a meal from start-to-finish about once a week (and I don't much enjoy it), much of his argument about corporate food just made me feel badly about how much prepared food I eat. My last roommate said "You don't cook, as much as assemble, your meals." Guilty. This guilt is less likely to motivate me to cook than spur me to eat at home more, which just means more of those assembled sandwiches and salads, which might be healthier but is certainly more boring. Though I have to say that just how I enjoy watching the Food Network, I greatly enjoyed reading the rest of Pollan's book (OK, I'm not totally through the thick tome yet) and being a foodie voyeur.
"Cooked" is broken down into four sections, which correspond to various ways of cooking food (and makes for a smart way to break down what is, admittedly, a huge topic: Fire, including barbequing and roasting; Air, as in baking bread; Water, meaning boiling and braising; and Earth, which includes live cultures and fermentation.
An investigative journalist, Pollan seeks out interesting and unusual experts for his book — and plenty of them.
Despite knowing a tremendous amount about food from reporting on and writing his previous few books, most of the information about cooking techniques and the whys and wherefores (and history) comes directly from the people who know their niche (whether than be an ascetic whole-grain bread baking obsessive or a sweet, cheese-making nun) the best — and Pollan's more conventional research as well. And Pollan travels far and wide to speak with these experts, making the book a bit of a travelogue as well.
"Cooked" is light on recipes (this is definitely not a cookbook of any kind), though there are four, to represent each of the chapters, in the appendix. Slow-cooked pork shoulder, saurkraut, a Bolognese sauce and a whole-grain bread, based on dishes Pollan cooks throughout the book. I know I'm not going to be making any of those things anytime soon, but just like Pollan's other book, it was fun to read about them, and always a joy to go on the journey of discovery with him.