Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan

Despite the four recipes appended to it, Michael Pollan’s Cooked doesn’t actually belong on the shelf with the cookery books. A major work by an interesting thinker, this genre-busting volume will someday become a standard text in a standard university department – though no satisfactory one yet exists – that will teach and research the discipline of “Food Studies”, encompassing economics, history, philosophy, anthropology, several fields of life sciences and the humanities.

Pollan himself is not a philosopher, though he makes and analyses arguments scrupulously; neither is he an anthropologist, though there is a sense in which Cooked is the successor to Richard Wrangham’s ground-breaking work, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human; nor is he a medical man, though he researches and presents the latest evidence concerning the attention-grabbing subject of “gut health” and chronic disease. His day job is professor of journalism at University of California, Berkeley; in 2010 Time Magazine said he was one of the most influential people in the world.

The accolade stems from the attention given to his earlier books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food and Food Rules, the last two of which can be summed up in seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Like all the best prophets, he has an aptitude for aphorism, as in “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food,” “You are what you eat eats” and “Don’t eat anything incapable of rotting.”

Cooked is the story of his own mid-life further education, as he apprentices himself to masters who teach him to cook (and brew). The book and his training fall into four parts, each corresponding to one of the ancient elements, and to one of the skills developed by mankind to nourish itself. So in “Fire” he learns the techniques of cooking whole animals over an open fire; in “Water” he deals with cooking in a vessel, boiling and braising; in “Air” baking; and in “Earth” fermenting – cheesemaking and brewing.

While it strikes the reader that he is being modest about his own culinary abilities prior to embarking on this programme, his personal motives for doing it are endearing – to improve his family’s “health and general well-being” and “to better connect to my teenage son”. But also because learning to cook is “the most important thing an ordinary person can do to help reform the American food system, to make it healthier and more sustainable” and to help “people living in a highly specialised consumer economy reduce their sense of dependence and achieve a greater degree of self-sufficiency”.

There’s also what he calls a “more philosophical” question: “How, in our everyday lives, can we acquire a deeper understanding of the natural world and our species’ peculiar role in it?” We can always embrace the Thoreau solution, going to the woods and contemplating; but Pollan finds “more interesting answers” in the kitchen.

Pollan’s research is informed by Wrangham’s argument that man’s taming of fire affected the evolution of our species. Put simply, cooking flesh acts as a process of pre-digestion, making more calories available for less work; this means that the gut can get smaller, leaving some surplus energy that can be used for making brain tissue. So being able to control fire was key to the evolution of Homo sapiens; cooking, indeed, made us human.

How would you recapitulate that process today? Pollan takes cooking lessons from the guys who barbecue whole animals in the southern American states. This lowbrow project, dictated by highbrow theorising, is relentlessly entertaining. It begins with the gift to the teenage Pollan by his New York Jewish father of a piglet called Kosher, and proceeds via a consideration of cutting-edge work on the biochemistry of taste, to reflections on the details of “the big eating scenes in Homer”, the rules of kashrut, ritual sacrifice and communal eating.

The next section, based on water and cooking vessels, finds that “the marriage of plant and animal foods in a liquid medium” is preferable to cooking either food over direct fire. Most European cultures use a patiently chopped, heated and stirred vegetable mixture, such as a mirepoix or soffritto, always including members of the onion family, and Pollan explores the chemistry of these, as well as their adaptive value. It’s another step in our evolution, as onions, garlic and spices “contain powerful antimicrobial components that survive cooking” and provide some protection against the harmful bacteria found on meat. Applying heat to them causes water to leave plant tissues and breaks down the carbohydrate molecules into the sugars that deepen flavours, while the liquid medium allows the exchange of molecules and flavours.

At a time when our own government is realising that the solution to our growing problems of obesity and nutritional disorder is teaching schoolchildren to cook, reducing our dependency on bad-for-us industrial food preparation, Pollan talks to economists who have discovered “a new human behaviour called ‘secondary eating’”, or eating while doing another task. A study has found that Americans spend 78 minutes a day in secondary eating and drinking, more time than they give to meals (or “primary eating”). The increase in obesity is linked to food preparation outside the home.

One basic food usually prepared outside our homes is bread, which developed when somebody’s primitive porridge trapped some air and rose. This was, of course, a process of fermentation; so there is a small cheat involved in also examining fermentation in Pollan’s final section devoted to “Earth”. His personal quest is to develop a whole-grain loaf with the texture of a mostly white loaf. “You’re always fighting gravity with whole grains,” one of his baker-mentors warned him.

Pollan has made his reputation by being bold. In the last section of Cooked though, he proposes something radical. Two-thirds of his text is only lightly annotated, but in this last section citations proliferate at the foot of the page like mushrooms on a moist morning. Having done an impressive amount of research, he speculates on the growing resistance of micro-organisms to antibiotics, on our western diet rich in fats and carbohydrates, and on “exactly what about this diet makes it so lethal.” Summing up 12 specific examples, from irritable bowel syndrome to anxiety attacks, which respond to probiotics, he speculates whether “most if not all the important chronic diseases may have a similar etiology. Though none has yet dared use such an ambitious term, several scientists across several disciplines appear to be working toward what looks very much like a Grand Unified Theory of Diet and Chronic Disease.”

This general theory of disease turns on inflammation and the role of the human microbiota in it. Anyone who, like me, has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis or any of its immune-system-disorder relatives, will be as startled as I was to read these pages. Pollan’s prophetic track record makes it possible that you will be hearing a lot more about this soon.