Cooked by Michael Pollan, review

Melissa Katsoulis is inspired by the lessons of a book that seeks to revive the wonder of real food

It’s not often that a life-changing book falls into one’s lap. Especially, it has to be said, with “The New York Times No 1 Bestseller” splashed across the front. Yet Michael Pollan’s Cooked is one of them. One it’s impossible to read and not act on.

Pollan is a renowned gardening and food writer from whose idyllic base in California comes a stream of memoir and advice about how to live well in communion with nature. But however glossy the chard in your parterre, if you live in a first-world country you still have to face the unpalatable truth that all around you people are living on microwaved pizzas and lunch-box-ready frozen peanut butter and jam sandwiches (yes, this is a thing, and coming to these shores soon no doubt).

It all got too much for Pollan, who decided that “the best way to recover the reality of food – to return it to its proper place in our lives – is to master the physical processes by which it has traditionally been made”. So began his quest to learn to prepare real, simple food and drink.

Structuring his education around the four elements, Pollan first travels south. Learning about cooking with fire from the great pit-masters, for whom the word “barbecue” means nothing but a whole hog cooked over wood smoke and served with cornbread made from the animal’s lard, he revels in “cooking’s primary colours – animal, wood, fire, time”.

For “Water”, he explores the gentler cooking style of a pot with liquid in it, under the tutelage of a charismatic young chef who reveals the subtle wonders of the braise. She is all about never rushing a mirepoix and heavily pre-salting all your meat. Pollan, being a sensitive soul, observes that “the pot dish, lidded and turbid, has none of the Apollonian clarity of a recognisable animal on a spit”, but is a naughty “primordial Dionysian soup”. Professional kitchen tips abound, such as not being afraid to cook with just water, and personal ones too, about creating something communal for others.

Moving on to “Air” and “Earth”, things start to get fantastic and a bit crazy. Fully aware that seeking authenticity is “a fraught and often dubious enterprise”, Pollan none the less scours California’s artisan bakeries for the tastiest loaf and sets out to meet its maker. His lessons with the bearded, solemn Chad open his eyes to the incredible, invisible world of airborne microbes and their role in keeping us healthy. Never heard of wild fermentation? You haven’t lived.

At least, you haven’t been living mindful of the fact that nine out of 10 of the cells in our bodies are not human but microbial. And they need living food. Make a sourdough starter by mixing water and flour, wait for stuff to fly into it and start partying, and you’re on your way to harnessing the amazing power of nature to make food. Which is exactly what our beleaguered 21st-century bodies need.

We meet a vibrant subculture of “fermentos” – people who oppose the modern eater’s squeamishness about live bacteria – who make their own pickles, cheese, bread and alcohol by wild fermentation as opposed to neat little packets of “fast” yeast or “dead” vinegar. Once Pollan starts digesting the science on the subject (along with the fermentos’ wicked kimchi), a picture emerges of a food culture so sanitised that the good work of bacteria in keeping pathogens at bay has been boiled into dangerous redundancy.

Consider the cheese-making nun, Mother Noella Marcellino, who got the law changed when she proved that the bugs in her manky old Provençal wooden barrel were better at killing e-coli than the sterile stainless-steel tools she had been ordered to work with. Or the microbiologists who found that 99 per cent of the DNA we’re carrying around belong to the microbes, mostly in our guts, who are trying to keep their host healthy but are being thwarted because “we have changed the human diet in such a way that it no longer feeds the whole superorganism… We’re eating for one when we should be eating for, oh, a few trillion”.

Embrace bacteria, cook thoughtfully and slow, and taste some of the most luscious food you’ve ever eaten, this powerful book says. And do it for the people you love as well as the invisible soldiers inside you who are fighting to keep you strong. Cooked is a book of revelations for today’s hungry human animal. Be changed by it.