‘Cooked’: Michael Pollan gets to the heart and soul of cooking

The evolution of Michael Pollan has been one of the wonders of contemporary nonfiction. He emerged in the 1990s as a garden writer, musing over the odd coupling of artifice and wildness in our back yards. Then, in 2001, with “The Botany of Desire,” he took four key plants (apples, potatoes, cannabis and tulips), out of the garden and into the larger arena of culture, history and compulsion. The next step up the great chain of being brought him to food production, specifically the ecological and physiological consequences of modern agro-business. “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” his 2006 examination of the radically divergent ways we source our food, became a kind of Bible of the slow food/eat local movement.

Now, perhaps inevitably, Pollan has arrived at cooking.

Part celebration of traditional food preparation, part series of Pollanesque riffs on what happens in our kitchens and our stomachs when we roast, braise, bake and ferment, part collection of profiles in culinary courage, “Cooked” comes at a time when home cooking is quickly vanishing from our homes. Americans typically devote a mere 27 minutes a day to preparing meals, with four more minutes for cleanup. What Pollan calls industrial cooking has turned us into a nation of food spectators who click through “Iron Chef” episodes on our laptops while chowing down on micro-waved junk food.

And so, bent on fathoming the mysteries of kitchen alchemy, Pollan dons an apron and cooks up a storm. Like George Plimpton, who boxed and pitched professionally in pursuit of a story, Pollan doesn’t just stand on the sidelines with a steno pad — at the risk of personal humiliation and herniated discs, he farms himself out as temporary assistant to a number of slow-food superstars.

In the course of “Cooked,” Pollan hacks crackling for legendary barbecue pit master Ed Mitchell, he shapes loaves with Bay Area surfer-turned-baker Chad Robertson, and squeezes curds and whey with Sister Noëlla Marcellino, a Connecticut nun and initiate in the art and science of raw milk cheese-making. He pickles chard stems; he ferments beer; he fusses over the sourdough starter bubbling away on his kitchen shelf.

If you’re thinking this sounds like a slightly folksy version of a “Top Chef” smack-down, think again. What Pollan is after is not cooking as competitive entertainment, but cooking as the thickening agent that binds together families, communities, cultures, nations. For him, cooking is traditional, ritualized work done “outside the cash economy for no other reason but love.”

Pollan’s recipe includes liberal sprinklings of physics and microbiology, history and mythology. Every few pages, “Cooked” emits another burst of brilliance. While slow roasting a pig at home in Berkeley, Pollan muses that cooking with fire, “by unlocking more of the energy in food,” led directly to the “spectacular growth of the human brain.” He reveals how braising infuses foods with the elusive fifth taste, “umami,” meaning deliciousness in Japanese. When he wants to research kimchi, Pollan doesn’t content himself with Wikipedia: he journeys to Seoul to learn how to spread peppery paste on cabbage leaves from a woman who inherited her grandmother’s technique.

“Cooked” is vintage Pollan — lucid, vivid, nimbly associative, insightful and just plain fun to read. It’s unlikely to spark a shift in consciousness, the way “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” did. Still, any Pollan vintage is an occasion for celebration, and this one is the perfect accompaniment, indeed the inspiration for, some terrific home-cooked meals (there are even recipes at the back).