Cooked: Synopsis and Review

Pollan starts at the Skylight Inn in North Carolina with hopes to discover the primal roots of cooking: fire. He meets Sam Jones the owner of the establishment who introduces him to James Henry Howell, the pit master.

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Synopsis

Howell is responsible for maintaining the fires, cooking the hogs, processing the meat and seasoning for service. Pollan learns during his visit that the Skylight Inn is one of the only placed practicing whole hog BBQ in the traditional manner due to being grandfathered in against the current health codes. After seeing the process of whole hog roasting he samples a platter and a sandwich, both composed of a mix of back, belly, shoulder and leg meat.

But, it became quickly evident that he wasn’t going to be able to learn much from the Skylight Inn, most of the work was done autonomously by the pit master. Pollan did managed to connect with Ed Mitchell, a pit master in Raleigh. Mitchell agreed to take him on and informed him about an upcoming event. Pollan got just a taste of whole hog cooking, this was done off premises for a shareholder event and he worked the first part of the day with Aubrey, Mitchell’s brother. This involved breaking down the meat, saving the skin, seasoning the mix, adding appropriate cuts and spices when needed, and finally crisping the skin for a final garnish. When the dinner seating arrived, Aubrey clocked out and Pollan worked the final shift successfully alone. The next appearance he makes is in Manhattan at the Big Apple BBQ block party. Mitchell divided the process, identical to the one on Pollan’s debut. He manned a chopping block and worked furiously to keep up. They started at 11am and by 1pm they were sold out. The total amount of product moved was 8 hogs worth of meat, netting 2000 sandwiches.

Pollan then endeavors to make his own BBQ. He orders a front leg of pork and a cord of wood. Then, he spends his day “cooking” wood into coals and butchering, with the help of a chef, the leg for easier cooking. Pollan discusses the technique, control and compromise in quest to produce authentic BBQ; his result is fantastic.

Pollan transitions to the kitchen, moving away from water to its opposite, water. After a brief explanation about the inner workings of an onion, he continues describing the steps of braising. Something he boils down to “cooking with water”. This process is divided into seven sections starting with the dicing of onions. Then he sweats them, while providing pertinent information on the chemical reactions taking place. The third step is browning the meat. With the help of his friend and instructor, a chef from Chez Panisse, Pollan sears various meats, and much like the aromatics, explains the reactions behind this complex step. Moving forward, he dissects the history of and the nature of the stew pot. Going back thousands of years, Pollan documents the traditions and rituals behind the pot. An interesting discovery that he notes is how the invention of the cooking pot was just as much a boon to civilization as it was to agriculture. By softening foods and rendering them more nutritious the cook pot acted as an external mouth and stomach for children, the elderly and all in between.

The next step, pouring braising liquid over the previous items, is as complex as the liquids themselves. He describes many different braising mediums and concludes that many of them return on one central taste sensation: umami. He describes its characteristics and various extraction methods, touching on stocks, dashi and even milk. The following step is to simmer the ingredients “for a long time”. During this lengthy step Pollan delves into the concept of time and cooking. He describes the reaction in a cook pot; braising for many hours allows the breakdown of collagen and proteins for a more tender and nutritious product. He also discusses the decrease of time spent preparing home cooked meals and the act of eating; both figures on a steep decline since the late 60’s. The seventh and final step is to skim the fat, reduce the sauce and serve. Pollan uses the simplicity of this step to test a theory. With his family he purchases and cooks two family meals. One made by him, the other in the microwave. His goal is to determine which method offers more saved time. His results are conclusive as he demonstrates the difference between the two meals. (This alone is worth reading Cooked!)

Pollan’s next adventure is cooking with the element of air. He beings this quest – a search for the perfect loaf of bread – by researching sourdough. Along his journey he discovers the book Tartine Bread, which gives a 27-page recipe for the bakery’s signature loaf. He dives into the world of bacteria and fungi and begins exploring the unique relationship between the two. He begins by attempting a loaf by himself. He creates his starter and after about a week produces a leaven, or sponge. He then tests his sponge to see if it gathered enough air by dumping it into a bowl of water. The objective is that it floats, and it does. He then adds his other ingredients and sets the dough to bulk ferment. This is where the gluten develops and the cultures in the dough begin to break down the proteins of the flour. After several hours he shapes his loafs and allows them to go through a final proof. His first attempt is mediocre and he is determined to make a perfect loaf. He enlists the help of the baker of Tartine Bakery to get some tips. Pollan meets with the owner and learns a few tricks about bread making. His second attempt is much better, although by his standards it’s still far from his desired result.

He begins to look farther into bread making and begins to research baking with whole grains. He begins to discover that there are many more specificities that are involved in baking with whole grains. In his research he meets with a few bakers who live by whole grain baking. He begins to learn about some of the science behind bread as well as a few different tactics to make his process easier. He tries for a final loaf and is fairly impressed with the product – this time using whole grains rather than white flour.

Pollan’s next and final chapter concludes by cooking with Earth; more specifically the art of fermentation. His journey commences with a lesson and demonstration by Sandor Katz, a master fermento who advocates the use and consumption of live culture products. Pollan begins this exploration of fermented foods with a pickling recipe. He practices two types of pickling vegetables; those of the leafy variety like cabbage and those not, such as cucumbers and radishes. His first few attempts have mixed results and Pollan decides to visit a fermentation festival to learn more. During this festival he samples many products but also begins to learn about the health benefit of these foods. Pollan discovers that “9/10 every cells in our bodies belong not to us, but to…microbial species (most of them residents of our gut), and that 99 percent of the DNA we’re carrying around belongs to those microbes.” Another interesting fact he learns is, “Exquisitely reactive and fungible, bacteria can swap genes and pieces of DNA among themselves, picking them up and dropping them almost as if they were tools. This capability is especially handy when a new toxin or food source appears in the environment. The microbiota can swiftly find precisely the right gene needed to fight it – or eat it.”

Pollan proceeds on to cheese making. He takes an internship at an abbey in Bethlehem, Connecticut. With the help of a nun her learns the process of making a traditional French cheese. It starts with placing the milk in a wooden barrel with rennet where it coagulates for a few hours. Once solid, the curd is cut and herded into a solid mass. Then it is removed from the barrel and placed in cheese presses overnight to expel the remaining whey. Afterwards, it will be placed in a cave to cure for two months.

During his cheese education, Pollan learns a shocking revelation about live culture and raw dairy foods: “Sister Noella regarded her wooden barrel and paddle not merely as quaint antiques, but essential elements of the traditional cheese making process. The fact that the wood harbored bacteria was actually a good thing. She preferred to think of them not as contaminants but ‘more like a sourdough culture.’ So, Sister Noella designed an experiment for the benefits of the health inspector. From the same raw milk, she made two batches of cheese, one in the wooden barrel and the other in a stainless-steel cat. She deliberately inoculated both batches with E. coli. What happened next was, at least to a Pasteurian, utterly baffling: The cheese that had been started in the sterile vat had high levels of E. coli and the cheese made in the wooden barrel had next to none. Just as [she] had expected, the ‘good bacteria’ living in the barrel…had outcompeted the E. coli, creating an environment in which it couldn’t survive.”

Pollan moves onto the last form of fermentation: creation of alcohol. Alcohol is the oldest and most widely consumed fermentation. It is all responsible because of saccharomyces cerevisiae. Many species enjoy this fermentation ranging from elephants to monkeys. It is believed that the scent of alcohol was indicative of fermentation, which meant that food was at it highest level of nutrition. Pollan makes a first attempt at producing alcohol with mead. He dilutes honey in a water solution one parts to four parts and then lets it sit out for a few days, stirring it occasionally to gather natural yeasts. Once it began to bubble he transferred it to a carboy, essentially a sealed vented container. It results in a tasty, low proof beverage. His next attempt is beer; he purchases a kit from a local brewery and begins by boiling water. Then he adds malt extract and magnum hops, a bittering agent. The next step involves crushing some grains, tying them in a sachet – like a teabag – and steeping them in the liquid. After half an hour he adds some hops, allows the mixture to sit and then in another hour removes this mixture from the heat and adds more hops of a different variety. Once cool, it is strained, and the yeast is added, it is placed in a carboy. He lets it ferment for two weeks and then bottles it with a small amount of sugar to promote a final round of fermentation that produces the carbonation. His first attempt is deemed “pretty good”; both his son and him had a few critiques, but overall, they were satisfied. Pollan desires to make beer from scratch rather than a kit. He makes a connection with a friend who does home brewing and begins to learn the process. It is lengthier and more complex; it begins with soaking crushed malt in hot water. This breaks down the grains carbohydrates into sugars. That liquid – called wort – is then drained and the grains are sparged – washed a second time to remove extra flavor. The wort is then rapidly cooled to prevent any contamination. Then the wort is poured into carboys and pitched with yeast. The bottles are sealed and let ferment. One of Pollan’s bottles explodes during his fermentation process. The surviving batch is bottled in the same manner as before and when Pollan samples it he claims it ” as somewhat of a disappointment”.

Review

Pollan elegantly expresses “a natural history of transformation” with outstanding detail. Cooked offers the reader elemental knowledge about the transformative effects of cooking but also the transformation of those practices since their creation and discovery. He cleverly reduces several common methods into an elemental state and thoroughly explains the deeper meaning behind each. As always, Pollan applies firsthand knowledge and experiences pared with superbly extensive research to create a masterpiece. He has expertly crafted a narrative by detailing each step of his process while simultaneously weaving in fibers of pertinent information. He questions our changing eating – and cooking – habits, beginning to identify some of the causes and the shocking underlying effects. Pollan also makes fantastic observations about what really happens during cooking. With absolute brilliance and comprehension, he creates a piece of literature that does great justice to something so crucial to our everyday life.

To all who eat: Michael Pollan’s Cooked is a must read. A composition of skillful writing, exciting experiences and relevant information to the world of food and its eaters; I highly recommend Cooked with tremendous respect.

Final Remarks:

Cooked offers valuable information to the trained chef, seasoned cook and even the humble home cook. The information is clear and concise providing details about each reaction as well as the outcome. It simplicity outlines the complex steps of classic cooking methods and provides key connections between the how and why. Pollan has infused me with a new spirit of excitement for trying new recipes and techniques while also providing me with more foundational knowledge – historical and technical – for my career.

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