Thursday, July 18, 2013

Michael Pollan's Cooked reminds us of the social value of cooking and eating

"Grandma cooking" is what food commentator and slow-food advocate Michael Pollan advocates in his latest book, Cooked. It is an impassioned memoir about food and cooking and a desperate call to all of us in the developed West to think about what we put in our mouths and to re-embrace the messy, delicious and wonderfully sentimental charms of home cookery.

In Cooked Pollan decides to put his money where his mouth is and hire a chef to come to his home weekly to instruct him in the mysteries of preparing simple but delicious food for his family. The lessons Pollan passes on are surprising, and probably not the type of things to excite the hart of a nutritionist or food purist. What he is advocating is not food as medicine. Or at least, he is stressing the psychological benefits of home cooking, and the creation of food-based memories that are frequently bnuilt up around unhealthy eating, but are no less delicious for it. And so we are instructed to add lots more salt to our home-cooked meals, and worry less about health and food faddism and more about building a relationship to real food prepared by human hands in the warmth and security of a home kitchen.

As would be expected of Pollan, he is passionate in these pages about the charm - and taste - of slow cookery. Casseroles and stews loom large in his own gastronomical mythology, and he yearns for a return to leftovers, the surplus products of several hours of cooking in great big dishes that can be consumed with joy and ease over the ensuing days. Such descriptions caused me to flashback to my own childhood, and  memories of bubble and squeak and cold roast pumpkin lovingly packed up for school lunches.

Food has become a source of discomfort and anxiety, says Pollan, when it really should be one of comfort and love. Sure, not all of what we might choose to prepare at home could be considered health food. But the author still delights in, for example, mastering the art of baking the perfect white loaf, cofortable in the knowledge that, for all its deliciousness, it is almost entirely absent of nutritional value.

There is so much in  this book that will please and excite the foodie. From the championing of fermented foods to the re-telling of gustatory folklore (did you know that milking was traditionally the work of women because it was believed their soft hands would not distress the cows?) to the appeal of stinky snacks (smelly cheeses, fish sauce and stinky tofu), this is a book that celebrates food's principal place in our life and in our culture. Equal parts travel memoir and social history, Cooked is an absolutely delightful read.

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