Cooked Food: Our Ancestor’s Legacy of Transformation

Michael Pollan obviously had fun writing his latest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Pollan takes us through his hilarious travels to discover the essence of how the use of fire, water, air and the earth rendered humans a dominant species. He’s concerned about our growing distance from direct, physical engagement in transforming raw stuff into cooked food and the nourishment such food provides as opposed to opening a package that has been processed elsewhere.

Discovery of fire and an inadvertently cooked carcass drew early humans in with its pleasant aroma and eventual preferred taste and started this whole business of cooked food. Most animals and birds spend their entire day chewing in order to survive. But, cooked food is more tender and easily digested, so it cuts down chewing time and frees humans to dream up other things to do with their time. Squirrels have to bury their nuts and wait to season them and make them digestible. Bunches of tree seedlings we find in the spring attest to a forgotten stash. Fermentation is practiced by many species, including food that sits in the craw of birds, readying it for digestion.

Pollan goes to North Carolina to learn the fine art of pig roasting by apprenticing himself to the experts. Whether you ever decide to roast a pig yourself, you’ll learn a lot about the value of different wood, and the transformative power of carefully controlled fire in the smoke of “ritual sacrifice that shadow us, however faintly, whenever we cook a piece of meat over a fire.”

Next, he hired a gourmet cook to teach him how to make pot dishes as he walks us through the water element via French, Italian, Spanish, Indian, Greek and more variations, adding vegetables, seaweeds, mushrooms, spices, and sauces. Guaranteed, you’ll want to try some new variations yourself.

He did the same with bread making (air element), apprenticed himself to fine bakers and takes us through the art of making starter, a sponge, and all the shenanigans in between. When we bake with whole grains, we reduce the risk of chronic diseases, weigh less, and live longer than those who don’t.

Finally, Pollan takes us through the earth element, the microbes that render food more digestible, and release valuable nutrients, vitamins, minerals. He has a whole saga for making sauerkraut and other fermented foods, including beer.

As we move into summer, we have the opportunity to celebrate with outdoor picnics, favorite dishes, and ritual gatherings, mindful of  how we honor and use the elements of fire, water, air and earth in the foods we prepare to share with others. Farmer’s Markets and  roadside produce stands provide us with new and familiar choices to continue our exciting, and often hilarious, human evolution. Here’s to celebrating our evolving art!

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