I’ve been holding off on this review because I wanted to be able to say that I had tried at least one of its recipes (be able to say it and not be lying, if that wasn’t obvious). Ha! For someone who is technically supposed to be a semi-invalid, I sure know how to fill up a day planner. I’ve barely made scrambled eggs since I read this book, in spite of the fact that Pollan’s research, travels, and personal anecdotes inspired me to get back to the routine of cooking that he advocates. Pollan is known for writing encyclopedically about food; his books may contain occasional recipes, but mostly they are travelogues, treatises on anthropology, sociology, evolutionary biology, and history, memoirs, and works of accessible philosophy. For me, his books connect the dots of the shorter articles and blog posts about food, nutrition, and cooking that I read or skim but don’t fully retain. This book is no exception. It begins with the hypothesis that cooking is good for us, not just nutritionally but in a variety of ways. His book is laid out in four parts that correspond to four types of cooking that many of us 21st-century folks have drifted away from. Because Pollan is a stud, the four parts of the book also correspond with the four traditional elements: earth, air, fire, and water. This is a little hokey, sure, but I’m a sucker for the idea that we carry mystical relationships with food around in our DNA and that on some levels our bodies are at constant war with us for straying from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and deciding to stay put and farm. That decision wasn’t entirely my fault, mind you, but my DNA doesn’t know that.
In his section on fire, Pollan writes about barbeque. Not barbeque the verb, which is the word I grew up with, which means “to cook food on an outdoor grill.” Pollan’s mission in this section is to learn how to conduct a traditional pig roast. Like Pollan, I’m a native and current resident of the Bay Area, but I spent four memorable years in Arkansas and found myself in Memphis just often enough that I can correctly use barbeque as a noun, and not in the sense of a rounded metal grill one buys at Wal-Mart. At the same time, though, this was my least favorite of the four sections. Don’t get me wrong – this section made me hungry. I would have been happy to hop on a plane and drive on backroads to meet the barbeque mavens to whom Pollan apprenticed themselves – but at no time did this section make me want to dig a hole in my backyard and cook a pig in it. If you decide to read this book, I recommend eating a meal before you read this section if fresh crackling crumpled over smoked meat is at all tempting to you. But I think I’ll move on.
The second section, corresponding to water, is about stews and braises. This is the section that I most connected to as a cook. If there had been a section on picking up a salad and a couple slices of rare tri-tip at Andronico’s and eating it in front of CNN, that one would have connected with me more – but in the absence of such a section, the stews and braises would have to do. From 2013 until mid-2015, I had a job as a family assistant and cooked at least a couple of times a week for a family of five. They loved the Cook’s Illustrated series of cookbooks, and by following recipes in those books I learned a lot about the science of slow-cooking ingredients in a pot and letting flavors blend. All told, stewing is probably my favorite way to cook. To research this section, Pollan reconnected with a former student of his who had become an elite chef. They met once a week to cook together and talk about the science of stewing and braising.
Since stews and braises are the original “slow food,” Pollan spends some time in this section considering the phenomenon of fast food. He didn’t have much to say that isn’t widely known, but I very much enjoyed reading about an experiment he conducted. Once a week while he was working on this section, he declared a fast food night, when he and his wife and son went to the grocery store and selected meals from the frozen food section. What they found, to make a long story short, is that reheating frozen meals is not actually a “fast” process at all. They usually made it home with at least five or six packages, including one entrée each for Pollan and his wife, an appetizer or dessert or two for the group, and 2-3 entrees for his ravenous teenage son. Each package dictated a different set of instructions, and none of the cooking times and temperatures corresponded with one another. Even with significant advance planning and the oven, toaster oven, and microwave running nonstop, the Pollans never figured out how to have six frozen food items ready at the same time. He portrayed these experiments as stressful, chaotic evenings when everyone ate alone at the table while the others squinted through the oven door and burned themselves pulling the plastic wrap off heated single-serving blobs of formerly-frozen food. Sometimes the process took hours. On the other hand, the nights when dinner simmered for hours on the Pollan stove while the patriarch chopped herbs, his wife sipped wine and related the events of her day, and the teenage son did his homework at the counter and made wry teenage comments from time to time were positively idyllic. I almost never buy frozen food myself; my own fast food habits include lots of bagels, Panera salads and soups, and more sodas and fries from drive-throughs than I’d like to admit. Nevertheless, this section resonated with me. There is no question that many if not most of the conveniences that are supposed to make our lives easier also make our lives more chaotic. We think we’re saving time with various shortcuts and apps, but while we have our phones out to check the app we might as well check Facebook and HuffPo and Twitter and holy crap what has Trump done now? You get the idea.
If I had cooked one of Pollan’s recipes as I had hoped, it would have been the one from this section: a Bolognese sauce. I make a Bolognese sauce I learned from a former employer, who obsessively backwards-planned it after a sauce he ate at a certain hotel in Italy almost every summer of his life. The sauce is good, and I am attached to it. When I’ve looked up other Bolognese sauces in cookbooks, I’ve rejected them out of hand because they call for carrots and celery, and Bolognese sauce as I know it doesn’t call for any vegetables. However, Pollan managed to convince me that when Bolognese sauce is made correctly, it contains carrots and celery and no one who tastes it ever knows they’re there. The secret is something called a soffrito. A soffrito is a mixture of carrots, celery, onions, garlic, and herbs – think of all the things you chop up when you make stuffing for Thanksgiving. I have chopped these items and sautéed them in butter countless times, but I never knew the word soffrito, and, more troublingly, I seem not to have been dicing them into small enough pieces. A true soffrito should be invisible once it’s mixed with the more substantive ingredients in a sauce – yet the soffrito is essential to the complex taste of the final product. I will make this sauce eventually – like when I’m old, or possibly in Purgatory. Except wait – I already have a long agenda for Purgatory. Never mind.
The third section of the book corresponds with air, and Pollan’s project was to learn to bake the perfect loaf of bread. This chapter sent him far and wide to apprentice with various perfectionist loners who were also bread gurus. I have baked bread – bagels and rolls mostly – and I was able to follow a lot of the talk of flours and yeasts and such, though I wasn’t as compelled as I was by the section on stews. I am delighted to eat good bread when it is in front of me, but I don’t crave it the way some people do, so I had trouble sympathizing with the desire to devote one’s life to honing the perfect loaf. But I enjoyed reading about the characters Pollan met on his journey, and I’ve entertained some vague plan of driving to the Chico Farmers’ Market – about a three-hour drive from home, one way – some Saturday morning to buy a loaf of what Pollan deems to be the perfect bread. The Chico Farmers’ Market is the only place it’s sold.
The final section is both the ickiest and the most fascinating. Inspired by the element earth, this chapter is devoted to fermenting. Pollan spends a lot of time on the biology of bacteria here, and while this information was not entirely new to me, I enjoyed Pollan’s treatment of the subject more than others I’ve read. I’ve long ago accepted the idea that consuming probiotics is a good thing and that the 20th-century obsession with destroying all “germs” is likely responsible for a lot of the chronic health problems so many of us live with. But accepting this fact in the abstract and drinking a beverage that smells like feet is quite another. As it happens, while I did not “cook” any of the recipes from Pollan’s book, I did try a little experiment in open-mindedness: I tasted kombucha. I know: I was the last person on earth who hadn’t tried it, right? But I just couldn’t. Fermented tea? That comes in different flavors? How is that not gross?
Anyway, I spent a good ten minutes in front of a cooler in the grocery store, finally selecting two bottles of kombucha in flavors that felt less offensive than the alternatives. When I started to open one at home, I saw sediments inside, so I shook the bottle. I didn’t make the connection that a bottle full of little aerobic single-celled creatures (or “wee beasties,” as Jamie Fraser would say) would also be carbonated. I twisted off the cap and half its contents shot toward the ceiling. And the smell! Imagine half a bottle of liquid B.O. soaking your tablecloth and placemats and cascading toward the floor. I cleaned up the sticky, smelly stuff with towels, cringing the whole time. Pollan spends time in his book on the smell factor. He made homemade sauerkraut and kimchi – again, guided by experts – and he mentioned that at some stages of the fermenting process the ingredients smelled terrible. He mentioned B.O. and feet and other smells that are far, far worse. Yes, I know that we moderns are overly sensitive to smells. Yes, I know that we’re biological creatures whose bodies produce terrible smells, and someday our remains will be reabsorbed into the earth, decomposed by yet another army of bacteria. I know these things. I refuse to use hand sanitizer. I try hard not to worry about germs – to remember that I have a perfectly functional immune system and other mechanisms like skin and phlegm and earwax that are designed to keep out the sort of bacteria that will harm me. And my immune system works – I get my share of migraines and chronic pain, but the last time I was sick with an infectious illness was in 2009. But at the same time – to infest food with bacteria on purpose? Old habits die hard.
You’ll be pleased to know that after the exploding smelly bottle debacle, I did taste some of the kombucha left in the bottle. As Pollan reported, the fermented tea tasted better than it smelled. This is hardly high praise, and since I could smell it while I was drinking it there was no firm line that I could identify between taste and smell – but it’s true that the drink wasn’t as bad as its smell suggested.
Where is the rest of that bottle, you ask? Still in the fridge. And the other bottle I bought that day. Also in the fridge. I’m not very adventurous, but you knew that.
I hope it’s clear that even when I complain about smelly drinks and fastidious hermits who bake bread at 3 am, I really did enjoy living vicariously through Pollan. Like elites in many fields, the experts he enlisted to teach him to cook are eccentric and exacting, and I enjoyed learning that these characters exist. The chapter on stews and braises is the only one that really inspired me to cancel all of my plans and cook all weekend, but I enjoyed all four sections. Pollan is such an engaging writer. Every person he writes about – from the Korean grandmother who taught him to make kimchi to his own sarcastic teenage son – is as well-rounded as a character in an excellent novel. He’s sort of the Sarah Vowell of food. And this book is also political, of course. Woven into every chapter was the idea that cooking is good for more than just our bodies, that ingredient sourcing is essential to this process, that families should connect with one another over food (this was the one point Pollan made most effectively in his experiments with eating “fast food” with his family), and the idea that the world of food and cooking is rich with lore and tradition and that mastering these traditions is both physically and mentally sustaining. I recommend this book and others of Pollan’s, and if I ever work up the nerve to open that other bottle of kombucha, I will let you know.