I’m not doing so well in my 30books2013 reading challenge. I’m gonna have to amp up my game…and soon!
The eighth book I made it through this year was food author Michael Pollan’s book on cooking. I greatly enjoyed two of his other books I’d previously read, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and was pretty pumped when this one hit the shelves. Having completed this one, I can sense somewhat of a common theme in Pollan’s thought process: let’s think about what we’re putting in our bodies. In In Defense of Food, he asked us to consider how much we were eating, in Omnivore it was where our food came from, and in this installment it’s how we relate to our food before we scarf it down.
Pollan divides the book into four sections: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. In the first, he visits America’s smokehouses and schools us all by letting us know that our wimpy ribs and briskets we’ve been claiming as “bbq” are anything but. In Water, we learn about braising and how the fundamental elements of oil/butter/sauce base + aromatic veggies/spices + liquid + meat/vegetable translate across cultures. In Air, he focuses heavily on flour processing and the human desire for white bread. Finally, in Earth we learn about different types of fermentation, including pickling and alcohol.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed the book. One of Pollan’s main messages relates to the shared nature of cooking and enjoying food, which is something I highly relate to. Although my family didn’t avoid processed foods by any stretch, my mom always spent a lot of time and thought on what we were going to eat for dinner and how she was going to prepare it. Both of my parents stressed the importance of sharing meals as a family every night and it wasn’t until I reached college that I realized that many, if not most people did not eat at home every night. If they did, their meals may have consisted of takeout or microwavable meals that could be consumed in front of the television or whenever the eater decided to eat – meaning they weren’t eating together. This completely weirded me out and continues to do so today. In fact, even though it’s been a few months since we’ve been able to have a regular eating schedule together, it still weirds me out that I spend most nights eating dinner home alone while the other C eats at work. Having blithered on about all that, it was neat to read about why that might weird me out to no end. It turns out, humans are sorta programmed to gather around the food source and I’m really not the weird one for not liking to do it alone at my desk (ironically enough I skipped cooking in order to keep reading this book a couple nights in a row), at least according to our ancestors.
The book is also eye-opening in several regards. For one thing, I had no idea that bread and flour could actually be highly nutritious – I just thought it was something that filled us up and made us happy. But once upon a time, before we became obsessed with turning flour white because we thought it was the “healthy” thing to do, bread actually had a ton of nutrients in it. Now, modern mills have to re-add nutrients to the grain because the nutrients get processed out before it’s turned into bread. Apparently we’ve also scared off almost all the “good” bacteria we need in our diets to maintain a healthy ecosystem in our bodies, which may account for so many of the diseases, ailments, and allergies that have sprung up on us over the last several decades.
Yet another cool thing is that Pollan lives in the Bay Area (I live in SF), which meant that many of his adventures took place at places I’ve ever been to or heard of (or could look up pretty easily). As it turns out, the Bay Area isn’t only home to the tech scene and startups, but also a thriving sourdough and starter culture…badumpbumpshhh (sorry if that didn’t come across as a joke, I’m sleepy).
Unfortunately, there were quite a few things about the book that annoyed me, which is why I’d give it four and not five stars. First, we’ve heard a lot of this before. And I mean a lot. We get it Michael, we all suck, aren’t capable of taking care of ourselves, and need to eat better. Quit lecturing us already. At one point, he decides that he and his family are going to do a grand old experiment, where they go to their local grocery store and cruise the frozen foods section to pick up ready-made meals. They then proceed to follow the package instructions and attempt to eat a sit down meal, which he concludes is impossible. His description of the affair would be reminiscent of a queen trying to describe a grocery store checkout line to someone riding the bus. While novel to him, he forgets that the rest of us on the bus, or the pre-made food band wagon, have been riding it for years.
There’s also no real organization and his narration farts between a structured conversation you might have with a rationally minded person to a liberal arts freshman who’s just finished his first week of Philosophy and Anthropology 101 and had a bit too much to drink (or is on something else). One second you’re learning about how folks in North Carolina (or South? too lazy to look it up, sorry) got to using wood instead of charcoal and the next he’s babbling on about the relationship between meat, sacrifice, and God. What? Instead of nagging us yet again, perhaps he should have expanded on his stint in Spain with the eccentric character who cooks everything with fire (including oysters), which made for one of the absolute best chapters of the whole book.
Anyways, that’s enough of that. It’s time to get back to reading (and maybe sleeping/starting Season 4 of Arrested Development)