Posts Tagged ‘ michael pollan

#8 Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

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)


#6 The Omnivore's Dilemma: The Search for a Perfect Meal in a Fast-Food World

Phew, I actually managed to finish another book without more than a week passing by! Let’s see if I can keep this up.

I read Michael Pollan’s follow-up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, at the end of last year and greatly enjoyed it. Reviews were mostly positive but mentioned that Omnivore was far better researched (Pollan does claim that In Defense of Food is mostly supposed to be based on common sense) and a more interesting read. I did slightly prefer Omnivore but am glad that I read both.

The book is divided into three sections. The first focuses on corn, the second on grass, and the third on hunter/gatherer methods. Pollan follows farming and slaughtering methods in the first two and kills his own wild pig and searches for mushrooms and abalone in the third. He successfully reignited my previous fear of corn (which I had conveniently forgotten for a good period of time) and inspired a new appreciation for local grass-based farmers. While each section was equally interesting, the third was the most fun (I’m not sure who would find the first section fun by any means) with Pollan admitting his fears when hunting and his surprise at the lengths he’d have to go to in order to gather enough food for a decent meal.

For the most part, the book flows easily-perhaps more so than in Defense of Food, and only manages to drag a bit here and there. The premise of the book, the so-called, “omnivore’s dilemma,” is that humans have the ability to choose what they eat and how they eat it. Should we feel bad when we kill animals, knowing that we could survive without meat? Is it responsible for us to sell food, that isn’t really food, simply because it seems cheaper? I did get a bit tired of the whole “dilemma” bit to be honest. Of course his descriptions of American slaughterhouses appalled me but I didn’t spend a second feeling sorry for the wild pig. If anything, it made me want to try hunting for myself!

I’d be interested to read more about hunter/gatherer methods people use today and how the American farming industry compares to those in other parts of the world, such as the UK.

A Quick Start

I don’t really want to do a “best of” or “top 10″ since I really didn’t read that many books for pleasure this year (I absolutely cannot be arsed to include books I read for my graduate program). Instead I’ll do a brief round up of a few things just so that this blog doesn’t die immediately.

My books of 2009 fall into 6 principle categories. Without further ado, here they are:

Complete and Absolute Trash

1) The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer-Yes, I read them all, and quickly too. About six weeks before exams I picked the first one up on my way to Budapest and decided to give them a go. To my surprise, it was disturbingly enjoyable, but only in a ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of way. The characters are awful, the plots are awful, the dialogue is horrendous, and the message the books send to girls is appalling. Yet somehow I allowed myself to get involved and had-yes had, to finish them all. Will I be rereading them any time soon? No.

2) The Other Boleyn Girl and The Boleyn Inheritance by Phillipa Gregory-These shortly followed my involvement with Twilight and also helped carry me through the exam period. I have to say, these aren’t really complete trash. In fact, the first one is actually a pretty decent book. I guess the fact that there are about a million of these books in the series makes me want to place them in the trash section when they could go somewhere else.

3) Supreme Courtship by Christopher Buckley-Perhaps this shouldn’t really go in trash, but it doesn’t really belong anywhere else either. It was pretty freakin’ funny, but not the best book in the world.


I rarely ever reread books-there are just too many books and not enough time, but I reread a few this year. Probably for the same reasons I read the trash listed above.

1) Kafka on the Shore and Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami-Both excellent the second time around. I actually didn’t love NW the first time I read it but developed a much greater appreciation for it this year.

2) Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi-Still hilarious and perhaps a bit more accessible now that I live in London.

Books that Made Me go ‘Meh’

None of these books was awful but I didn’t exactly love them either.

1) The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

2) White Teeth by Zadie Smith

3) The Road Home by Rose Tremaine-The book was well written but I think I might have needed to have been a bit older to truly enjoy it. A bit of a shame because I have greatly enjoyed a couple of her other books.

4) America America by Ethan Canin-Okay, I actually did hate this one.


1) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens-Didn’t have great expectations (hah!) going in, but loved it by the end.

2) Moby Dick by Herman Melville-Perhaps the most epic book I have ever read. It took quite a while for me to get through but I am very happy I did.

3) Rashomon and 17 Other Stories by Ryuonsuke Akutagawa-Very dark but creative short stories from the Japanese author whose stories inspired Akira Kurosawa.

The Awesome

Here are the more contemporary books I read this year that I found enjoyable.

1) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz-I’m going to come out and say it right now, this was my favorite book I read all year. It was funny, creative, dark, and very real. Mr Diaz, I greatly look forward to seeing what you’ll produce next.

2) Snow by Orhan Pamuk-Very dense but worth the effort (as his books usually seem to be).

3) The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood-Both took a while to grow on me but won me over in the end. I didn’t fall in love with Atwood the way many others have but I’d say I have a pretty deep appreciation for her work.

4) When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson-In this book, everything that could possibly go wrong does go wrong. I’m typically not a fan of books that take similar paths but Atkinson is a great writer and makes it work. This is not the best public transport book as tears may be shed.


1) Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner-A lot of fun, which is not something I ever thought I’d write about a book with ‘econ’ in the title.

2) Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson-A nice and accessible book about the English language. Would love it if Bryson would come out with an updated version.

3) In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan-Quick and to the point when it comes to eating right. Pollan makes a lot of sense but I have to say, I’m kind of afraid of food now, or at least what some of us call food.

That’s all folks! I guess that wasn’t really all that quick of a start! It might be a while until the next post as I’m only about a fifth of the way through my current book. Books cannot count towards my 50 book goal until January 1, 2010 which means I’m not in any huge rush to finish anything!