“How, in our everyday lives, can we acquire a deeper understanding of the natural world and our species’ peculiar role in it? You can always go to the woods to confront such questions, but I discovered that even more interesting answers could be had simply by going to the kitchen.”
This is one of the more provocative reasons that Michael Pollan presents for researching and writing his new book, called “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.” Pollan is the author of six previous books, the best known, probably “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” which exhorts us to think more carefully about how we shop for food. In “Cooked”, he is asking us to think about the next step. Essentially, he sets out “to explore the reality of food”, by mastering the physical processes by which it traditionally has been prepared.
To do so, he structures the book metaphorically around the four elements: fire, water, air and earth. In Fire, for instance, he delves into the mysteries of the barbecue, suggesting links to ancient rituals of sacrifice. Travelling south, he confronts the great pit-masters, gaining insight into the use of wood smoke and barbecue sauces. In Water, he investigate the complexities of the braise, providing tips on brining and flavorings such as umami. Air is devoted to the making of a great loaf of bread and Earth uncovers the processes of fermentation and bacteria and their role in creating foods such cheese and sauerkraut and beer.
I loved reading this book but have the feeling that, like tales of travelling to outer Mongolia on the local railway, it’s a lot more fun to read about Pollan’s explorations, than to actually emulate them. Which brings me to the central conundrum of the book (at least for me): I do SO agree with the writer that processed, pre-packaged food with its huge amounts of sugar, fat, salt and chemical additives is close to death in a cardboard box. I truly do want to make my own chicken soup, whip up some homemade linguine (Where is that little pasta machine?) and bake some real bread. So why is my cupboard full of little jars and cans and pouches and my freezer overflowing with the President’s Choice?
Well, the answer is obvious, of course. Like most people who work for a living, there is simply no time to cook from scratch every day. In a CBC interview with Jian Ghomeshi <http://www.cbc.ca/q/blog/2013/06/06/michael-pollan-on-reclaiming-cooking/index.html/>, Pollan waxes poetic about how much he enjoys that HOUR spent making dinner every evening. Sometimes I don’t get home from work until after nine o’clock at night. (Yes, I know, spare me the sound of violins.) That little hour of making dinner simply isn’t going to happen — and I actually am interested in food and enjoy cooking.
So, I do the best I can. I cook on the weekends and try to keep Sundays open for preparing “make ahead” dinners that I can nuke during the week. I try to eat simple meals with lots of fresh vegetables and without additives during the work week. When the cupboard is bare, I eschew the fast food takeout and throw bits and pieces together in an omelette. Occasionally I pray that there are some delicious leftovers from our Go Cooking sessions. And sometimes I am so tired (lazy?) that I just give in, stick the frozen pot pie in the microwave and eat it with hot sauce to give it some flavour.
So there is an economic question in this book that is not really answered. Money buys time, and only those with enough money can have the free time to wash, peel, chop, braise or roast every day. (“Gee, today I think I’ll spend four to six hours doing a slow barbecue …” – not bloody likely!) And those with more money also can afford to buy healthy, pre-prepared food, like dinners from chefs and caterers. Moreover, there also is a gender issue. In the middle class family, men are certainly spending a lot more time in the kitchen than in years gone by, but the daily drudgery usually still falls to women who now also have fulltime jobs (not to even mention children to look after). For these reasons, I have no illusions about the future demise of pre-packaged foods and quickly prepared meals.
What Pollan actually is asserting, however, is that cooking is important as more than just a means of preparing meals; that we should be thinking about cooking our food as a philosophy of living as opposed to just a tedious chore. His premise is, that by linking us to plants and animals, to the earth and farms and orchards and waterways and all of the tactile and physical elements of life, preparing our own food actually involves us in a whole web of social, economic and ecological relationships. And because of this, by preparing our own food, we not only gain control over our own health, but our lives will be incomparably enriched.
“Cooked” does contain some incredibly complex recipes, but to find them, you will have to buy the book. I’m including a simpler recipe from Pollan’s website. It’s something that I have actually made and I can assure you that it’s very good.
Vinegar Braised Chicken
from Michael Pollan, http://michaelpollan.com/books/cooked/recipes/
For this recipe Pollan was inspired by chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s recipe for vinegar chicken. He suggests seasoning the chicken with salt a day in advance.
3 ¾ pounds bone-in chicken pieces, preferably dark meat.
2 ½ tsp. kosher salt, divided
½ tsp. ground black pepper
1 ½ Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
⅓ cup finely chopped shallots
1 ½ cups red wine vinegar
1 cup chicken broth
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 cup canned whole peeled plum tomatoes, drained and quartered
6 cloves garlic
4 sprigs of thyme
3 bay leaves
2 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley
1. Preheat oven to 300°. Season chicken with 2 tsp. salt and pepper. Heat oil in a 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven or wide, ovenproof pot over medium-high heat. Arrange half the chicken in pot in a single layer and cook, turning once, until golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a plate and repeat with remaining chicken.
2. Add shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 2 minutes. Add vinegar and cook until much of the acrid aroma has dissipated, 3 to 5 minutes. Add broth and ½ cup water, bring to a vigorous simmer, and cook until slightly reduced, 3 to 5 minutes.
3. Whisk in tomato paste and remaining ½ tsp. salt. Add tomatoes, then arrange chicken in pot, skin side up, pouring over any accumulated juices from plate. Tuck garlic, thyme, and bay leaves in liquid. Cover pot snugly with foil, then lid, and transfer to oven. Cook 1 hour and 15 minutes, until chicken is very tender.
4. Let rest 30 minutes; discard thyme and bay leaves. Scatter parsley on top and serve.
Pollan would probably be horrified, but this freezes very well and can be microwaved with good results. I make it with chicken thighs, by the way.