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book review

If a farmers' market has opened in your neighborhood in the last seven years or so, you should thank Michael Pollan. Thank him a second time if you cast a skeptical eye on processed foods and high-fructose corn syrup, or if you've begun buying "naturally raised" chicken and beef instead of the usual industrial kinds.

The Berkeley-based nature writer's 2006 bestseller, called The Omnivore's Dilemma, was the first popular non-fiction work to not merely expose the ugly workings of the modern industrial food chain, but to posit a healthier, more humane and ecologically friendly way of growing food and a smarter way to eat it. Together with Pollan's In Defense of Food, which followed two years later (Opening line: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants"), The Omnivore's Dilemma helped to transform what had once been mere fringe concerns, the province of harpy nutritionists and hippie vegetarians, into the most dominant North American food movement since the rise of the TV dinner.

That movement's power has a point of diminishing returns, however. Farmers markets aren't much help to people who don't know what to do with a head of kale or a bag (canvas and reusable, preferably) of new potatoes; neither are whole, hormone and antibiotic-free heritage-breed chickens, or spelt grains, or local summer tomatoes if you can't use a stove or hold a knife.

"It is entirely possible that, within another generation, cooking a meal from scratch will seem as exotic and ambitious – as 'extreme' – as most of us today regard brewing beer or baking a loaf of bread or putting up a crock of sauerkraut," Pollan worries in the introduction to his latest work, called Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.

And so in Cooked, he sets out to explore the power of cooking, loosely defined, to transform raw, largely undigestible foods into wholesome, delicious ones – and also to transform human culture. The advent of cooking by humankind's early ancestors detoxified previously inedible ingredients and "cracked open a treasure trove of calories unavailable to other animals," Pollan writes, citing the work of Harvard biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham. "Freed from the necessity of spending our days gathering large quantities of raw food and then chewing (and chewing) it, humans could now devote their time, and their metabolic resources, to other purposes, like creating a culture." (Suck it, raw foodists.)

Cooking is just as important in the modern world, Pollan writes, not only because it makes us more social – dinner-table conversations, etc. – and more healthy, but because to cook "is to reject the debilitating notion that, at least while we're at home, production is work best done by someone else, and the only legitimate form of leisure is consumption."

In case those logical arguments for his cooking-will-save-us thesis fail to sway, the author caps Cooked's introduction with an appeal to human emotion. "For is there any practice less selfish, any labour less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for people you love?" he asks.

Whereupon Pollan spends the next 200 pages stamping out whatever joy and deliciousness and possibility that may be left in cooking, replacing them with thumb-sucking ponderousness and cliché.

Just as he divided The Omnivore's Dilemma into four meals and his superb 2001 work on gardening, called The Botany of Desire, into four plants, Pollan divides Cooked into sections on fire, water, air and earth – the four classical elements that can transform food. The problem with this conceit is that water is water, and that, like water, fire taken literally can only get so interesting. Pollan takes fire in the most literal way possible, slipping into a pair of smoke-stained intellectual coveralls to learn the art of barbecuing whole hogs, South Carolina-style.

We've been here before – Southern barbecue is perhaps the most overexposed, overexamined cooking form in all of modern food writing (and food television, and food blogging…) It wasn't all that interesting the first 35 times around.

In Pollan's fire section, there is a guy who barbecues whole pigs, and then another guy who barbecues whole pigs. Pollan learns from the guys how to barbecue whole pigs, but not really, and then he barbecues a big piece of pig (but not a whole one) in the firepit he keeps in his front yard in Berkeley. (His front-yard firepit is the same model firepit as the one all those hundreds of millions of Americans who don't know how to cook keep in their front yards, one presumes.)

The fire section's unintended and rather inconvenient message: Buy your Southern barbecue from the experts, don't make it.

He dresses it all up in Freud, much in the way a toastmaster might dress up a speech to the local ratepayers club with bon mots from Bartlett's Familiar Quotations; there are also prominent outtakes from the Marquis de Cussy, Demetrius, Athenaeus, Genesis, Hesiod, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Boswell and a French philosopher named Gaston Bachelard, whose own 1938 volume, called The Psychoanalysis of Fire, opens with the warning, "When our reader has finished reading this book he will in no way have increased his knowledge," which is apropos.

The most telling line in Pollan's fire section is the one where he announces, "It is remarkable how much sheer bullshit seems to accrete around the subject of barbecue." It really is.

Fire is followed by water, which in Pollan's hands becomes braising – the slow-cooking of meat and aromatics in liquid. The water section opens with the question, "Is there anyone alive who actually enjoys chopping onions?" The author then spends the next 9½ pages describing the tedium of chopping onions, then 10 or so more on the tedium of watching those onions sweat over very low heat. It's tedious.

Cooking is massively important in my life; Pollan is a hero of mine. At 200 pages in, I didn't want to think about either of them ever again.

Where Cooked catches fire, so to speak, is in its back half, when Pollan turns to earth (as in bacteria, fungus and the controlled rot that turns milk into cheese, cabbage into sauerkraut, grain and water into beer) and air (flour and water into bread) – and to a host of oddball but fascinating characters whose own stories say much about the state of food, society, commerce and human health in these early years of the 21st century.

We meet "fermentos," who preach the critical but unappreciated role of bacteria in our diets, of gut microbiota and "the microcosmos." About 99 per cent of the DNA in humans belongs to microbes, most in our digestive systems, Pollan writes. "Some scientists, trained in evolutionary biology, began looking at the human individual in a humbling new light: as a kind of superorganism, a community of several hundred co-evolved and interdependent species."

We meet a nun who is also a PhD microbiologist and celebrated cheese maker, and a couple of the greatest bread makers in North America (including a fairly crazy French Canadian), who inspire the author to become a master bread maker in his own right. Here Pollan does what he is best at, and tells a story about a single foodstuff that is at once personal and folksy and steeped in physics, chemistry, biology, history and anthropology and unexpected connections between them all, so that it is fascinating and unforgettable.

After reading those two sections, it's impossible to look at a loaf of bread or a piece of cheese or to smell a rotting apple or use a teaspoon of Fleischmann's yeast – just another industrially produced monoculture, as it happens – without thinking deeply about it and marveling at least a little.

Is that enough? The back half of Cooked redeemed the book for me and then some, but unlike Pollan's earlier works, this one doesn't feel necessary; it's hard to imagine Cooked ever giving rise to a social movement.

If you buy Pollan's thesis – that cooking is key to a healthy, local, sustainable, humane food system – and don't know how to cook yet, you're better off reading Mark Bittman, or Smitten Kitchen, or the Canadian Living cookbooks. Because Cooked is only half-cooked, at best.