There are very few times in today’s hectic world when we are able to just do one activity without being distracted by technology. Our attention span has decreased considerably, we barely have time to sit at table and eat let alone cook on a daily basis.
Yet, never have food programmes on television been so popular and chefs been such household names.
Speaking for myself, cooking is the place where I can relax the most. It is the place where I can focus on one small process after another. There is a certain element of relaxation that goes with chopping vegetables, hearing the sizzle of a grill or the gentle patience required as you constantly stir a risotto.
I have just finished Michael Pollan’s brilliant book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, published last year and found it extremely interesting.
Pollan has written a splendid book about cooking which should be a must read for anyone interested in food and its place in our history and culture. And while you might still find it daunting to brew your own beer, make your own cheese or try your hand at a sourdough bread, there is a lot in this book which should get you to try new things which you might not have yet had the time to consider before.
The approach he takes is linked to the elements. He writes about how we human beings have mastered cooking by using fire, water, air and earth. Using one recipe in each section (which you can find in the appendix of the book), he takes a very detailed look at each element.
At times the book is mouthwatering. At other times, you just find yourself nodding in agreement with Pollan. He says that one of the things he reflected on before writing the book is the whole question of taking on what in our time has become optional, even unnecessary work, work for which he is not particularly gifted or qualified and at which he may never get very good. “This is, in the modern world, the unspoken question that hovers over all our cooking: Why bother?”
But we should indeed bother. When you attempt to cook, you get to create something. Even just by boiling or poaching an egg, you get to create something which might not be what you are doing in your dally business.
Pollan says that in a world where few of us are obliged to cook at all anymore, to choose to do so is to lodge a protect against specialisation – against the total rationalisation of life.
He also points out that to cook for the pleasure of it – to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from corporations seeking to organise every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption.
The book starts with how man mastered fire and the importance this had on our transformation as human beings. It goes through the fascination we have with fires, barbecues and grilling.
The second part is about braising and the use of water or liquids as a means to cook. It is an extremely interesting section and one which allows humans to waste as little as possible. Pollan argues that if we are going to eat animal, it behooves us to waste as few and as little of them as we possibly can, something that the humble cook pot allows us to do.”
In the section on air, Pollan works his way to making bread using a live yeast while in the final section on earth we learn about the fermentation techniques that are slowly becoming more mainstream in the culinary world.
He looks at the fermentation of vegetables, the making of cheese, salamis and the curing of meat as well as other fermentation including beer among others. In the section on beer, Pollan shows how he engaged in brewing beer with his teenage son and used the time to connect with him in ways which might not have been possible if they were not brewing together.
In the book, Pollan becomes an apprentice with a succession of culinary masters and learns to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread and ferment everything from cheese to beer.
I leave you with a quote I highlighted from the book: “Great cooking is all about the three ‘p’s: patience, presence and practice.”
If you haven’t read the book yet, find the time to read it. You will at least start to think differently next you are walking down a supermarket aisle. Because, while it comes as no surprise that the decline in home cooking closely tracks the rise in obesity and all the chronic diseases linked to diet, the effects of not cooking are far reaching. Relying upon corporations to process our food means we consume large quantities of fat, sugar, and salt; disrupt an essential link to the natural world; and weaken our relationships with family and friends.