Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan

Dana Velden
Jun 11, 2013

Although it does contain four recipes, Michael Pollan's new book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation is not a cookbook.  It is, however, a book for cooks, as well as a book for people who would like to cook but don't, or can't, or won't.  In other words, if you eat, then you may be interested in this thoroughly engaging look into past, present, and future of cooking.

Pollan and his family learn to cook with Samin Nosrat in their Berkeley kitchen.

Quick Facts

Who wrote it: Michael Pollan

Who published it: Penguin Press

Number of recipes: four (!)

Recipes for right now: Pork Shoulder Barbecue, Meat Sugo with Pasta, Whole-Wheat Country Loaf, Sauerkraut

Other highlights: This book has been getting a lot of press, much of it positive and some of it controversial.  But before we get into that, let's do a quick overview.  After writing about how we create our food in The Omnivore's Dilemma and how and what we should eat in his followup books Food Rules and In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan saw that he had skipped a critical step: home cooking.  He realized that people automatically cooked in a more healthy and sustainable way when they stopped relying on corporations to do their cooking for them.  In other words, when we drop our addiction to fast food and highly processed foods and pick up our knifes and a few raw ingredients instead, we've made a big step towards eating better.   

And here is where the controversy comes in.  Who is going to do this cooking?  Pollan acknowledges that in the past, there were many more stay-at-home moms who had cooking wholesome meals built into their job description.  When more and more women entered the workforce in the 1970's, the question of who was going to pick up the slack became a contentious issue because most men weren't stepping forward to help.  This, along with a growing post-WWII industrial food system, allowed corporations to solve the problem by offering quick, easy, and highly-processed food solutions. 

It's important to note that Pollan doesn't blame women for this, nor does he suggest that they return to full time homemakers.  He does look at his own behavior in his own household and realizes that he himself was not much of a home cook. So in order to line up his practices a little more with his philosophy, Pollan takes off on a journey to learn more about cooking.

To do this, he divided the world of cooking into four areas that just happen to correspond to the elements:  fire, water, earth, air.  For fire, he visits and learns from the pit masters of North Carolina and dives deep into our history with cooking with fire, one of our first acts of civilization.  With water, he graduates to cooking in pots and spends a lively (and delicious-sounding) year of Sundays learning to cook stews and braises from a former student, Samin Nosrat.  Since bread is 90% air, for the air chapter Pollan chooses to apprentice himself to a few bakers, notably Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery fame in San Francisco.  And finally, for earth, we explore the fascinating world of fermentation through beer- and sauerkraut-making.

Cooked is not a practical cookery book, but an encouragement to take back cooking from corporations, to question the notion that fast and prepackaged foods are the answer to our busy lives.  (A favorite part of the book is when Pollan and his family attempt to have a microwave-only meal.  Needless to say, it doesn't go well.)  Like The Omnivore's Dilemma, it doesn't entirely solve the problems it raises, but it does spark the necessary conversations we need to have around this issue of feeding ourselves in a sustainable way. 

In my mind, the most important thing that Cooked demonstrates is that cooking and eating this way is enjoyable, healthy and delicious.  Approached in this manner, home cooking stops being a burden and instead becomes a pleasure, both to execute and to consume.  And that, more than anything, will take us a long way toward building a more delicious and sustainable world.

Who would enjoy this book? This is a very enjoyable, well-written book.  I actually found it to be quite the page turner!  If you're interested in food, food politics, sustainability, health, and delicious cooking you will find the stories and information presented here to be fascinating and relevant.  In short, if you eat, you should read this book!

Find the book at your local library, independent bookstore, or Amazon: Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan

Visit the author's website: Michael Pollan

  • Find a few recipes and catch a glimpse of Pollan's beautiful kitchen on

Apartment Therapy Media makes every effort to test and review products fairly and transparently. The views expressed in this review are the personal views of the reviewer and this particular product review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by the manufacturer or an agent working on their behalf. However, the manufacturer did give us the product for testing and review purposes.

(Images: The Penguin Group and Coral Von Zumwalt for Oprah.)

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