Having described what’s wrong with American food in his best-selling The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), New York Times contributor Pollan (Journalism/Univ. of California; Food Rules, 2012, etc.) delivers a more optimistic but equally fascinating account of how to do it right.
The author mixes journalistic encounters with tales of skilled, often relentlessly obsessive cooks who demonstrated the art of transforming the products of nature into tasty food and then tried, with spotty success, to teach him to do the same. Four sections describe this transformation with the four classical elements: fire, water, air and earth. Humans cooked with fire first. Preparing meat over an open flame retains its appeal in the ritual of the backyard barbecue, but Pollan illustrates the original in its purest form, working with pit masters of the Old South to roast pigs very slowly over a smoldering wood fire. Cooking with liquids came later when human invented pots, and cooking moved indoors. After musing on the exquisite Zen boredom involved in chopping onions, Pollan discusses his work with an enthusiastic Chez Panisse chef, who schooled him in the subtleties required for perfect stews, braises, soups, sauces and stocks. Air plus grain equals bread; earth provides bacteria and yeasts to perform the alchemy of brewing, fermenting, pickling and cheese-making. Turning food preparation over to corporations saves the average family 30 minutes per day in exchange for an avalanche of extra sugar, salt, fat and chemicals that costs more and tastes worse.
A delightful chronicle of the education of a cook who steps back frequently to extol the scientific and philosophical basis of this deeply satisfying human activity.