Fire, Water, Air and Earth: Start Cooking!

I just finished reading Michael Pollan’s newest and seventh book, Cooked:  A Natural History of Transformation.  In it Pollan takes us on an odyssey of the elemental ways in which man cooks:  with fire, water, air and earth.  After renewing it from the library three times, I finally bought it!  Reading Cooked was like savoring a delicious meal…yummy and satisfying.  This book is truly transformative!

I have been a big fan of Pollan’s since reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. Until now, my favorite was the tiny guidebook, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.  When people ask me what I eat, I just quote Pollan:  “Eat food…not too much…mainly plants.”  That says it all.

I guess by now you’ve surmised that I love food, and I adore cooking.  I am absolutely an omnivore.  I’m sure I got that trait from my father who offered up brains, sweetbreads, and liver as if everyone ate them. No chicken nuggets in my house.

In the 21st century, cooking is optional, not obligatory.  Today, typical Americans spend less than half the time cooking and cleaning up than they did when I graduated from high school in 1964.  Some of what people call “cooking” is opening a can of soup or microwaving a pizza! According to Pollan, that “marks a major shift in human history, one whose full implications we are just beginning to understand.”

Pollan begins by explaining that cooking food is what distinguishes us from other animals. EVERY other mammal grazes; we eat meals. That connects and socializes us.  All animals eat raw, except when nature “cooks” a forest full of birds, nuts, berries and furry animals in a fire.  They then experience the treat of eating roast quail, toasted walnuts, baked apples, and barbequed squirrel.

My raw foodies aren’t going to like this next part.  Cooking makes us smarter!  Digestion is a “metabolically  expensive operation,” according to Pollan.  Cooking our food before eating it diminishes the energy our bodies must expend for digestion.  Cooking plants breaks down the fibers, allowing our not-so-strong jaws and digestive systems to work less hard.  And…get this!  Where does that extra saved energy go?  To our brains!  Want to know more about this theory, read Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire:  How Cooking Made Us Human.

The first element is fire, the oldest method of cooking. Pollan travels to North Carolina, where we learn from barbeque experts. Roasting meat goes back to the Bible. Remember when entire animals were presented to God as burnt offerings?

Water is next; it is used to cook in virtually every cuisine in the world.  A universal recipe is: Dice some plants, sauté them in fat, brown some meat, put everything together in a pot of water and simmer for a long time.  This is the beginning of the transformation into Indian curry, Moroccan tagine and French cassoulet  which all start with three basic vegetables: onions, carrots and celery.  Amazing!

Air is about baking bread.  I’ve never been much of a bread lover, and could never understand why anyone would spend so much time waiting for dough to rise.  My impatience and gluten intolerance disallow me from grooving on this section.

My favorite section is “earth.”  How, you might wonder does earth “cook” food?  By fermentation!  An ancient form of preservation and transformation, fermenting is making a huge comeback as we are able to identify and control those critters that work their little butts off making cheese, wine, beer and sauerkraut.  Eating fermented foods is a natural way of ingesting probiotics.

I loved the story of Sister Noella, the cheese nun, who knew just how to make Saint- Nectaire cheese ripen perfectly using ancient wooden molds.  One day, the health department showed up and declared the mold “unsanitary.”  Sister was told that she must wash them between batches.  Wash away years of accumulated families of fermentation bugs?  No way!  The inspector insisted that Sister trade in her moldy molds for some sanitized ones made out of stainless steel.  Here is how this savvy sister solved her problem.

She and the inspector inserted the nasty bug e. coli into both the wooden mold and the stainless steel one and waited out the fermentation period.  Which batch do you think had the e. coli? Right!  The “sanitized” stainless mold still contained the dangerous bug, while it had disappeared from the moldy wooden one!  The “good” bugs destroyed the “bad” bug, just as they do in your digestive tract when you take probiotics!

I couldn’t help but wonder if Pollan and Donna Gates, developer of the Body Ecology Diet (BED), which emphasizes fermented foods, had ever communicated.  I would love to be a fly on the wall when they do!

Looking for a holiday gift for a foodie friend?  Buy Cooked.  And if you want to guild the lily, also purchase Fifty Shades of Kale, a parody of that pornographic best-seller.  It will make you laugh as you prepare “afternoon quickies” such as Zucchini and Kale Bites and “forbidden cravings” such as “Chocolate Chip Kale Cookies.”

Have a yummy holiday season!


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