I finished Michael Pollan’s latest book, Cooked, last week. He is a wonderful writer whose perspective on all things food and food chain is enlightening (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Botany of Desire). Cooked is a marvelous rendering of cooking, the science of it, and its place in our anthropological evolution. I did not consider it a quick read, too much to savor and digest but very flavorful and nutritious.
He divides his book into four parts corresponding to the four elements of the ancients, fire, water, air, and earth, and examines the four main ways of rendering food more edible, i.e., over fire, with water, making airy bread with micro-organisms and using other micro-organisms to ferment food. Along the way he talks with a variety of experts, finding a nicely informed and philosophical bunch with whom to engage. Try it, you’ll like it.
And here is my riff. Mr. Pollan discusses three topics dear to my heart. The first is Richard Wrangham’s hypothesis that the hominid adoption of cooking their food, which heightens the nutritious value, played a large role in our evolution, specifically by providing the fuel needed for our brains to enlarge and run so energetically. As Pollan points out, our brains use a lot more energy proportionally to the rest of the body. Next, he spends some time talking about umami, the flavor of cooked food discovered by a Japanese scientist in the recent past. When I was young, they taught us about the four tastes, sweet, salty, sour, bitter but now there is a fifth, umami. Further, more recent research suggests that our noses can detect maybe a million different scents. Keep on going–we will learn some more.
Finally, Mr. Pollan won my heart when he cites William James from his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, as he talked about the rather major role of alcohol (fermentation) played in the development of spiritual and religious experience. James was a remarkable intellect and helped us to see the importance not of debating the existence of god but studying what religion actually is, a lesson mostly forgotten these days I think. Good job, Michael Pollan.
I read James’ Varieties in college and guess what is next on my re-reading list. Bon appetit.