“Cooking is one of the more beautiful forms that human generosity takes…the very best cooking, I discovered, is also a form of love (415).”
At the heart of many of Michael Pollan’s books, are kinds of letters to his readers. Cooked doesn’t begin with a salutation and end with “Yours Truly” or “Sincerely,” but Pollan’s style of writing is more like correspondence between reader and writer that is unlike other novels and books out there. Cooked is filled with a long love letter about cooking, food, and history. It is a letter from writer to reader. Pollan has taken another nonfiction foodie subject and mixed it with his journalistic roots while adding in flavors of humor, poetry, and memoir. Like the subtitle A Natural History of Transformation, Pollan has transformed the love letter.
In the introduction and the afterward, upon reading the text, you would think with the way Pollan is addressing his audience, that he is having a causal conversation. As this is a book, it comes across as a letter. The text is then divided into four sections grouping cooking styles into the four classical elements: fire, water, air, and earth. Its no coincidence that his text evokes passion, sensuality, sexuality, and friendship, as that is how cooking translates for so many people.
He starts his cooking journey chronicle with fire. Pollan immediately addresses the passion that can come in a love letter. As barbeque is discussed he puts his masculinity on display for his readers. While going over the basics of huge fire pits, and whole hog roasting, he gives us a travelogue of southern pit cooking. He does it in a way that is similar Julia Child’s letters and recollections of first tasting and experimenting with French cuisine, when her husband was stationed in Paris. Pollan writes of his first taste of whole hog roasting, “So this was barbecue. Right away I realized I had never before tasted the real thing, and I was converted…the most rewarding $2.75 I’d ever invested in a sandwich (45).”
Family is the center of cooking with water, Pollan contends in the second part of the book. Much of what he invokes here is family and friendship imagery: cooking long braises with the help of his wife Judith, his son Isaac or his chef friend Samin. Pollan recalls during one Sunday his son answering the phone and speaking to his grandparents.“‘It’s cold and drizzly here, but really cozy inside,’ I heard Isaac tell them. ‘Dad’s cooking and the house smells so good. This is my perfect kind of Sunday.’” (195)
While in this chapter a reminiscence of childhood memories concerning a casserole dish are shared with the reader. After all cooking pots became a part of the center of the home when fire moved indoors. “The symbolic power of the pot—to gather together, to harmonize—might begin in the home, but reaches well beyond it… (158).” This is similar to how we view letters from loved ones; especially love letters. Their power to harmonize emotions extends beyond the written word.
Cooked takes a sensual tone in the air part when Pollan describes the best bread he’d ever tasted. It (the bread) “was so powerfully aromatic that, had I been alone, I would have been tempted to push my face into it. But I was at a dinner party in Oakland with people I didn’t know very well…(212).” He describes an act that could be conceived as sexual, like nuzzling one’s face in a woman’s bosom. It is a tender exchange between lovers. How the bread was so delicious, it was symbolically arousing and stimulating.
In the section on earth or fermentation addresses alcohol, forever associated with revelry and gods like Dionysus. The earth is where new life forms from old. It is through the love of life that the god of wine has brought mankind back down to the earth.
Pollan takes the bacteria that transforms milk into cheese and juice into wine and has eroticized it. He discusses with a Catholic nun how “cheese is all about the dark side of life (360).” What is a love letter but hidden messages and double meanings about something as everyday as cheese? Because of the dance between using fire, air, water, and earth in the kitchen, Cooked has fully transformed from a book into a love letter.
Pollan, Michael. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. New York City: Penguin Group US, 2013. Print.
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