The Basics

In several relationships over the last few years, I’ve practiced the kitchen rule–like the campsite rule, except that the commitment is to leave my partners better cooks than they were when I found them. We would cook meals together, saving work and time with two sets of hands, and I would narrate each step: while you’re slicing the meat, I’m going to soften onions in oil; while you’re grinding spices, I’m going to deglaze the pan with wine and let it reduce into a richly flavored sauce. I favor cooking that combines several food groups into one pot and that can be portioned out into several meals–or “rice bowls,” as termed by an athletic yoga instructor whose bottomless need for fuel inspired some of my first cooking lessons. This kind of dish–whether it becomes a stirfry or a risotto or even a stew–tends to follow the same kind of grammar: heat fat (butter or oil), soften alliums, add liquid (broth, wine, vinegar, whatever you have), simmer or steam or sauté vegetables and protein. Once this lesson was learned, we could expand and build on the experience of prior meals: we would discuss when you might want shallots instead of scallions and why you might want to soften them in butter instead of oil, when to skip the liquid, to lid or not to lid. The final exam would be for the gentleman to cook a meal from start to finish, simple but complete–preferably on a night when I would be home from work late and hungry, revitalized by the smell of sizzling garlic when I walked in the door.

All of this is to preface my explanation for the sinking feeling I am experiencing while reading Michael Pollan’s Cooked (for Table Matters, not for myself). To be fair, I haven’t finished it–I’m just under a third of the way through. At first, I was surprised at how much of it I agreed with–in fact there is considerable resemblance between the introduction of this book and the first draft of my dissertation, which was a bit scattered, trying to make too many arguments with wildly disparate sources. Like my first draft, Pollan wants to elevate cooking from its drudgery status to a meaningful, vital position–which seems a bit less necessary to me now than it did three years ago, but I have been reading a lot of food writing in the interim, so I imagine I see the foodscape with a great deal more optimism than most. So far: fine, though I felt rather annoyed at being told how often to cook by a grown man who just learned to cook relatively recently, and who is earning good money for his trouble. He started to lose me in the meandering personal narrative of his experience learning to barbecue, and outright appalled me with his tedious exoticization of the North Carolina barbecue culture (the same lazy stereotyping I complain about here). Then, just as I was starting to get into the chapter about boiling (which so far doesn’t poke fun at anyone’s accent), I came across this gem:

Let me propose a radically simplified version of that structure [of braises and soups], something that might serve as a kind of template or Ur-recipe for dishes organized around the element of water:
Dice some aromatic plants
Sauté them  in some fat
Brown piece(s) of meat (or other featured ingredient)
Put everything in a pot
Add some water (or stock, wine, milk, etc.)
Simmer, below the boil, for a long time

Sound familiar?

“Let me propose” is an odd construction here. He’s not exactly putting this on the table, so to speak: he’s inferring the formula from recipes and recently acquired experience, just as I did, just as numerous other cooks have. It’s probably already in a book, or many books. Though this lesson is possibly of interest to new or inexperienced cooks, it’s not an appropriate place to put a propriatary voice.

This quote more or less encapsulates my feelings of irritation and dissatisfaction with this book so far. Michael Pollan spends a lot of linespace playing the pundit: telling the reader what we need more of and what we need less of, peppering in aphorisms and pearls of recently gained wisdom like one of the smooth-talking pitmasters he worked with. But the book isn’t packaged like a introduction for aspirational cooks or even as a food fad book: with its cute-ironic titling and slick coffeetable-cookbook cover, Cooked is designed for a savvier reader, one who is already invested in food and cooking and who, presumably, is here for the “natural history of” and not the “why you should” and “what to do.” The prose seems to be struggling and weighed down with those two incommensurate styles, skimming lightly over semiotics with the briefest of nods to Levi-Strauss and Bachelard and ruminating at length about the unknowable habits of our ancestors. I keep asking as I read: why do we need Michael Pollan to tell us these things? Or rather, who thought that we needed him to write this book? What and who is this book for?

Well. I have two thirds more to read and a thousand words to write–perhaps time and process will clarify the purpose of this book.
(Like butter, heated slowly and skimmed.)
(Hey, I could have made a simmering or stewing joke instead.)

5 responses to “The Basics

  1. I’m looking forward to hearing more about this book, because it seems rather apparent right now that its intended audience is people who want to continue to feel smug about the food choices they make, rather than actually inspiring any real change. I’ll have to try to get this at the library to see what level the obnoxiousness reaches by the end of it.

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