Cooked, by Michael Pollan

images.jpegThis book was recommended to me by the sourdough baker whose course I took. It turned out that I had already one of Pollan’s books – The Botany of Desire, which was awesome and looked at various plants in light of the general idea of desire. (My biggest take away message: the Agricultural Revolution was the grasses using humanity to destroy the trees. Also that all edible apples are clones.)

This book is Pollan’s attempt to learn more about cooking, having looked at the gardening and the eating side for a long time. He divides the book into four sections: Fire, Water, Air, Earth. Or, basically: barbecue, braise, bread, and fermenting. Continue reading “Cooked, by Michael Pollan”

The Pedant in the Kitchen

Pedant_150x205.jpgMy beloved, loving, and never at all snarky mother gave me this book a couple of years ago, for my birthday I think. I was a little miffed at the time, although that didn’t stop me enjoying it. I’ve just re-read it, and once again I really appreciated it. In fact, I think I got more out of it on this read-through.

Barnes describes himself as a pedant because he will never be one of those breezy “oh, I never use a recipe” type cooks; he uses recipes, he sticks to recipes, and he gets incensed when, for example, a recipe has step 1, step 2, and step 4. He loathes being told to use a lump or a gout of some ingredient. By this measure I am absolutely, almost irredeemably, a kitchen pedant. And I’m ok with that. I know that I will never really be a kitchen experimenter. I can make a meal without a recipe but only if it’s very standard meat and veg, or some vague pasta sauce. Barnes reassures me that there are other people like me out there, and we’re ok. We’re really ok.

This book is funny. Like laugh out loud sometimes funny. But possibly only to other pedants. And possibly if non-pedants laughed, I would feel a bit offended; we only get to laugh when it’s laughing at us, right? So only a pedant really appreciates the frustration inherent in figuring out the differences between chopping and slicing an onion (and does it make a difference?) or the frustration of not being to fit two pork chops and four chicory halves into one pan.

But there’s also a wonderful degree of comfort and reassurance in Barnes’ writing, for someone like me who stresses and overthinks things. When asked how many cookbooks you have, do you say

a) not enough,

b) just the right number, or

c) too many?

Barnes points out that if you answered b) you’re either lying or have no interest in food… or, most frighteningly, you’ve worked everything out perfectly. Maximum points are scored for answering both a) and c), which is exactly what I would have said. His description of trying to deal with That Drawer (Cupboard, Shelf, whatever) – what to throw out, what to keep, what’s your criteria? – is both funny and exactly how I feel; and his lament and reassurance that no one (not even Elizabeth David) ever has the perfect kitchen is a delight.

This is a delightful little book, and I love it. Only for the pedant, though. Available from Fishpond.

Consider the Fork

13587130.jpgWhen I listened to the first episode of Gastropod, I immediately decided I needed to read Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork. And now I have, and I was not disappointed.

To start with the writing: Wilson writes beautifully. Her prose is clear, occasionally whimsical, sensible, and altogether a delight to read. It’s not that often that I read 280 pages of history in just over a day, even when I’m on holidays. In fact at one point I tried to put it away because I was worried I would finish it too quickly (I was away from my bookshelf; I was feeling a bit irrational, ok?). Her love of food and history and cooking come through clearly; she mingles the occasional personal anecdote with what’s clearly broad-ranging research. But she also doesn’t get bogged down in the research – she’s not aiming to construct a thorough, blow by blow account of the development of cooking or food technology. She’s writing for an educated but non-professional audience and she does it really well.

The chapters are organised around probably the most important aspects of cooking and its technology: pots and pans; knives; fire; measuring; grinding (I admit this one surprised me a little); eating; ice; and the kitchen itself. In each chapter she gives some of the current thinking about where and if possible how the technology began (in some instances in the Palaeolithic, in others more recently), and then – depending on the objects – skims through the ancient world, the medieval, and the early modern.

My main quibble with the book is its European preponderance, but I do wonder whether I’m being overly sensitive about that. There’s a wonderful section about the Chinese knife, the tou; and a discussion about the difference in fork+knife vs chopsticks; some about the differences in wok cooking opposed to more European methods; and other mentions as well. I wonder if there’s more history done on this from a European perspective – or that’s translated into English anyway. Although if that’s the case I would have liked a mention of the dearth of literature.

Another small quibble is that sometimes her language implies that the changes in cooking technology were things that the population had just been waiting for. While that might be true for can openers (invented FIFTY YEARS after the invention of the tin, I kid you not), sometimes it grated a little: to whit: “At last, these people [the ancient Greeks] had discovered the joy of cooking with pots and pans” (12). I get what she means but it grated a little.

Anyway. A few gems include ideas for future ice cream experiments (burnt almond, orange flower water, cinnamon, apricot, quince; bitter cherry; muscat pear…), the history of the refrigerator and freezer and how they show differences between the English and Americans post-WW2, and developments from coal to gas to electricity in terms of stoves. Also the thing about the tin opener. SO WEIRD.

Overall this is a joyous book that I highly recommend if you’re into food and history, especially both at the same time. Her writing really is marvellous, you might learn something, and it re-inspired me to get into my kitchen and make something. (Which was annoying because I was on holidays, but whatevs.)