Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
Allen Lane, $29.99 pb, 468 pp, 9781846148033
If Michael Pollan were a terminal illness, I’d be in the fourth stage of grieving. He has had a brilliant and successful run until now, producing seven books in just over twenty years, taking up a university teaching position (yes, food-related), writing long articles, mostly for the New York Times, and all the while cooking and thinking his way to self-fulfilment.
I reviewed The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-eye View of the World (2001), his third book, charmed by his easy, enthusiastic, conversational style, and his marshalling of information, but sceptical of his central idea, that the foods and plants we choose to grow as major crops (he nominates apples, potatoes, marijuana, and tulips) have increased their own longevity as much as we have benefited by manipulating them to suit large-scale, industrialised agriculture. The plants, Pollan suggests, are using us as much as we are using them. Plants, as far as I understand them, are marvellous and complex organisms, but not self-aware. Pollan edges uncomfortably towards gifting them an anthropomorphic voice. Surely we have dramatically reduced the biodiversity of food plants, rather than allowing specific varieties to multiply?