The raw and the cooked

Exploring Michael Pollan’s evolving manifesto

The raw and the cooked

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

by Michael Pollan

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?

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Gay Bilson

Gay Bilson

Gay Bilson was, for twenty-five years (1973–1998), a restaurateur and cook in Sydney. She has created and directed several events centred on food and community, often for the Adelaide Festival, and was an associate director under Peter Sellars for the 2002 festival, producing programs such as Nourish (feeding patients in a large public hospital) and The Edible Library. In 2004 she directed Eating the City, a large community project created by the Spanish food artist and psychologist Alicia Rios, for the City of Melbourne. As an extension of this project, she recorded oral histories with the communities who took part.

In 2003 Bilson was the recipient of an Asialink residency, spending three months in Sri Lanka studying its food culture. She is the author of Plenty: Digressions on Food (Penguin, 2004). Plenty won the Nita B. Kibble Prize for Women’s Life Writing and was named The Age Book of the Year in 2005. Her most recent book is On Digestion (MUP, 2008), one of a series of essays in MUP’s ‘Little Books on Big Themes’ series. In this extended essay she questions many of the assumptions we make about agriculture, produce, and dining in Australia.

Bilson lives in rural South Australia, believing, with Cicero, that ‘If you have a garden and a library you have everything you need,’ except that, 2000 years later, she would add water and the Internet to these requirements.

Published in October 2013 no. 355