Book Review – Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

America’s burgeoning “foodie” movement owes much to Michael Pollan. The author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” opened the eyes of many readers to the issues surrounding modern agricultural production, from out-of-touch government subsidies of corn growers to the disconnect between the expectations and realities of industrialized organic produce. In his 2013 book “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” Pollan shifts his focus from the farm to the table, providing an elegantly written primer into the art and science of turning food into meals.

“Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” by Michael Pollan. Courtesy of michaelpollan.com

The book’s subtitle of “natural history” is well chosen, as Pollan’s approach to the science of his subject is more akin to that of a Victorian museum than a modern, specialized laboratory. He chooses to divide the world of cookery into four thematic sections mirroring the classical elements: fire, water, air, and earth. In each part, the author delves firsthand into a fundamental food preparation technique, telling the narrative of his own experience as he riffs on the chemical and cultural significance of the process. The style is highly observational, but in the best way, expansive and richly detailed.

Pollan begins with the most “primitive” of cooking styles, that of meat over flame, by diving into the world of Southern whole-hog barbecue. The technique takes on quasi-religious significance for its practitioners, and the author riffs brilliantly on the similarities between ancient burnt offerings and modern masters of the fire pit. After the pyrotechnics of this section, he moves into the kitchen, ostensibly discussing the many pot dishes made by braising in water. But it is from this humble beginning that Pollan establishes the main message of the book: cooking for oneself and one’s family and friends is among the most physically and psychologically healthful of activities.

He continues to expand on this point as he moves through the more esoteric techniques of baking and fermentation, representing air and earth in turn. As he explains, learning to make “advanced” products like bread and beer provides an irreplaceable sense of self-reliance, as well as a greater appreciation in consumption. The common thread of patience ties all four parts together: cooking, whether the slow burn of a barbeque pit or the months-long curing of cheese, cannot be rushed, and in this way stands in opposition to the breakneck pace of modernity.

In “Cooked,” Pollan has written an endlessly engaging and thoughtful treatise on why cooking matters. Like the products it describes, the book is a feast for the senses and the mind, an inspiration to cook further. The author offers a handful of recipes in an appendix just for that purpose, and a reader can’t be blamed for heading straight to the kitchen.

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From the Vaults – The Science of MSG

Editors note: To welcome any readers that may be coming to my blog from my recent post regarding GMOs on LIVESTRONG.COM, I’m reposting one of my earlier discussions about another misunderstood topic in food: monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

As discussed in last week’s article, some creative scientists are examining the changes in Hawaiian seafood menus over time for useful data about fishery abundance. If researchers were to study another set of menus, those of Chinese restaurants in the United States, they would find a similarly interesting trend: from the early 1970s onward, many menus began to advertise the absence of monosodium glutamate, or MSG, in their cuisine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, has labeled MSG as a “generally recognized as safe” food ingredient since 1959. A sudden change in public perception led to these changes, but the roots of that perception are surprisingly obscure.

Courtesy of closter1chinesefood.com

Although MSG was only formally discovered in the early 20th century by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda, the compound from which it is derived, glutamic acid, is one of the 20 amino acids necessary for proteins (and therefore life itself). The body recognizes the importance of glutamic acid through the sense of taste in foods like asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat. Just as the tongue’s taste buds detect sodium chloride as salty, sucrose as sweet, or quinine as bitter, they register glutamic acid as its own unique taste, designated by Ikeda as “umami,” a Japanese word for “delicious” or “yummy” that is often translated as “savory.” MSG is simply glutamic acid that has been stabilized through the addition of sodium; for comparison, MSG contains one-third the amount of sodium per unit volume as table salt.

Asian cooking traditionally derived umami flavor from ingredients such as seaweed (from which Ikeda first isolated glutamic acid) and dried tuna, but by the 1950s, purified MSG was available to the United States as the seasoning Ac’cent. Restauranteurs and food processors were quick to adopt the ingredient as an inexpensive way to bolster the flavor of their products. No concerns were raised by the substance’s inclusion until 1968, when a Chinese-American doctor named Robert Ho Man Kwok reported feeling a number of ill effects after eating at Chinese restaurants in the United States.

As BuzzFeed’s John Mahoney outlines, Dr. Kwok hypothesized in the New England Journal of Medicine that his symptoms may have been “caused by the monosodium glutamate seasoning used to a great extent for seasoning in Chinese restaurants,” and after the New York Times covered the story, a flurry of experiments were conducted to confirm his suspicions. Many of these studies did report an association between high doses of MSG and symptoms such as headaches and flushing, but they lacked the proper scientific rigor of double-blind design (in which both the experimenter and subject do not know which treatment is being administered) or placebo controls.

Better designed experiments over the following decades failed to confirm the results of earlier research, and a comprehensive review by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology concluded that were was no association between MSG and short- or long-term health issues in humans. Despite this research, a number of groups have continued to advocate about the perceived dangers of the compound, and MSG has been absent from baby food since 1969. Yet as the scientific consensus stands, one should feel no fear in enjoying a plate of egg foo young from a Chinese restaurant, even if the menu is silent about the presence of MSG.