Book Challenge - Cooked by Michael Pollan

The following are my favorite quotes from Michael Pollan's Cooked.  
  1. The less cooking we were doing in our own lives the more that food and its vicarious preparation transfixed us.
  2. In ancient Greece, the word for "cook," "butcher," and "priest" was the same --mageiros -- and the word shares an etymological root with "magic."
  3. A few years ago, a Harvard anthropologist and primatologist named Richard Wrangham published a fascinating book called Catching Fire, in which he argued that it was the discovery of cooking by our early ancestors -- and not tool making or meat eating or language -- that set us apart from the apes and made us human.
  4. Once cooking allowed us to expand our cognitive capacity at the expense of our digestive capacity, there was no going back: Our big brains and tiny guts now depended on a diet of cooked food.
  5. Industrial cooking has taken a substantial toll on our health and well-being.  Corporations cook very differently from how people do (which is why we usually call what they do "food processing" instead of cooking.)
  6. The decline in home cooking closely tracks the rise in obesity and all the chronic diseases linked to diet.
  7. One of the biggest reasons corporations were able to insinuate themselves into this part of our lives is because home cooking had for so long been denigrated as "women's work" and therefore not important enough for men and boys to learn to do.
  8. For most of history most of humanity's food has been cooked by women working out of public view and without public recognition.
  9. To learn to cook is to put yourself on intimate terms with the laws of physics and chemistry, as well as the facts of biology and microbiology.
  10. Killing and cooking a large animal has never been anything but an emotionally freighted and spiritually charged endeavor.
  11. Cooking -- of whatever kind, everyday or extreme -- situates us in the world in a very special place, facing the natural world on one side and the social world on the other.  The cook stands squarely between nature and culture, conducting a process of translation and negotiation.  Both nature and culture are transformed by the work.  And in the process, I discovered, so is the cook.
  12. Specialization is undeniably a powerful social and economic force.  And yet it is also debilitating.  It breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance and, eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility.
  13. This learned helplessness is, of course, much to the advantage of the corporations eager to step forward and do all this work for us.
  14. One problem with the division of labor in our complex economy is how it obscures the lines of connection, and therefore of responsibility, between our everyday acts and their real-world consequences.  Specialization makes it easy to forgot about the filth of the coal-fired power plant that is lighting this pristine computer screen, or the backbreaking labor it took to pick the strawberries for my cereal, or the misery of the hog that lived and died so I could enjoy my bacon.  Specialization neatly hides our implication in all that is done on our behalf by unknown other specialists half a world away.
  15. To cook for the pleasure of it, to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption.
  16. Cooking has the power to transform more than plants and animals: It transforms us, too, from mere consumers into producers.
  17. The regular exercise of these simple skills for producing some of the necessities of life increases self-reliance and freedom while reducing our dependence on distant corporations.
  18. Of all the animals we eat, none resembles us more closely than the hog.
  19. The idea of meat, the smoky, ethereal trace of animal flesh wafting up to heaven, is what the gods want from us.  The can and do fill up on smoke.
  20. Even during the darkest days of segregation, blacks and whites patronized the same barbecue joints, despite the fact that, prior to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, they could not eat their barbecue in the same dining room.  If the best barbecue in town happened to be at a black establishment, whites would line up at the take-out window; if it happened to be at a white joint, then blacks would line up at the window.
  21. Today, the most democratic sandwich is underwritten by the most brutal kind of agriculture.
  22. You have to wonder, who is really the more "primitive" character here?  In our failure to attend to the processes that put meat on our plates, we moderns eat more like the animals than the ancients did.
  23. According to Levi-Strauss, the distinction between "the raw" and "the cooked" has served many cultures as the great trope for the difference between animals and people.
  24. Grilling meat over a fire today commemorates the transformative power of cooking itself, which never appears so bright or explicit as when wood and fire and flesh are brought together under that aromatic empire of smoke.
  25. Had our protohuman ancestors not seized control of the fire and used it to cook their food, they would never have evolved into Homo sapiens.
  26. The body must work especially hard to process raw foodstuffs, in which the strong muscle fibers and sinews in meat and the tough cellulose in the cell walls of plants must be broken down before the small intestines can absorb the amino acids, lipids, and sugars locked up in these foods.  Cooking in effect takes much of the work of digestion outside the body, using the energy of fire in (partial) place of the energy of our bodies to break down complex carbohydrates and render proteins more digestible.
  27. Cooking opened up vast new horizons of edibility for our ancestors, giving them an important competitive edge over other species and, not insignificantly, leaving us more time to do things besides looking for food and chewing it.
  28. Wrangham estimates that before our ancestors learned to cook their food they would have had to devote fully half their waking hours simply to the act of chewing it.
  29. Half of the women on a raw-food regimen stop menstruating.
  30. Our brains constitute only 2.5% of our weight yet consume 20% of our energy when we're resting.
  31. When researchers switch a python's diet from raw beef to cooked hamburger, the snake's "metabolic cost of digestion" is reduced nearly 25%, leaving the animal that much more energy to put to other purposes.
  32. Wrangham points out that many animals scavenge burned landscapes, enjoying particularly the roasted rodents and seeds.  He cites the example of chimpanzees in Senegal, who will eat the seeds of the Afzelia tree only after a fire has passed through and toasted them.
  33. The key to luring people back downtown, Hatem had figured out, was to open some good restaurants there.
  34. Ed remembers getting to cook his first pig at fourteen, and how he relished the privilege of spending long hours around the fire pit with the men of the family.
  35. The man who mediates between the fire and the beast, and the beast and the beast eaters, has projected onto him a certain primal power.
  36. Whole-hog barbecue stands out as a particularly powerful form of communion, in which the meat is divided among the eaters according to a notably democratic protocol.  Everyone gets a taste of every cut, eating not just from the same animal but from every part of that animal, the choice and the not-so-choice.
  37. The sentence I heard from more than any other from the pit masters I interviewed, from the Carolinas to Texas and Tennessee, would have to be the one they wielded when speaking of any other tribe's cooking rituals: "Okay, but that's not barbecue."
  38. Great prestige accrues to the man who officiates at the ritual sacrifice, killing the animal, cutting it up, cooking it, and delivering the meat.
  39. The pit masters worked exclusively with the ancient, primary colors of cooking -- wood, fire, smoke, and meat -- and strove not for originality or even development but for faithfulness.
  40. I now understand that it was not the fire but the remains of the fire, the smoldering wood coals, that you really wanted to cook with.
  41. You have to cook the wood before you can cook the food.
  42. Gazing into the flames of a wood fire is mesmerizing; the flames seem to take control of your thoughts, deflecting them from any linear path.
  43. "Animals need food, water, and shelter," Richard Wrangham writes in Catching Fire.  "We humans need all those things, but we need fire too."
  44. A miraculous transformation occurs once the internal temperature of the meat reaches 195 F.
  45. It's not whole-hog, true, but the shoulder, which consists of a few different muscle groups as well as plenty of fat, is the next best thing.
  46. The native flavor of an octopus or tuna belly intensified by the just the right note of the right kind of smoke, much as a careful deployment of salt can bring out the flavors of a food without announcing its own salty presence.
  47. My meal at Etxebarri began and ended with variations on smoked cream, and for me these remain the most memorable tastes of the afternoon, if not of my whole exploration of fire to date.  Bittor churns his butter himself and serves it without bread.
  48. And his butters -- there were both cow's milk and goat -- become a study in contrasts, of these two methods nature has evolved for transforming grass into butterfat.
  49. Homely in the best sense, pot dishes are about marrying lots of prosaic little things rather than elevating one big thing.
  50. Cooking is no longer obligatory, and that marks a shift in human history, one whose full implications we're just beginning to reckon.
  51. Today, the typical American spends a mere twenty-seven minutes a day on food preparation, and another four minutes cleaning up.  That's less than half the time spent cooking and cleaning up in 1965, when I was a boy.
  52. Dice some aromatic plant, saute them in some fat, browns 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.
  53. Even browning meat, an operation that to me seemed fairly self-evident if not banal, deserved to be done with the utmost care and attention, and so with passion.
  54. Cooking in a pot is all about economy.  Every last drop of the fat and juices from the meat, which over a fire would be lost, are conserved, along with all the nutrients from the plants.
  55. If we are going to eat animals, it behooves us to waste as few and as little of them as we possibly can, something that the humble cook pot allows us to do.
  56. Outwardly, browning looks like a fairly simple operation, but at the molecular level it adds a great deal of complexity to the dish, hundreds of new compounds, and, taken together, a whole other layer of flavors.
  57. The cook pot is kind of second human stomach, an external organ of digestion that allows us to consume plants that would otherwise be inedible or require elaborate processing.
  58. If the first gastronomic revolution unfolded under the sign of community, gathered around the animal roasting on the fire, and the second that of the family, gathered around the stew pot, then the third one, now well under way, seems to be consecrated to the individual: Have it your way.
  59. The common pot is always pushing against the sovereignty of individual taste.  Which might help explain why its popularity is in decline today while the microwave's is ascendant.
  60. Water that has been domesticated by being confined to a pot might not seem as potent as the wild water that carves canyons and coastlines, but its powers are impressive even so.
  61. Bacon is a veritable umami bomb, containing all of the umami compounds that have thus far been identified.
  62. Umami is the quasi-secret heart and soul of almost every braise, stew, and soup.
  63. Nothing about dashi, when tasted by itself, prepares you for what it does in concert with other flavors.
  64. Is it merely a coincidence that so many of the things we think of as "comfort foods" -- everything from ice cream to chicken soup -- traffic in tastes of either sweetness or umami, the two big tastes first encountered on the breast?
  65. "The transformation which occurs in the cauldron is quintessential and wondrous, subtle and delicate," wrote a Chinese chef names I Yin in 239 B.C., no doubt moved by a similar eating experience.  "The mouth cannot express it in words."
  66. As one wise cookbook advises when one is making a braise, "if you wonder whether it's done, it's not."
  67. The household was a more self-sufficient unit before the rise of the market and the division of labor.
  68. Since 1967, we've added 167 hours -- the equivalent of a month's full time labor -- to the total amount of time we spend at work each year, and in households where both parents work, now the great majority, the figure is more like 400 hours.
  69. Processing food is extremely profitable -- much more so than growing it or selling it whole.  So it became the strategy of food corporations to move into our kitchens long before many women had begun to move out.
  70. In the 1950's, just-add-water cake mixes languished in the supermarket until the marketers figured out that if they left something for the "baker" to do -- specifically, crack open an actual egg -- she could take ownership of the cake, feel as though she had discharged her moral obligation to cook.
  71. A wilting head of broccoli in the fridge is "a guilt trip," Balzer says, whereas a frozen entree loyally stands by us indefinitely.  "Fresh is a hassle."
  72. Already today, 80% of the cost of food eaten in the home goes to someone other than a farmer, which is to say, to industrial cooking and packaging and marketing.
  73. During the last few decades, we have somehow managed to find nearly two more hours in our busy lives to devote to the computer each day.  In a day that still has exactly twenty-four hours in it, where in the world did we find all that time?
  74. The time and work involved in cooking, as well as the delay in gratification built into the cooking process, serve as an important check on our appetite.  Now that check is gone, and we're struggling to deal with the consequences.
  75. "Easy.  You want Americans to eat less?  I have the diet for you.  Cook it yourself.  Eat anything you want -- just as long as you're willing to cook it yourself."
  76. One of the great luxuries of life at this point is to be able to do one thing at a time, one thing to which you give yourself wholeheartedly.
  77. Stews and braises are infinitely more delicious the second or third night.
  78. Microwave Night was a notably individualistic experience, marked by centrifugal energies, a certain opaqueness, and, after it was all over, a remarkable quantity of trash.  It was, in other words, a lot like modern life.
  79. For every step up a food chain (or "trophic pyramid"), 90% of the food energy is lost, which is why big predators are so much more rare than ruminants, which in turn are so much more rare than blades of grass.
  80. So was born bread baking, the world's first food-processing industry.
  81. Baking takes a lot of time, but for the most part it's not your time.
  82. Sourdough bread will have a lower "glycemic index" than a bread leavened with yeast.
  83. Animals instinctively sour, sprout, ferment foods to extract the maximum nourishment from them while expanding as little of their own body's energy as possible.
  84. Most foods, even the whole hog, are altered versions of nature's already existing animals and plants, which more or less retain their form after cooking.  But a loaf of bread is something new added to the world.
  85. Elation, effervescence, elevation, levity, inspiration: air words all, alveolated with vowels, leavening the dough of everyday life.
  86. There eventually came a moment when, propelled by the logic of human desire and technological progress, we began to overprocess certain foods in a such a way as to actually render them detrimental to our health and well-being.
  87. Here was a classic capitalist "solution."  Rather than go back to address a problem at its source -- the processing of key nutrients out of wheat -- the industry set about processing the product even more.  This was sheer brilliance:  The milling industry could now sell the problem and the solution in one neat package.
  88. "So, to mill whole-grain flour well," I had said to Joe, "you really have to be able to think like a seed, don't you?"
  89. Gardening successfully depends on two different but related faculties, both highly relevant to baking.  The first is the green thumb's ability to notice and absorb everything going on in his garden, from the precise tint of the leaves to the aroma of the soil.  The data of your senses have more to tell you about the work than anything you can read in a book.  The second is the green thumb's knack for imagining what his plants and soil want in order to be maximally happy and thrive.
  90. The dream of control is seductive, but it leads straight to monoculture in the field and fortified white bread in the supermarket.
  91. "No poems can please long or live that are written by water drinkers."  Horace
  92. It seems there's a lot more going on in a crock of homemade sauerkraut than a handful of lactobacilli species diligently fermenting the sugars in a cabbage; at stake in that crock is our whole relationship to nature.
  93. Mastery of the fermentation arts could also help us break the dependency of consumerism, rebuild local food systems (since fermented foods allow us to eat locally all year long), and rediscover the "pleasures and wonders of transformation."
  94. The twentieth-century war on bacteria -- with its profligate use of antibiotics, and routine sterilization of food -- has undermined our health by wrecking the ecology of our gut.
  95. To ferment food is to predigest it, in effect, breaking long chains of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates our bodies might not be able to make good use of into simpler, safer compounds they can.
  96. Taken as a whole, the microbiota constitutes the largest and one of the human body's most important organs of defense.
  97. Under the pressures of broad-spectrum antibiotics, a Pasteurian regime of "good sanitation," and a modern diet notably hostile to bacteria, the human microbiota has probably changed more in the last hundred years than in the previous ten thousand, when the shift to agriculture altered our diet and lifestyle.  We are only just beginning to recognize the implications of these changes to our health.
  98. In utero, our bodies are sterile, but the microbially messy process of vaginal birth exposes the baby to a set of bacteria that immediately begin to colonize its body.
  99. Children born by Cesarean section, a far more hygienic process, take much longer to populate their intestinal tract, and never acquire quite the same assortment of bugs.
  100. A mother's nipple harbors a community of lactobacilli, and it was recently discovered that the milk itself contains bacteria that may play a role in colonizing the baby's gut.
  101. As nature's most perfect food -- having been shaped entirely by natural selection -- mother's milk has much to teach us, and not the least the two crucial facts: that bacteria is good food, and that feeding the bacteria is as important as feeding the baby.
  102. We have changed the human diet in such a way that it no longer feeds the whole superorganism, as it were, only our human selves.  We're eating for one, when we need to be eating for, oh, a few trillion.
  103. The buildup of plaque in the arteries, once thought to be the result of saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet, now appears to be an inflammatory response, the arteries' attempt to heal themselves.
  104. Probiotics -- beneficial bacteria ingested either in fermented foods or in supplements -- have been shown to: calm the immune system and reduce inflammation; shorten the duration and severity of colds in children; relieve diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome; reduce allergic responses, including asthma; stimulate the immune response; possibly reduce the risk of certain cancers; reduce anxiety; prevent yeast infestions; diminish levels of E. Coli 0157:H7 in cattle and salmonella in chickens; and improve the health and function of the gut epithelium.
  105. Pasteurization is an industrial Band-Aid applied to an industrial problem.
  106. Milk and cheese are complex ecological systems that can, at least to some extent, defend and police themselves.
  107. The cheese that had been started in the sterile vat had high levels of E. coli, and the cheese made in the wooden barrel had next to none.  Just as Sister Noella had expected, the "good bacteria" living in the barrel -- most of them lactobacilli -- had outcompeted the E. coli, creating an environment in which it couldn't survive.
  108. Wood, and the bacteria wood harbored, formed an indispensable part of this process, and, ironically enough, introducing a more hygienic material only made the process less hygienic.
  109. Disgust is one of the primary human emotions; it appears on even the shortest list of human emotions, and in fact is unique to our species.
  110. Putrefaction is repulsive to us because it reminds us of our ultimate fate, which is to have the noble and intricate form of our bodies disintegrate into a suppurating, stinking puddle of formlessness, then to be returned to the earth as food for the worms.
  111. Many Asians regard cheese of any kind as repulsive, and stinky cheeses so disgusting as to be utterly incomprehensible as food.
  112. In the same way that disgust can be used to draw lines between humans and other animals, it can also help draw lines between cultures.
  113. The fermentation that gives us alcohol, by transforming plant sugars into a liquid with the power to alter our experience of consciousness, is just the sort of miracle on which whole faiths can rest.
  114. In laboratory experiments, some animals will drink to excess, sometimes even death.
  115. Chimps faced with an open bar will maintain themselves in a permanent state of drunkenness.
  116. Rats presented with an unlimited supply of alcohol will drink as much as many people do: gathering for a cocktail before dinner, taking a nightcap before sleep, and then, every three or four days, holding a raucous, drunken party.
  117. Though it is remarkably easy to make alcohol, it is much harder to make it well.
  118. It appears likely that Native Americans were drinking corn before they began eating it.
  119. All four elements were represented in the beer-making process.  The barley is first cooked over a fire; the grain is then boiled in water; and the beer, after fermentation, is carbonated with air.
  120. In most cultures, anthropologists tell us, drinking alcohol has been a social ritual, and, much like hunting large animals and cooking them over fires, the practice helped foster social cohesion.
  121. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes.
  122. Fermentation is the secondary imagination of nature.
  123. There is a deeper kind of learning that can only be had by doing the work yourself, acquainting all your senses with the ins and how-tos and wherefores of an intricate making.
  124. Knowing how to bake bread or brew beer with your own two hands is to more deeply appreciate a really good beer or loaf of bread -- the sheer wonder of it! -- when you're lucky enough to come across one.
  125. I doubt it's a coincidence that interests in all kinds of DIY pursuits has intensified at the precise historical moment when we find ourselves spending most of our waking hours in fronts of screens -- senseless, or nearly so.
  126. To join the makers of the world is always to feel at least a little more self-reliant, a little more omnicompetent.
  127. Though it is clearly cheaper and easier to rely on untold, unseen others to provide for our everyday needs, to live that way comes at a price, not least to our sense of competence and independence.
  128. To try your hand at something new is to find out a few things about yourself, too.
  129. Is there a sweeter proof of the power of cooking to bring people together -- to create a community, even if only for a night?
  130. It is also a declaration of independence from an economy that would much prefer we remain passive consumers of its standardized commodities, rather than creators of idiosyncratic products expressive of ourselves and of the places where we live, because your pale ale or sourdough bread or kimchi is going to taste nothing like mine or anyone else's.
  131. Cooking is all about connection between us and other species, other cultures (human and microbial both), but, most important, other people.
I hope you enjoyed!  Which are your favorites?  Do you plan to read Cooked now that you've read my favorite quotes?