Michael Pollan has never been one to shy away from a manifesto. His fourth book, In Defense of Food, even goes so far as to call itself that in its subtitle, and his sixth and most recent, Cooked, makes its intentions clear from page one: Cooking, Pollan argues a mere three paragraphs into Cooked's introduction, is not only "the single most important thing we could do ... to improve our health and general well-being," it's also the "most important thing an ordinary person can do to help reform the American food system." Elsewhere in the book, the four subgenres of cooking around which Cooked is organized — barbecuing, braising, baking, and fermenting — are imbued with, variously, massive political, historical, environmental, evolutionary, ethical, and even spiritual import: The simple act of cooking, Pollan argues, has the power to cut obesity rates, disrupt the industrial agriculture system, and connect us with our families, our roots, our environment, our bodies.
He's absolutely right, of course. But whether it's actually possible to get more Americans into the kitchen is the bigger question, and it's one that Pollan addresses throughout the book without ever really answering in a totally satisfying way. He acknowledges that time is probably the biggest barrier to home cooking — and then proceeds to include in the book's appendix four recipes that range in prep time from four to six hours to several weeks. He claims, pretty convincingly, to be a novice in the kitchen — but then later, when he finds himself in a grocery store's frozen food aisle as part of a family dining experiment dubbed "Microwave Night," his mock-bewildered description of so many unpronounceable ingredients and brightly colored packages can't help but read as more aloof foodie than approachable everyman. Whether Pollan's stance as a something of a food purist is the result of privilege — after all, it's easy to think of many people for whom spending a Sunday afternoon roasting a whole pork shoulder in their front-yard fire pit represents a serious luxury of time, space, and money — or persona-building or nostalgia or something else entirely is a vexing, complicated, and near-perennial question, but at any rate, in the case of Cooked, it occasionally makes for a less relatable narrator and a less immediate narrative.
All that said, though, it's worth noting that Pollan is one of the greatest nonfiction writers on the planet, and Cooked is engagingly written, assiduously reported, and even occasionally funny. But Pollan's at his best when he's acting as a journalist, rather than a memoirist or a polemicist: That is, when he's tracing the history of gluten allergies or gender roles or microwave cooking or American racial politics as they relate to barbecue; when he's explaining what goes on inside a Wonder Bread factory or our own gut; when he's introducing us to brewers or bread nerds or barbecue masters, not so we can become them, but so we can learn what they do and try to apply it, in some small way, to our own lives — when, in other words, he's showing rather than telling. Michael Pollan reads from Cooked on Wednesday, May 22 at Barnes and Noble (6050 El Cerrito Plaza, El Cerrito). 7 p.m., free. MichaelPollan.com/appearances.