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Review of a chapter from “Cooked-A Natural History of Transformation” Pt. 1

November 11, 2014


“One way to think about bread-and there are so many:  as food or Food,  matter and Spirit,  commonplace,  communion,  metaphor,  and medium (of exchange,  transformation,  sociality,  etc.)-is simply this:  as an ingenious technology for improving the flavor,  digestibility,  and nutritional value of grass.  True,  the technology doesn’t work for all grasses,  mainly just wheat,  and it really only works for the seeds of that particular grass,  not the leaves or stems.  So it’s not quite as ingenious as the ruminant’s system for processing grass.  The cow carries around a whole other stomach for the sole purpose of fermenting all parts of all kinds of grass into usable food energy.  Our single stomach can do no such thing,  but when,  about six thousand ears ago,  we learned how to leaven bread,  we joined the grass eaters of the world in earnest,  much to the benefit of our species (not to mention the grasses).”

So begins the chapter “Air-The Education of An Amateur Baker” from Michael Pollan’s “Cooked-A Natural History of Transformation”.  I’m not familiar with a lot of his writing,  but I’ve read enough to know that the short little intro to this chapter packs a lot of potential for what may come to inform and entertain the reader.  In case you are not familiar with Pollan,  he writes very observantly about food and the processes taking it from nature, farm, or field to table.  He covers the full spectrum from  cultural,  political, and ecological concerns to health issues.  Whatever your lifestyle may be,  he will usually offer a new angle, or fresh perspective for you. Some of his other works include “In Defense of Food”,  “The Botany of Desire”,  and “Food Rules”.   Ironically,  he says that he has always had only a mild interest or passion for cooking itself.  Eventually however, he discovered that the answer to personal,  political,  and philosophical questions were found right in his kitchen.   “Cooked” concerns his education in learning how to cook well.  What an education he has!  He divides the book into four chapters, “Fire-Creatures of the Flame”,  “Water-A recipe in seven steps”,  “Air-The Education of an Amateur Baker”,  and “Earth-Fermentation’s Cold Fire”.   For each element, he apprentices under an appropriate master chef.  For this chapter, none other than master bread maker Chad Robertson of  “Tartine” fame serves as his teacher.  I was very excited to read this chapter because I have used and adapted Robertson’s method to many breads I have made.  Lucky you Pollan,  you get to work with the master.  Pollan has more than earned his way to time and tutelage under Robertson.  I’m very interested in Pollen’s experiences and observations as he works with the dough.  I’m also interested in his interaction with his teacher.  What will be Robertson’s teaching style for him.  A lot would depend on how much time Pollen was intending to work with him.  I suspect Robertson would feel it to be more of a crash course.  He’ll probably show him the basics with a good foundation so that Pollen can develop on his own.  In order to give Pollan more to consider,   I imagine Robertson will elaborate on the nuances that affect the bread making process.  Will the author develop further interest after the project?

I’m not a reviewer by any means,   this “review” is more of a “play by play” in real time as I read the chapter and try to understand the author’s side of the experience. I’ll present it in a series of parts so as to keep the posts short and sweet.

The first section is titled “A Great White Loaf”.   He begins with a general history of the evolution of bread making.  With his summation he put baking in a fresh historical perspective for me.  He has made me ask myself—In the grand scheme of bread making,  what are modern day bakers doing to push the envelope?  How are they,  in his words,  “… improving the flavor, digestibility, and nutritional value of grass”.   Pollan writes that Paleolithic hunters made use of grasses as part of their energy consumption and eventually these grasses became a bigger part of their diet when they discovered the beginnings of agriculture.  A relationship developed between man and the grasses he cultivated.  The grasses evolved to be more efficient for man and we developed enzymes to more easily digest the starch in the seeds.   The seeds still had to be “processed” in order for the precious nutrients to be unlocked and absorbed.  Initially this was done by toasting on a fire or ground between rocks before boiling to a mash.  It was discovered that this mush tasted better when it was left on a hot stone to cook,  thus creating the first “flatbread”.  Then about 6000 years ago in Egypt,  it was noticed that some of this mush,  perhaps left alone for a couple of days miraculously seemed to come alive expanding in volume.  When this porridge was put in an oven,  it grew even more,  producing an airy but solid edible mass.  The flavor and texture was much more interesting than the mush they had been eating. From then on,  bread making has been a history of improvement whether by design or accident.

Reading about the important junctures in that very short summation of the history of bread reminds me of the times when I was surprised at the vigorous activity of yeast in a sourdough starter.  Once a partially closed container popped open from gas pressure that had built up.  During the fermentation of a couple of poolishes,  bubbles would form at the surface and burst every few seconds.   In one of my early attempts of making bread I couldn’t believe the dramatic oven spring that resulted in one particular loaf.   There is a big part of bread making that still connects us to the ancient days.  Those who have grown and milled their wheat and constructed their own stone ovens are even much more connected to the tradition.

I think Pollan has hinted at one approach he’ll take in his endeavor to get a feel for bread baking.  The techniques he’ll learn will be ways to help him extract maximum flavor and best crumb structure for his loaves.  As the title of the section suggests,  he’ll very likely focus on using flour, water, salt, and natural yeast, the bare minimum of ingredients.

Before I end this part, I must mention that I disagree with his associating each of the cooking methods with a distinct element,  in this case,  air with bread baking.  In my humble opinion,  bread making involves an interaction of all 4 elements–fire,  water,  air,  and earth.  Perhaps he means to highlight the element that comes most into play with each cooking method.







4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2014 3:17 pm

    Wow, great overview of the book but also the whole process! Bread Ed 101.
    Hope all is well amigo!

  2. Marcella Rousseau permalink
    November 13, 2014 6:38 pm

    This book got very good reviews. My interest was piqued by your post. My library has the CD version, read by the author and I will pick it up tomorrow. Thank you!

    • November 13, 2014 8:36 pm

      I hope you enjoy it as much as I have been Marcella! I think I would have a harder time keeping focused on the book for a long length of time if it were an audio version. Or I would be tempted to “rewind” so I can be sure I didn’t miss something. Though to hear the author himself read it make it more interesting.

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