Friday, June 14, 2013

COOKED by Michael Pollan

Eat food.
Not too much.
Mostly plants.

--Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food

In The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), science journalist Michael Pollan looked at how food is produced. In his next two books, In Defense of Food (2008)and Food Rules (2009), he told us what we should eat (see above). In his most recent book, Cooked (April 2013), he investigates the methods, biology, and philosophy of food preparation.

I loved Omnivore: it's one of those rare books that can get a person fascinated by a topic that previously held no interest whatsoever. The two Food books were thin but full of wise advice, such as Pollan's now-famous seven-word guide to good eating.

Cooked, at 480 pages, should have been thinner.

I enjoyed Pollan's introduction, which is essentially the speech I heard him give at a nearby college a couple of months ago. Cooking, he says, is what separates humans from all other species--or at least so wrote the Scottish biographer Boswell in the 18th century, the French gastronome Brillat-Savarin in the 19th, and the French anthropologist Lévi-Strauss in the 20th. In fact, numerous writers suggest, cooking (rather than hunting and gathering) made civilization possible.

Unfortunately, Americans in the 21st century seem to be devolving: we now spend less time than people of any other nation preparing our meals, though we watch an incredible amount of cooking-related TV. "The premise of this book," Pollan writes, "is that cooking--defined broadly enough to take in the whole spectrum of techniques people have devised for transforming the raw stuff of nature into nutritious and appealing things for us to eat and drink--is one of the most interesting and worthwhile things we human beings do."

Pollan explores four of these techniques in the book's four sections, "Fire" (grilling: barbecue), "Water" (braising: stews), "Air" (baking: bread), and "Earth" (fermenting: sauerkraut, cheese, wine, beer). In each section he observes and often works alongside masters of the particular craft, not only describing each process but also telling how to reproduce the ancient methods today, how they work biologically, what they offer nutritionally, and how the results taste.

Part of the fun of a book by Pollan is the way he interacts with his topic. My favorite story in Cooked is about the night he and his son, Isaac, decided to "cook" a meal using only convenience foods bought at Safeway. It's not exactly a spoiler to let you know the outcome: more time, more expense, and less family time at table than when they cooked meals from scratch. And besides, after the first three bites everything tasted alike.

Still, 480 pages turned out to be more than I wanted to know. I found myself skimming though many descriptive pages that needed to stop circling and come in for a landing. Pollan could have condensed his material into one fantastic magazine article, or maybe even four of them. His book-length treatment, however, seemed excessive.

Besides, I wondered, why was the guy who told us to eat "mostly plants" devoting maybe three-quarters of his book to meat and dairy?

If you haven't yet read a book by Pollan, don't start here: you are more likely to be entranced by The Omnivore's Dilemma. If you already love Pollan's writing (or his frequent commentaries on TV), go ahead and read Cooking. Skim if you need to: just as you're thinking, he does go on, doesn't he, you'll hit a trenchant observation that keeps you reading. Like this, for example, on the role of alcohol in religion:
Alcohol has served religion as a proof of gods' existence, a means of access to sacred realms, and a mode of observance, whether solemn (as in the Eucharist) or ecstatic (as in the worship of Dionysus or, in Judaism, the celebration of Purim). The decidedly peculiar belief that, behind or above or within the physical world available to our senses, there exists a second world of spirits, surely must owe at least a partial debt to the experience of intoxication. Even today, when we raise and clink glasses in a toast, what are we really doing if not invoking a supernatural power? That's why a glass of water or milk just doesn't do the trick.

I'll drink to that.

Monday, June 10, 2013

J. Alfred Prufrock contemplates retirement

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
 T.S. Eliot 

Wednesday is my husband's last day at the office.
We've been looking forward to this next phase of our lives for a long time. For some 25 years we've been sending a large percentage of our modest incomes to retirement accounts. We joke that our retirement plan is to live on so little that we won't miss it when it's gone.

For the last several months we've been crunching the numbers. When exactly should he retire? Would a reallocation of our retirement resources make them last longer? Which of our two highly professional, fee-based, but disagreeing financial advisers should we follow? When should we take Social Security? When can we start getting Medicare benefits? Which work-based health-insurance plan should we sign up for in order to stay covered until Medicare kicks in? Which of the many Medicare supplemental insurance plans is best? Which of the many insurance companies offering such plans is most likely to stay solvent and keep its rates low? Which Medicare Part D prescription drug plan will best suit our needs?

We've also been looking at lifestyle questions. Should we stay in the place that has been home for 25 years, or should we move to be closer to family? We know about living too far from our kids - 1100 miles from one daughter's family, 800 miles from the other's - but is it possible to live too close? If we move, how do we find good realtors, here and there? What do we need to do to get our place ready to sell? We already live in a townhouse - should we downsize even further? When thinking about a place to live, what factors are most important to us? Will we need a place without stairs?

And then there's the question everybody asks: What will you do in retirement?

"First," my husband says, "I'm going to clean the garage." I hope he's not joking.