Sunday, March 23, 2014

2014 Reading, Books 31-33

31) Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, by Michael Pollan.

Michael Pollan is known for his writings about food, but before writing this book he didn't consider himself much of a cook. So he apprenticed himself to an assortment of culinary masters of the ancient elements of fire (in the form of whole-hog barbecue), water (braised meats and stews), air (yeast bread), and earth (fermented foods, e.g. sauerkraut, cheese, and beer). As always, he's an engaging storyteller, and reading his description of North Carolina whole-hog barbecue while eating a particularly dire Healthy Choice meal at lunch was almost enough to make me weep. (Don't try the Healthy Choice spaghetti and meatballs. It's disgusting--the pasta is mush and the meatballs are all but flavorless.)

The book is a giant hymn to the joys of slow food. Pollan understands we can't cook like this all the time, but I still would've liked to see him acknowledge how fast-but-real food is also a legitimate use of say, fire and water--I can do a nice quick stir-fry, f'rex. I'd also LOVE to see one of these writers who claim you can cook a meal in the time it would take to heat enough frozen meals for a family or wait for your pizza to be delivered factor in the time it takes to clean up your kitchen afterward. I love cooking. I hate cleaning up and washing dishes.

All that said, I did enjoy this book quite a bit. I can hardly wait till my current writing deadline is past, not least because I'll have time to do a lot of cooking again. And one of these days I want to invest in the right technology and take the time to learn to make my own barbecue. There is NO place in Seattle that makes 'cue that fully lives up to my Alabama definition of the word.

32) A Song at Twilight, by Pamela Sherwood.

One of the better historical romances I've read in a long time. It's set in the 1890's, an era that doesn't inherently grab my interest--if I go outside my Regency home turf I'd rather go earlier than later--but this is just a lovely, romantic story with beautiful writing. I especially liked the three-dimensional feel of the hero and heroine's world. They and the secondary characters felt solid and developed, and there was more to the characters' lives than just their romance--something you don't always get in the genre, but that I always appreciate for making the story feel more textured and plausible.

33) Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham.

Wrangam posits that the key to our transformation from relatively small-brained upright apes to humans may have been triggered by learning to master fire and use it to cook food. Cooked food is much easier to digest than raw--which means we spend less time chewing and digesting to get the calories we need. This allows us to "afford" a small gut and use that energy toward big brains instead. He also sees cooking as a key to the human social structure and as possibly more important to the development of marriage than sexual exclusivity. I.e. men may have wanted wives not so much to be sure of the paternity of their children (since that's never reliably worked and isn't even important in some hunter-gatherer societies) as to be sure of having a cooked meal waiting for them regardless of how the hunting went that day. By the same token, the woman with a husband gained a protector of her hearth and a share of any big kills the hunters made for herself and her children.

Certainly thought-provoking, and it's a short, quick read for a book on science.

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