It's the new black.

Cooking with Cooked: Michael Pollan and the Power of Metaphor

The US National Archives, 1941-1945.

The US National Archives, 1941-1945.

For me, the smell of summer is the smell of time, wafting, lollygagging: time to roam thrift stores, read about productivity and St. Augustine, and time to cook. Cooking is the privilege not afforded to indentured creatures of the cafeteria meal plan. Thus, reading about cooking in the summer after graduation is the sweet, sweet smell of freedom.

Cooking as liberation: it’s not a typical understanding, at least from a traditional feminist perspective. Yet in Cooked: A History of National Transformation, Michael Pollan argues that cooking is liberation from a new enemy, the food marketing and processing industry, as well as the wider social evil of “consumerization.” Pollan writes that in small but tangible ways, cooking enables us to reverse the producer-consumer identification, or even better, transcend it.

Cooked is in part a treatise on diet, a history of cooking, cultural commentary, and a work of contemporary philosophy. Pollan draws us into the nuances and paradoxes of cooking. As he has in books like Food Rules and In Defense of Food, he writes with extraordinary journalistic rigor as well as with an almost unmatched respect for the importance of culture, tradition, and human complexity.

 “It may also be that, quite apart from any specific references one food makes to another, it is the very allusiveness of cooked food that appeals to us, as indeed that same quality does in poetry or music or art. We gravitate toward complexity and metaphor, it seems, and putting fire to meat, or fermenting fruit and grain, gives us both: more sheer sensory information and, specifically, sensory information that, like metaphor, points us away from the here and now. This sensory metaphor – this stands for that – is one of the most important transformations of nature wrought by cooking. And so a piece of crisped pigskin becomes a densely allusive poem of flavors: coffee and chocolate, smoke and Scotch and overripe fruit and, too, the sweet-salty-woodsy taste of maple syrup on bacon I loved as a child. As with so many other things, we humans seem to like our food overdetermined.”

A desire for cooking, at some level, is a desire for metaphor. Perhaps that is part of why I love cooking in the summertime (or any time, really); it’s an excuse to enter Fairyland, the realm of magic, the realm of significance and representation and delight, a Fairyland we taste. How often does cooking figure in our fairy stories? One thinks of stone soup (as Pollan does), or the cooking ashes in which Cinderella sleeps, the bewitching food of the sleeping lords in Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, or Cimorene’s cherries jubilee and chocolate mousse in Wrede’s Calling on Dragons.

And so cooking forms part of our growing into adulthood by allowing us to produce and consume, to provide and enjoy, all the while allowing us to exist in that most mature and immature of practices, living in metaphor.

I would say my summer’s off to a good start. – GCL


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This entry was posted on July 2, 2013 by and tagged , , , , , .
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