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Fire: Part I of Michael Pollan's 'Cooked'.

I have read, and own, many of the great food writer Michal Pollan's books. Today I explore the first part of his book 'Cooked'. In it, he covers a lot of the social (contemporary and historic), biological, religious, anthropological, historical, psychological, philosophical and culinary aspects of cooking with fire. Indeed, much of what covers is synonymous with what it is this site and the Barbecology movement, seeks to achieve and explore in more detail, and I read Pollan after I had started to change the focus of this site. Hence why I find this part of his book 'Cooked' so all-encompassing. In the eight chapters or sections he gives over to cooking with fire he tells his story exploring the face of American barbecue across the US and finishes doing his own barbecue at home in California before ending in Spain to provide a juxtaposition that gets his overarching points across.

Michael Pollan - image taken from here.

Interspersed throughout the book mostly telling stories of the visits Pollan does to barbecue places in the places in the US most traditionally and historically associated with barbecue, he covers a multitude of separate aspects of barbecue.

He covers some of the chemistry that takes place from the burning of the wood and the smoke, the interaction of the smoke with the meat, and the interaction of the components of meat (amino acids, sugars etc) with the smoke and heat. He explores a multitude of philosophical aspects associated with live fire cooking (barbecue) including the (now) bizarre Freudian theory that mastery of fire (essential to cooking, but clearly of barbecue) represented man's urge to repress his animal and infantile urge to wee on the fire and put it out(!), and that embracing the fire to control it also represented suppression of homosexuality (yes, this is right up there with the Freudian ideas this one, isn't it?!). He covers Chinese mythology on the origins of barbecue with the story of a farmer's house burning down and cooking the pig inside, which after the son tried the results, led to the house often 'burning down' with a fatted pig inside, much to the neighbours interest, and then replication of said act.

Pollan adds more extensive and separate material to that I featured in my article on barbecue and religion. He specifies Cain and Abel being the first biblical Pitmasters, with Abel offering choice flock from his herd as a sacrifice. As I had also noted, Noah also offers a sacrifice, and whilst not for culinary purposes (unless he didn't mean to burn it all!) it was the smell of the smoke from the animal offering that was so pleasing to God that he vowed to take a more measured approach to his wrath on the whole of humanity in future. This interpretation would allow the barbecue fanatic to justify the barbecuing of an animal as providing God with the smell of the smoke and man with the ability to enjoy the meat!

After Pollan covers Christian aspects of barbecue he turns to ancient Greece, where the story of Prometheus shows man saving the primal cuts from the animal whilst offering the bones wrapped in fat as the sacrifice, to provide the smell he believes Zeus is after. Zeus, however, retaliates by taking fire away from man so he cannot cook food (barbecue!) anymore, which leads Prometheus to steal fire from Zeus. Zeus' final act of retaliation is to tie Prometheus to a rock and have his liver eternally gorged on. Zeus also sends Pandora, the first woman, to earth as a punishment. Pollan, like many could, goes on to talk about the social divide this particular barbecue story throws up in terms of sexual-related breakdown of labour when it comes to food, especially cooked food.

Pollan speaks to the modern interpretation of what is morally acceptable in terms of eating animals. He concedes that if you eat meat then you are complicit in whatever process, good or bad, got the meat onto your plate, how aware of that you are or not. But he also points out that the manner in which we, as humans, treat the food we kill and eat, has with it a ritual not seen anywhere else in the animal kingdom. The processes by which we slaughter (by some religions) meat, to the way we prepare and curate our food with seasoning, smoke to improve and celebrate what has been taken from nature, is not found elsewhere in nature. He uses these perspectives to show that although the eating of meat has a savagery to it, the rules and rituals we as humans out in place surrounding the act means it brings control and structure as well as respect and community to eating meat, and by my extension, barbecue.

This part of Pollan's book concludes by including the evolutionary aspects of live fire cooking proposed and explored by Richard Wrangham in his book 'Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human', inspiration I took for my own article on Barbecue and Evolution. The last observation is the process of cooking meat over fire required cooperation, and technological advances that were achieved by control of fire, which in addition to evolution, barbecue also gave us "music, poetry, maths and books about fire".

The cover of Michael Pollan's book, 'Cooked', taken from here.


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