COOKED: A Natural History of Transformation, by Michael Pollan, Penguin Press, 468 pp., $27.95.
When it comes to food, Michael Pollan has a gift for making you think outside the box. In his new book, "Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation," he immerses himself in four types of cooking that he links to the ancient elements of fire, water, air and earth.
By tracing the roots of barbecue, braising, baking and fermentation while learning the techniques himself, he hopes in part to share the joys and whys of cooking. Ultimately, he seeks to transform the heedless eating habits of a nation of consumers who think a square meal comes in a take-away carton.
This is familiar territory to readers of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (2006) and "The Botany of Desire" (2001); Pollan finds startling connections between human and vegetable.
With his Dantesque opening in "Cooked" ("At a certain point in the late middle of my life"), Pollan enters the inferno of "whole-hog barbecue over a wood fire." His guru is pitmaster Ed Mitchell, who beat Bobby Flay on the Food Network.
Pollan's backstory here includes a recent addition to evolutionary theory known as "the cooking hypothesis": By applying fire to meat, our forebears found a source of protein and energy that their bodies used more efficiently than raw flesh and vegetables and so made the big leap past our emberless cousins.
With water and braising, we move further along the culinary timeline. Pollan learns about the mirepoix, the soffritto, the tarka and other finely chopped braising bases of different countries. For those who fret over how time-consuming kitchen work can be, he notes that these meals usually provide tasty timesaving leftovers.
Air brings us to bread and a baking guru who schedules his 250 artisanal loaves a day around his surfing needs. Pollan also visits the perfect foil: an industrial bakery that shoots out 155,000 a day, for a screed on what is lost beneath the grindstone, namely all the grain's good stuff.
For the closing course, on fermentation, Pollan takes a knowledgeable tour through the helpful bacteria, the intestinal flora, the tiny creatures we've been slaughtering since Pasteur, only to learn in recent years they are our little buddies in countless ways.
The star of this show is the cheese nun of Litchfield County, Conn., Sister Noella Marcellino. She makes a version of Saint-Nectaire cheese using a wooden barrel and a beechwood paddle.
When a cheese inspector balked at the absence of stainless steel, the fervent fermenter made two batches, one in her wooden tub and one in germ-free metal, and inoculated both with E. coli. The sterile vat's finished cheese was rife with the bug, while the wooden one had almost none. Good bacteria in the old barrel had created "an environment in which couldn't survive." The inspector relented.
Pollan is well informed, earnest, a bit overwhelming. Sometimes the message gets lost.
The national embrace of processed food "is a problem -- for the health of our bodies, our families, our communities, and our land, but also for our sense of how our eating connects us to the world."
It boils down to once again taking the time to cook and gather round a table to share good food and chew the fat. Maybe getting back to that would help us evolve into something even better someday.