Last month, I read Michael Pollan’s recent book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Michael Pollan is a journalist and professor associated with UC Berkeley and The New York Times. As a food activist, Pollan writes engaging books aimed and general audiences about food production and consumption in the United States, modern agribusiness, and the cultural ethics related to the broad subject of food.
I don’t always choose non-fiction and investigative writing when I’m picking out leisure reading, but I’ve always appreciated Pollan’s writing style and I like that he can write about some very complex topics without getting too bogged down in their intricacies. His writing offers a clear and well-considered introduction to a variety of subject matter, and often his books will include a directed reading list should any of his topics interest readers enough to want to find more information on their own after they’ve finished his book.
Cooked is arranged into four sections that align with the classical elements of fire, water, air, and earth. These sections correspond with different methods of food production: cooking with heat and an open flame, braising and stewing, baking and bread making, and fermentation. Pollan’s writing made me think about my own cooking habits and relationship with food, and inspired me to attempt some of the cooking methods he discusses in Cooked. But since it’s still the depths of winter here in the city (despite recently flipping the calendar to match the month of March), attempting barbecue (fire) was a little out of the question, and both baking bread and pickling were rather complex processes that require an amount of time that I simply haven’t got to spare these days between competing deadlines for college assignments and projects.
So I settled on trying out braising—a cooking technique that I was somewhat familiar with, and which looked, on the page, like an easy enough undertaking. Braising is essentially a two-step process. Meat is first seared at a high temperature and then finishes the cooking process in a covered pot or roasting dish at a lower temperature surrounded by an amount of liquid (which usually adds flavour to the cooking meat, too).
See? Sounds simple enough. Regardless of the simplicity of the action of braising though, Michael Pollan suggests (by way of internationally recognized anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss) that braising meat is a method of rendering the animalistic (literally animal flesh) into something that is (figuratively) human. And that is quite the complicated statement.
According to Pollan, cooking meat thoroughly in a braise “achieves a more complete transcendence of the animal, and perhaps the animal in us, than does grilling over a fire, which leaves its object partly or entirely intact, and often leaves a trace of blood—a visible reminder … that this is a formerly living creature we’re feasting on” (54). Pollan supports this idea by further suggesting that “the braise or stew—and particularly the braise or stew of meat that’s been cut into geometric cubes and rendered tender by long hours in the pot—represents a deeper sublimation, or forgetting, of the brutal reality of this particular transaction among species” (54). The “transaction” that Pollan is talking about here is the consumption of one animal by another, and furthermore, the consumption of the animal after (parts of) its physical form is altered by a cooking process.
And you’ve got to agree, that’s some pretty deep thinking caused by contemplating a hunk of meat slowly cooking in a shallow pool of liquid. Because of that, I set out to get the simplest braise recipe that I could find online. Thankfully the folks running epicurious.com had a three-ingredient braised beef recipe that (at the time of this blog post) boasts a 3.5/4 star rating by recipe reviewers, and 82% of cooks saying they would make it again. Now granted this braised beef recipe doesn’t require cooks to chop up a roast into “geometric cubes” (or to even brown it in the roasting pan prior to adding the liquid ingredients), but after the braising is finished doing its work on the collagen and connective tissue of the meat, the roast will be so fork-tender it is almost completely and unrecognizably transformed from the bodily tissue of an animal into a comforting, and delicious main course.
Pollan continues the line of thinking introduced by Lévi-Strauss that boiled and braised foods represent “a further remove from uncivilized nature than does roasted food” (156) as boiled or braised food requires the cultural artifact of the cooking pot—something that is carefully crafted and then cared for after its use, two things that require specialization of labour (pottery-making) and culture to support. Pollan directly addresses this line of thinking by posing the idea that “if all cooking is a process of transforming the stuff of nature into culture, boiling [and braising] achieves a more complete transformation of the animal being eaten” (156). He addresses the cultural inclusion of food prepared in a cooking pot more directly when Pollan states, “To eat from the same pot is to share more than a meal … In the same way that the stew pot [or the braising dish] blends a great many different ingredients together, … it brings the family together as well” (158).
Another important fact about this particular recipe, is that it calls for an entire head of garlic. In Cooked, Michael Pollan looked into the role that onions and garlic play in global cooking trends. He found that the addition of garlic and onions to meat dishes greatly increases the general safety of eating these foods. According to Pollan (and other food researchers), “like many of the most commonly used spices, onions (garlic, too) contain powerful microbial compounds that survive cooking” (144) and that “microbiologists believe that onions, garlic, and spices protect us from the growth of dangerous bacteria on meat” (144-45). It then stands to reason that through years of trial and error, people discovered that cooking meat with particular aromatic vegetables (onions and garlic) resulted in meals that were less likely to make people sick afterwards. This was all discovered prior to the invention of refrigeration of course, but it might explain why garlic and onions (which are “one of the most potent of all antimicrobial food plants” ) are so commonly used in cooking.
I am unsure of the specific history of this dish, but braising is a cooking method with history, and braised dishes are made all over the world in many different cultures. Braising meat involves both dry and moist heat, as part of the meat that is braised cooks outside of the braising liquid. But it is this liquid (likely laden with antimicrobial ingredients like onions and garlic) that also helps to ensure the safety of the dish. The temperature of the liquid reaches the boiling point and holds steady at this temperature while the meat cooks, killing potentially illness-causing microbial elements in the ingredients.
It is also this cooking liquid that helps to form a harmony of flavours within the braising dish as well as helping detoxify ingredients, blending flavours, and breaking down tough plant and animal fibres and rendering them into digestible food. According to Pollan, “given enough heat and time, [a braising liquid] softens, blends, balances, harmonizes, and marries” (163) different aspects, ingredients, and elements of the braised dish. I think what Michael Pollan was trying to get at was that the cooked meal can be viewed as a metaphor for the coming together of a family unit (or community) in sharing a meal. And through this, cultural beliefs are built and reinforced when nature is brought into the home and transformed into a something nutritionally and socially sustaining.
Hopefully you will try this three-ingredient braised beef supper (it’s super easy!) and will enjoy it with a plateful of sautéed greens and noodles among your family or close, loved ones. After all, according to Pollan, a braised beef supper is downright designed for bringing a family together to harmonize over.