Stephanie Rische

Stubbing My Toe on Grace

Virtual Book Discussion: Cooked January 31, 2014

Thanks to everyone who joined us for our virtual book club for January. This month we’re discussing Cooked by Michael Pollan.



Here’s how it works: I’ll throw out a few topics for discussion, and you can write your responses about these topics (or others you’d like to discuss) in the comment section.


Discussion #1: Cooking with the Elements

I thought the author’s structure for the book was fascinating. I’d never considered how different types of cooking fit into the categories of fire, water, air, and earth, and it made for an intriguing setup. I also enjoyed the way he showed his own progression from kitchen amateur to apprentice to blossoming cook. I felt like I could relate since he didn’t start out as an expert, and I appreciated his willingness to jump in to various types of cooking with both feet.

Did you have a favorite section? Which of the elements are you most comfortable in when it comes to cooking? Which elements are you least comfortable in?


Discussion #2: Cooking and Community

I really appreciated the author’s observations about how the way we cook and the way we eat effect how communal we are as a society. I was especially intrigued by his theory that the style of the cooking itself impacts the way we consume meals. When people prepared food around a fire, they cooked and ate together as an entire community. Then when people started cooking with an oven in individual households, cooking and eating became family-centric events. Now, as microwaves and fast food become the meal-prepping tools of choice, the focus is on the individual. One of my favorite parts of the book was seeing how the author’s various cooking experiments brought his family together and resulted not only in edible rewards but also in intangible gifts, such as bonding and conversations with his wife and teenage son.

As our cooking and eating become more individualized, do you think we’re in danger of losing a sense of community and family? Is there anything we can do to promote these values in our own homes?


Discussion #3: Intentional Food Choices

One of the things I appreciated most about this book was the way it opened my eyes to the underlying ramifications of the choices we make about food, cooking, and eating. When we mindlessly stick something in the microwave, pick up dinner at the drive-thru, or prioritize other activities over “scratch cooking,” there are consequences—both for us as individuals and for us as a culture. Although I haven’t necessarily revamped my approach to cooking after reading this book, it certainly has made me more aware and more thoughtful about the choices I make to get dinner on the table. I wasn’t nearly as ambitious as the author (no whole-hog barbecue or beer brewing for me), and I didn’t try any of his recipes, but this book did inspire a few modest “from scratch” attempts. My biggest success was my bread-baking adventure (the first time I cooked with yeast!). I wasn’t ambitious enough to make a starter and baby it for weeks like the author did, but it felt like a step in the right direction.

Did this book cause you to reevaluate any of your cooking/eating choices? Have you ever attempted any cooking experiments similar to what the author describes in this book?



I’d give this book 4.5 stars. It made me think about food choices in a new way, and I appreciated the author’s style. He was at once knowledgeable and brilliant (I was impressed with the historical context and scientific background he offered throughout), but he was also accessible and an engaging storyteller.


4.5 stars


How many stars would you give this book (out of five)?

As a side note, if you liked this book, I’d recommend Bread and Wine, which we discussed here.


{Remember: there will be a free book giveaway for one lucky commenter!}



6 Responses to “Virtual Book Discussion: Cooked”

  1. Nate Says:

    I finally finished it! Took me longer than I expected; I usually breeze through a book in about 4 commuting days, but this took me twice that long!

    I’m a fan of Michael Pollan; one of his previous books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, changed the way that I thought about what I eat.

    Of course, that may be because, as Space Ghost so eloquently put it on his Cartoon Network “talk show” “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast”, “I believe every word that man said, because it’s exactly what I wanted to hear.”

    But anyway, I like his writing style, his meticulous research, his sense of humor, his world-view, many of his values, his way of encouraging you to come to his conclusions without forcing you, and of course his subject matter of choice.


    I’m kidding, I’m kidding, there’s no “but.” I really liked this book. I don’t read very many non-fiction books, so the ones that I do I’m usually pretty sure i’m going to like ahead of time, so I find it difficult to rate them. Also, they tend to be very specific in regards to their subject, which can limit to whom I would recommend it (for example, “In the Garden of Beasts; Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin” is an excellent book that I a lot of respectable people wouldn’t find interesting).

    I would recommend this to nearly anyone, especially anyone who could or does consider themselves a foodie (who has two thumbs and considers himself a foodie? This guy!). In fact, I’m going to hand it off to one of my friends when I see them at church on sunday. He does have a tendency to pontificate a little bit more in this book than The Omnivore’s Dilemma, especially when he gets to the Earth section. I would have liked more information about the fermentation processes. He seemed to gloss over the actual processes in favor of philosophy. I wanted more how-to in that section, because it was the one I was looking most forward to (also, because it’s the only one of the sections that I have tried and utterly failed at). Also, where was the sub-set of water called “Ice” where he talks about making ice cream? Yeah, yeah?!

    I liked the Elements theme. I provided a nice structure to the book, and he did very well with it. Although the final two, Air and Earth, blended very much together. It was fascinating to learn about the Carolina-style BBQ, but it’s far removed from the BBQ I know so well, Kansas City style, and my home-town pride took a hit when he didn’t even mention it.

    I loved his thoughts on cooking and civilization and culture. The point that he shares about how cooking is one of the real major things that separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom really stuck with me.

    I’ve already (slowly over the past ten years of my life) overhauled my cooking and eating habits to largely match much of what he talks about. I cook for myself 19 out of 21 meals, give or take, and usually more or less from scratch. I do indulge myself every so often (Food Truck Wednesdays!), because I’d rather bend ever so slightly each week than break outright and stop off at Jack in the Box most nights after work.

    I would BBQ more often, except that my living situation doesn’t allow for it. When I could, I did, and when I can, I will, but until then.
    I am more encouraged to try his specific brand of braising and cooking. If you watch the Food NEtwork as much as I do, you’ll see it a lot. It was nice to have it broken down from a philosophical standpoint instead of just seeing it.

    I woudl love to bake bread regularly, because I absolutely love a loaf of bread (although my favorite bread, Naan from India, is unleavened). But I don’t know that I have the time (or rather am willing to make the time), patience, or focus to really do well. Maybe as a project, I’ll try it once or twice. The bakery that he talks about, though, is here in San Francisco. You can bet i’m going to stop by sometime.

    Pickling is something that I definitely want to try (again). Gramma Lo used to make pickles in exactly the style that he talks about (ask Daniel about them, they’re exceptional), and for many months I’ve been thinking about trying to do them again. I say again, because many years ago I tried to make them, and the result was an epic failure. But, if nothing else, this book gave me a lot of information on why my previous attempt (which resulted in a very fuzzy, mold-covered cucumber) failed (too much exposure to air).

    I was pleased to say that I’ve tried most of the things he talked about. The Rische’s are a big fan of the whole hog BBQ, and we’ve done it as a family several times (although the last time I was there, as I recall, they actually buried the hog while cooking, a slightly different take). I’ve done plenty of braising, but despite my familiarity, I learned a lot that I hadn’t known before, and I know that my future braises will be improved by this knowledge. I’ve made bread (from yeast, not a starter), and I have a bread machine. I’ll let the bread machine do most of the work. I’ve tried my hand at pickling (his style, failure, Alton Brown refrigerator style, success), and I’ve often thought of sauerkraut. I would love to try home brewing, but I always thought it was significantly more difficult than he presented it so I didn’t even bother; now I might. We’ll see. But I’m definitely going to revisit the pickle.

    Funny note, I’ve even tried one of the more obscure references in his book! When he’s talking about brewing, he mentions chicha, a “beer” from South America made from corn (which is chewed and spit back out!). When I was in Peru hiking on the Inca Trail, there was a gentleman at one of the stops with a big vat of chicha and a ladle. One of our hikers bought a cup, and shared it with all of us. I tired it, but unfortunately don’t remember much. I wish I’d paid more attention. Had I realized what it was at the time, i would have got my own cup.

    I was reminded as I wrapped up reading the book of the time a year or so back that my friend Jesse and I decided to make soap from scratch. Although it wasn’t cooking (exactly), or food (although we used coffee and walnuts), much of the idea was the same. I didn’t need more soap, at least any more than I could easily get from Safeway. I’m not the sort who is interested in boutique products like that, but it gave me a great sense of pride. I made soap; I bet you never made soap. And if an apocalypse came, I can sure bet you’d like to know someone who could make soap. I am the people who make soap.

    I think my favorite part of the book, though, was at the very end, when he mentions (practically off-hand) the Korean woman who was teaching him about kimchi. he talks about mouth-taste and hand-taste. I could never agree more with the idea.

    We need more hand-taste in our lives.

  2. Nate Says:

    Oh yeah, star rating.
    Non-fiction category…
    yeah, why not. 4 whole stars.

  3. Whoa, Nate, this is an AMAZING recap of your thoughts! Only one thing: I think YOU should write a book about food! You have tons of great stories and experiments and adventures. Hey, maybe you could start a restaurant and then write a book about it. 🙂 It was so fun to read your thoughts. I’m impressed with how many things you’ve attempted and tried…even chicha! Daniel still talks about the soap you made in reverent tones. But you’re right…where was the bit about ice cream??

  4. […] to everyone who participated in our discussion about Cooked, which we discussed here. If you read it but haven’t had a chance to comment yet, I invite you to join the […]

  5. […] month we discussed Cooked for our virtual book club. Congratulations to Nate, the winner of a FREE […]

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