Michael Pollan

Convent Cheese

The news of the microbe-coated seed reminded me of a chapter in Pollan’s last book, Cooked. In his book, Pollan tells of learning cheese making at a convent on the west coast. The cheese-making nun learned in France with one of the oldest cheesemakers and returned from France with one of her teacher’s wooden vessels that had been a cheese vat literally for decades. When the California Health Department came to inspect her cheese facility, they dictated that she discard the wooden bowl in favor of stainless steel for the sake of “sanitation”. She explained that this vat had been used to make cheese for a very long time while not making anyone sick so the inspector said he would monitor bacteria levels before he could approve the vessel. So Sister Cheese made her first batch and while the inspector found bacteria in the cheese, it was all beneficial bacteria. He then checked the vat and first found bad bacteria but when he tested shortly after the first check, he found something he had never experienced. Good bacteria appeared and seemed to be “eating” the bad bacteria. By the end of the day, all bad bacteria had been consumed and only good bacteria prevailed, waiting for its next meal. 
So the west coast now has Real Cheese. More progress. 

Cooking for Family


In his latest book, Cooked, Michael Pollan chronicles his entry into the kitchen where he, and ultimately his family, share lessons in cooking and eating, not as islands but as a family. By happy coincidence, my sister just discovered a poem by our mother who passed away at age 93 a little more than a year ago (are you ever prepared for that milestone, the loss of your mother? I wasn’t.) Her poem exemplifies what Pollan is talking about in Cooked. Here is a partial rendition of Mom’s poem:

A Very Simple Joy

by Shirley Boudreaux

What is so sublime as the aroma
of fresh baked apple pie?
When it permeates and mixes
with an indiscernable feeling of love
Within the interior walls of a home.
Where family members
have experienced small and
large triumphs and defeats
The triumphs heightened by
the sharing
The defeats softened by the caring
of the others.
O, I tell you, nothing equals it.

Mom expressed the family harmony rendered through our gatherings in the kitchen and at the table. Pollan tries for the same message and explains why he hopes to revive the art of cooking with quotes from a food consultant who I think is a bit harsh in his assessment, but here goes. We don’t cook at home because “we’re cheap and lazy and the skills are already lost. Who is going to teach the next generation to cook?”

If you’re reading this, the answer is probably “you”. Take a bow. You are the solution.

As usual, Pollan is not satisfied with simply learning to cook and share; he wants to understand the process down to the last molecular change wrought over the fire or in the stew pot. A remarkable example of that is his reporting of the thousands (no exaggeration) of new compounds created when you put smoke and fire to meat. Fire’s effect on the simpler constituents of meat is nothing short of amazing. You will enjoy the book and learn a lot about the how and why of cooking in the process.

Cooking remains one of my most tranquilizing endeavors. Not to mention the dining among family and friends that follows.

Why would we give this up? It “heightens the triumphs and soften the defeats”, right? Shirley said so, and you can take that to the bank!

From the Pit to the Pot

When Pollan goes from open fire to the stew pot, he starts with the mirepoix (mir-a-pwah), a diced fresh vegetable base that is the foundation for almost all good stews, soups or braises. The point of mirepoix is twofold; it adds complex flavors to your pot and it provides a cushion at the bottom that prevents whatever meat you are cooking from sticking or burning in the pot. What I didn’t know was the many variations in vegetables and herbs which distinguish food cultures. The classic French mirepoix is always onion, carrot and celery sauteed in butter. But if you add garlic, fennel or parsley and saute’ in olive oil, you have an Italian soffritto. Change it again to onion, garlic and tomato and you have a Spanish sofrito. In my home state, it was onion, bell pepper and celery, known in Creole South Louisiana as the holy trinity. While I was originally taught that vegetable oil was the medium (way back there when we thought hydrogenated vegetable oil was a good thing), I now use olive oil and butter combined.

The mirepoix continues to transmute as one moves progressively east, but the point is the same - all pot-cooking starts with an aromatic vegetable/herb base, no matter your food culture.

Add one more step which I found counter-intuitive but spot on after trying it at the suggestion of my youngest, John Henry, repeated later by a famous Italian chef. When warming up the pot with oil and butter, wait until the butter or oil begins to smoke before adding the vegetables. I always thought of this as a bad thing - I’m burning it, right? Turns out the extra heat represents one more of those molecular changes Pollan talks about -it adds a nutty flavor to the bottom of the pot without losing the taste of the fats. It’s another layer of flavor.

Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan, best-selling author of all things food, has another one on the shelf, Cooked. I recommend it even before finishing the book because he celebrates the art and pleasure of cooking in the way that only Pollan can say it.

Three points have caught my attention so far:

  1. Cooking is the only thing that distinguishes humans from other creatures.
  2. Cooked meat is superior to raw meat as well as raw plants because of the complexity of chemical transformations and their digestibility caused by applying fire to meat; and,
  3. Cooked meat is probably what caused mankind to grow her big brain, thereby becoming the masters of our universe.

Wow.  Who could have thought of cooking as having such a profound impact?  Only Pollan.

State of the Farm

If Pollan is right, and he is, then our bodies are on their way to dehydration! Dry says it all around the state and at the farm. We just closed the book on April 2011, a month with high winds and no rain. The wind exacerbates the loss of moisture in the soil, pulling it out in the evaporative process. Luckily, we had a lot of standing hay from last year, which helped deflect the wind and sun and thereby retard evaporation. Still, this started in October and at some point the ground cracks and the grass stops growing. We’re there except in our irrigated section.

We are not far from very high temperatures, which will only make it worse. If there are any good signs, we have at least for now seen the wind speeds drop. It takes a lot more, but you know you will not get rain when the wind blows steadily in the 15-20 mph range as it has for a long time now. That could mean we have a chance for moisture in June, maybe even May.

There are many short term effects of dry weather besides a slowing of grass growth. One that we particularly dislike is the suppression of worms and beetles, the invaluable residents of the subterranean soil that mine nutrients from the surface and transport them to the subsoil where they enrich the root system. When the ground is hard and dry, they apparently stay low, or perhaps go into a sort of hibernation. Another benefit of those creatures is the suppression of pesky horn flies, whose life ends in the larval state with the beetle and worms’ destruction of their cow patty housing. I’m sure the horn fly must have an important role in The Big Scheme Of Things, I just don’t know what it is. Nor does the cow, whose lives are much more comfortable without the flies, thank you very much.

Surprisingly enough, our animals are staying fat and healthy thanks to good hay that is still available and some “flash grazing”. Flash grazing refers to finding patches of healthy grass and allowing the bovines to get on and off quickly so that it is not grazed too close. The hay will get progressively more expensive as the drought wears on and we have to go further away to find it — the cost of transportation with accelerating fuel prices dictate that even if the cost of the hay bale itself stays the same, our cost goes up. We will grin and bear the cost because the alternative is to let our animals suffer and that we will not do.

Lest I am beginning to sound like a whiner, let me say this: we know from experience that difficult weather is short term, that there is a positive side to it even if we cannot discern it, and we always see nature come back strong and with a self-perpetuating vengeance when the weather normalizes, as it will. For now, we simply wait for that grand renewal. Count on it, because the alternative is unacceptable.