The tent meeting at The FARM Institute (TFI) Thursday evening had some of the trappings of an old-fashioned revival meeting, with a large tent in an open farm field, an enthusiastic, thoroughly qualified speaker, and an enthusiastic audience ready to become true believers. Food writer, journalist, teacher, and Aquinnah summer resident Michael Pollan spoke on his latest book, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.”
Sacha Pfeiffer, senior reporter and host of WBUR radio’s “All Things Considered,” moderated the event, which was recorded for possible inclusion on the show.
The Island magazine Edible Vineyard sponsored Mr. Pollan’s talk with help from TFI; WBUA, the Vineyard’s WBUR affiliate; Bunch of Grapes bookstore; and various Island businesses that contributed food.
Mr. Pollan has written seven books. His food books are studies in the history, science, growing, and now the preparation of food. He wrote about how our appetites drive the evolution of edible plants in “The Botany of Desire,” where he explores the concept of co-evolution, specifically of humankind’s evolutionary relationship with four plants: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes.
In “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” he investigated the food chain and popularized the pleasures of eating local. In “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” he distilled his conclusions into a manual. With “Cooked,” he explores the transformation of foods through grilling, braising, baking, and fermenting.
Mr. Pollan’s talk, basically an outline of “Cooked,” included readings from the book. In the book he uses the four classical elements — fire, water, air, and earth — as starting points to explain how food preparation in its various forms gives humans access to the large amounts of protein that frees us from having to spend all of our time acquiring food and eating.
Working with acknowledged experts in various areas of food preparation, Mr. Pollan studied the finer points and the science of cooking. He admitted to loving the aroma of grilled meat and eating meat about once a week in part because he and his wife, artist Judith Belzer, insist on eating grass-fed meat of known origin that is too expensive to eat more often.
Mr. Pollan’s description of his first aromatically strong but failed attempt to make sauerkraut introduced the last section of his talk, fermentation. Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage. He suggested buying only refrigerated sauerkraut that is unpasteurized and uncooked. He said it contains live lactobacilli and beneficial microbes and is rich in enzymes. He said the fiber and probiotics in fermented foods can improve digestion and promote the growth of healthy digestive system flora, essential to good health.
Mr. Pollan mentioned that fermented foods are parts of diets in many different cultures and that there are seven Korean museums devoted to the traditional fermented Korean side dish, kimchi. Most fermented foods are an acquired taste but worthwhile, he said.
Taking questions from the floor, Mr. Pollan gave a rather involved answer to a question about gluten sensitivity. While recognizing the sometimes difficult and uncomfortable condition, celiac disease — an immune reaction to eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye — he said that only a small percentage of people have this condition and that the recent popularity of gluten-free diets may be more of a mass reaction.
Most civilizations have had breads as a primary source of protein for centuries, Mr. Pollan pointed out, so it seems odd that so many people have a significant sensitivity to gluten today. He also said that using quick-rising yeasts rather than the old style slow-rising yeasts could change the chemical makeup of breads.
He said that barbecuing using traditional slow cooking methods that take up to 20 hours with low heat releases not only more flavors but more proteins that humans can use.
“Our goal was to make this event accessible,” said Edible Vineyard publisher Sam Berlow. “It was only $15. We covered our expenses.” He said they originally planned to have just over 200 people, but they sold 375 tickets. He praised the enthusiastic assistance of TFI volunteers who helped set up and run the event. He hopes to sponsor similar events in the future.