In his new book, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation,” Michael Pollan takes on two of my favorite subjects: barbecue and beer.
Sort of surprising, maybe? Since Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” was published in 2006, the author seems to have been cast in the difficult roles of food activist and superego of conscious consumption.
In “Cooked,” though, he’s clearly having some fun eating and drinking, while still asking all the right questions.
The fundamental question of “Cooked” is “why cook?” The answer takes more than 400 pages and covers braising, baking, and pickle- and cheese-making, among other things.
Neatly (for me, anyway), the first part of the book is about fire and whole-hog barbecue, and the last part is about fermentation, including Pollan’s novice adventures in homebrewing.
Southern aficionados of smoked meat may shake their heads reading about Pollan’s wide-eyed wonder at his first taste of real pulled pork with shards of crackling mixed in. And longtime home brewers may have the same reaction to his sudden discovery of homemade mead and beer.
But that there’s now something called Pollan’s Pale Ale, as well as a Pollan’s pig roast every fall in Berkley, Calif., certainly speaks to transformation.
As usual, Pollan gets deep into the subjects at hand, calling on science, art, literature, religion and mythology to explain what’s going on with barbecue and fermentation. And he does it with language that’s rich and celebratory.
Describing Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the invisible single-cell yeast that makes alcohol, Pollan writes: “Were it a creature that people could see, they might well decide this yeast has a stronger claim to the title of man’s best friend than the dog. Some evolutionary biologists contend that it was the world’s very first domesticated species.”
Ultimately, “Cooked” is a kind of “how-to” book, and it makes you want to get cooking and smoke some meat or brew some beer. As Pollan writes, “What is more gratifying, after all, than discovering you can actually make something delicious (or intoxicating) that you simply assumed you’d always have to buy in the marketplace?”
Even if you aren’t going to fire up the smoker or the brew kettle this weekend, spring is still a great time for barbecue and beer. What makes them such good companions is that smoking meat and boiling wort create a similar kind of caramelization.
Brown ale, Scotch ale and porter will match up by latching on to the smoke and roast flavors in pork, brisket and lamb. But if the rub or sauce on the meat is spicy, try something that’s brighter and offers more contrast, like pale ale or hoppy IPA. For chicken, there’s Belgian wheat beer, saison or biere de garde. And a good American amber lager will work with just about anything on the table.
What’s your favorite barbecue and beer pairing?