Saturday 19 November 2016


I'm more than halfway through Michael Pollan's book Cooked. I've thanked him for his analysis of the virtues of slow cooking and agree that the tastiest meals are those that have been a long time a-coming.  In past times, when he anticipated the arrival of a passel of people, we have been known to order a whole shoulder of pork, which might weigh 8 or 9 kilos of meat. We used to ignore the injunction never eat anything bigger than your head and sear this potlatch lump of meat to start a Maillard reaction then pop it in a slow oven for 18 or 20 hours: more or less cooking it over the pilot light. Dang! but it was good.

Pollan, in the interest of journalistic culinary research, gets himself mentored by an Iranian student of his and they spend several hours of a weekend cooking slowly and discovering new frontiers of tastiness by mixing and matching some quite unlikely ingredients. It is a wrench, and an education, for cash-rich but time poor Mr Pollan to spend so much time chopping onions and peeling spuds when he could be tricking about with his smart-phone or sacked out watching the match on TV. Eventually he come close[r] to that state of grace "When chopping onions, just chop onions". Only wimps cry when chopping onions, if you ask me. He comes to realise that preparing food, especially if done together, has its own rewards. It is not just a means to a meal. His family have to suffer through this intense devotion to The Art of the Stock-Pot . . . that, or roll up their sleeves and help cut stuff up. Another point is that, by investing some time in the kitchen over the weekend, you can get ahead of yourself later in the week - everyone knows that a stew or a curry tastes better second or third time round.  Like in the days of our [great-]grannies, when the Sunday chicken would be cold on Monday, pie on Tuesday, rissoles on Wednesday and soup on Thursday; the Pollans can get four family meals from the weekend's 'work'.

At one point, after weeks of tagines and marmites and lamb-shanks à la greque and duck thighs in hoisin sauce, the Pollan family commendably carry out what we scientists would call a negative control.
Q. If this all this home cooking is so damned good what are we comparing it to?
A. Convenience food, is what.
They agree that one day in the coming week will be Microwave Night and Pollan and his chap will go to the supermarket and get their food ready-prepared. It will be a change, it will be normal, and how bad can it be?  Food engineers get paid the big bucks because they can persuade folks to come back for more of that.

On Der Tag der Mikrowelle after school, the two boys [Mum refuses to participate but orders lasagna] push a trolley into the microwave-dinners aisle at the local Safeway. Well, they are overwhelmed; like when we first went to Boston in 1979 and found a whole aisle devoted solely to pet-food. Salivating there it took them 20 minutes just to decide what amazing constructions to try. Indeed the chap dithered so long that his father said they'd buy both desirable options, which helped the bill up to $27 (!) My first pay-packet was £6.50, so those sort of prices for a single meal make me feel a bit weak at the knees - but that's my baggage, it doesn't have to be yours. So, by my analysis they are already deeply in the hole before they're even home.

But they still have two shovelfuls to excavate into the pit of dystopia.
  1. Everything tastes [that's a Good Thing and a tribute to the food engineers], but tastes vaguely the same [not so good] which Pollan puts down to hydrolyzed vegetable protein HVP appearing in every table-of-contents. That is engineer's code for MSG and is quite possibly achieved by filling a vat full of roots and stalks and boiling it up with 1M NaOH to break all the bonds between the amino acids of any residual protein as quickly and efficiently as possible. What's left after the abstraction of HVP can be fed to pigs or used loft-insulation.The alkaline protein slurry can be neutralised with 1M HCl which contributes the added side-product of NaCl and water. NaOH + HCl --> NaCL + HOH Wait, that's no by-product: that's an asset because salty food tastes so good . . . and is so bad for blood-pressure. 
  2. This sack full of convenience food takes 37 minutes of juggling stuff in and out of an over-worked microwave; and family are so busy jumping up and down to service the instrument that they can't all sit down at table together. One of their choices, french onion soup, can be prepared in the microwave but the engineers suggest that better results come from 40 minutes in a hot [regular] oven. As Pollan cries "I could make french onion soup from scratch in that amount of time". 
  3. And I won't address, because it is invisible to Pollan as the omnipresent background to American life, the bag full of packaging that is left at the end of the night.
Convenience food? My eye! Pollan notes elsewhere in the book that many of the products of the food industry have the look and feel of field rations for the Marines. It doesn't take a huge leap of imagination to twig that convenience food took off after WWII when General Foods had tooled up factories across the US to services its armed forces. All that plant and nowhere to go? Not if they could persuade the returned vets and their wives to continue buying ready meals in tins and just-add-water packets. This might remind you of the the re-purposing of the nitrate industry from making munitions to making 'indispensible' fertiliser to be sold to and ultimately beggar farmers across the Western world. We can curse Fritz "Der Teufel inkarniert" Haber for the nitrates. We can only blame ourselves for convenience food.

We don't have a microwave anymore: it was second hand when we got it, lasted for 20 years and then died. In Ireland, it is impossible to get such household kit fixed for less than the cost of a new one. Microwaves are really handy for two things: 1) Heating 200 ml of milk in a cup for, say, hot chocolate 2) making scrambled eggs. Both of these, particularly the latter, make a devilish cleaning chore when made on the stove-top with a saucepan. <whoop whoop safety alert> I was supervising [acting as the adult in the room] the 4th year research projects yesterday and was chatting to one of that cohort, who works in the catering trade to support his science habit. He demurred about cooking scrambled eggs in the industrial microwave in his works-kitchen. "Have you ever seen a scrambled eggs burn? It's not a pretty sight", he said. Apparently the mess of scramblers can sometimes include a super-heated vapour bubble that blows up in your face.

1 comment:

  1. Microwaved porridge is far less messy than when done on the hob; microwaved jacket spuds are also done in minutes not hours, as in the oven.