The Top 20 Worst Self-Indulgent Quotes From Michael Pollan's "Cooked"

If you're familiar with my writing blog Quick Writing Tips, you know I have zero tolerance for masturbatory, self-indulgent writing. Zero.

Sadly, Cooked, Michael Pollan's latest book, contains some of the most nauseatingly self-indulgent quotes I've read, ever. It isn't a bad book, exactly, but it holds so many groan-inducing sentences that I started keeping track of them on a sheet of paper I titled "Pollan Jerk-Off Quotes." I couldn't help myself.

And because misery hates being alone, I subjected Laura to these awful quotes too, along with many, many merely bad ones that were below the threshold of inclusion in today's list.

And so today, dear readers, you're in for a real treat: I'm going to subject you to the top twenty most awful quotes from Cooked. You don't even have to read the book.

Enjoy! ...I guess.

The Top Twenty Worst, Most Self-Indulgent Quotes From "Cooked"

20) "One Sunday, Isaac answered the phone while I stirred a sugo; we were planning to make some fresh pasta together later in the day. It was my parents on the line." (Page 194)

19) "In our modern, all-electric 1960s kitchen, that pot with its centripetal energies was the closest thing we had to a hearth, a warm and fragrant synecdoche for domestic well-being." (Page 157)

18) "The man who mediates between the fire and the beast, and the beast and the beast eaters, has projected onto him a certain primal power: This is basic stuff, Anthro 101, but now I could actually feel it, and it felt pretty good." (Page 94)

17) "The pot dish, lidded and turbid, has none of the Apollonian clarity of a recognizable animal on a spit; it trades that brightly lit, hard-edged object and its legible world for something darker, more fluid and inchoate." (Page 159)

16) "Elation, effervescence, elevation, levity, inspiration: air words all, alveolated with vowels, leavening the dough of everyday life." (Page 252)

15) "I ordered a whole pork shoulder from an Iowa hog farmer I knew named Jude Becker. Jude raises traditional breeds outdoors and finishes them on acorns in the fall." (Page 108)

14) "Each weightless bite amounted to a little poem of synesthesia--a confusion of the senses that delighted. It made for a fitting end to an effervescent evening." (Page 252)

13) "But could it be that, for us, the taste of foods rich in umami also sounds deep Proustian echoes, bearing us back to memories, however faint, of our very first food? Is it merely a coincidence that so many of the things we think of as "comfort foods"--everything from ice cream to chicken soup--traffic in tastes of either sweetness or umami, the two big tastes first encountered on the breast?" (Page 174)

12) "The symbolic power of the pot--to gather together, to harmonize--might begin in the home, but it reaches well beyond it, all the way into the political realm. The ancient Chinese conceived of the well-governed state as a cauldron, specifically a three-legged one called a ding." (Page 158)

11) "Is there any more futile, soul-irradiating experience than standing before the little window on a microwave oven watching the carousel slowly revolve your frozen block of dinner? Time spent this way might be easier than cooking, but it is not enjoyable and surely not ennobling. It is to feel spiritually unemployed, useless to self and humanity." (Page 199)

10) "I really love good bread. In fact, even bad bread is pretty good. I'd much prefer to eat a slice of fresh bread than a piece of cake. I especially love the contrast between a rugged crust and a moist, tender, alveolate interior--the "crumb," as I've learned to call it, now that I've been hanging around bakers." (Page 208)

9) "I don't own a cauldron, unfortunately, but we do own a couple of heavy-duty casseroles made from cast iron (and coated in a blue enamel) and a red porcelain tagine, one of those Moroccan pots with stovepipe lids that look like festive hats. Recently I bought two clay casseroles: a La Chamba handmade in Colombia from unglazed black clay, and a wide terra-cotta casserole from Tuscany glazed the color of winter wheat." (Page 160)

8) "The underlying idea here is that freshly baked bread is the ultimate olfactory synecdoche for hominess." (Page 209)

7) "For, if the final fermentation that awaits us all is too horrible to contemplate, perhaps a little preview of putrefaction on a cheese plate can, like a gothic tale or horror movie, give us the little frisson of pleasure that comes from rehearsing precisely what we most fear." (Page 368)

6) "True, my crumb was somewhat tighter than Tartine's, the alveolation not nearly so shiny or wild, but this looked like a fine loaf of bread, and I felt an upwelling of pride the force of which took me by surprise." (Page 247)

5) "To the poet endeavoring to trope the prose of everyday life, a molecule like ethyl alcohol offers a powerful tool." (Page 401)

4) "The taste of fermented foods is the taste of us, and them." (Page 370)

3) "Somehow the taste of smoke didn't merge with the oyster but coexisted alongside it, held in a perfect balance, so that it underscored the oyster's meaty brine, in the way that a frame or window can deepen our appreciation of a view we might otherwise overlook." (Page 118)

2) "I got to witness, and to taste, the apotheosis of the control of fire." (Page 120)

1) "The impulse to cup the soft globes in my hands was irresistible. I have to say, not one of the bakers I had read or talked to had adequately prepared me for the erotics of leavened, shaped dough." (Page 232)

Wait... haven't you had enough? No? Want still more?

p 45: "Though I think I enjoyed the seasoned barbecue in the sandwich even more. The sharpness of apple cider vinegar provides the perfect counterweight to the sweet unctuousness of the fat, of which there was plenty melted right into the meat, and also balances out the heaviness of the wood smoke."

p 55: " But I suspect that, as much as anything else, grilling meat over a fire today commemorates the transformative power of cooking itself, which never appears so bright or explicit as when wood and fire and flesh are brought together under that aromatic empire of smoke."

p 72: "His complexion was dark as coal, and his full-moon face was fringed in a nimbus of snow-white beard."

p 90: So it is no wonder that those types of cooking (such as meat over fire) that happen to generate scents and flavors borrowed from the plant world's extensive chemical vocabulary (and perhaps especially from the rich dialect of ripe fruit) would stimulate us as much as they do.

p 91: It may also be that, quite apart from any specific references one food makes to another, it is the very allusiveness of cooked food that appeals to us, as indeed that same quality does in poetry or music or art.

p 107: Compared with the contemporary chef, the pit masters present themselves less as artists than as priests, each with his own congregation and distinctive liturgy, working, scrupulously, in forms passed down rather than invented.

p 109: My fire pit is an old, shallow hammered-iron bowl about four feet in diameter; the guy who sold it to me said he found it in India, where it was used to cook street food.

p 111: The microwave oven, which stands at the precise opposite end of the culinary (and imaginative) spectrum from the cook fire, exerts a kind of antigravity, its flameless, smokeless, antisensory cold heat giving us a mild case of the willies.

p 115: He [Bittor Arguinzoniz, a famed Basque chef] is a modest, ascetic man, tall, slender except for a compact paunch, and gray as smoke.

p 121: But isn't it always precisely when we are most at risk of floating away on the sea of our own inventions and conceits that we seem to row our way back to the firm shore that is nature?

p 133: Like the column of smoke that rises from the pit, it's a story that unfolds on a vertical axis, with all sorts of heroic (or at least mock heroic) flourishes.

p 133: Paring away the dense undergrowth of culinary detail from a whole genre of recipes has the added virtue of helping to expose what a particular mode of cooking--of transforming the stuff of nature into the occasion of a meal--might have to say about us and our world.

p 133: To turn from the bright sunlight of this Homeric world and come into the kitchen of covered pots and simmering liquids feels like stepping out of an epic and into a novel.

p 139: Even browning meat, an operation that to me seemed fairly self-evident if not banal, deserved to be done with the utmost care and attention, and so with passion. At stake was the eater's experience.

p 157: There's not a lot I can recall of my mother's kitchen when I was growing up, but one image I can easily summon is of the turquoise casserole from which she ladled out beef stews and chicken soups. Made by Dansk, it was Scandinavian in design, sleek and thinly walled, though its unexpected heft suggested steel beneath the aquamarine enamel.

p 159: What emerges from this or any other pot is not food for the eye so much as for the nose, a primordial Dionysian soup, but evolving in reverse, decomposing from rather than creating them. To eat from the pot always involves at least a little leap into unknown waters.

p 234: ...the fresh-baked loaf still feels like a creation ex nihilo, its from-mud-wrested form a refutation of cosmic entropy, its sheer plusness a tasty proof of the non-zero sum or, to put it in more homely terms, the free lunch.

p 247: I have spent some time trying to parse the almost absurd pride I felt about this loaf and various others I've baked since.

p 248: But a loaf of bread is something new added to the world, an edged object wrested from the flux of nature--and specifically from the living, shifting, Dionysian swamp that is dough. Bread is the Apollonian food.

p 278: To bake the bread I wanted, I didn't just need a better recipe. I needed a whole different civilization.

p 284: Consider, just for a moment, the everyday proximity of death. No, not the swerve of the oncoming car or the bomb in the baby carriage. I'm thinking more of the bloom of yeast on the ripe fruit, patiently waiting for a breach in its skin so that it might invade and decompose its sweet flesh, or the lactobacillus loitering on the cabbage leaf for the same purpose.

p 287: Behind a great loaf of bread is a deft orchestration, not only of time and temperature, but also of a great many diverse species and interests, our own--for something nourishing and delicious to eat--included. I am no maestro, no white thumb yet, but my bread is getting tastier, and airier, all the time.

p 361: In its very suggestiveness, cheese is both like and unlike many of the other foods humans cook or ferment. Whether by fire or water or the action of microbes, one of the ways humans transform the edible stuff of nature is in the direction of greater allusiveness--in taste or smell or appearance. Just as we take pleasure in enriching our language with layers of metaphor and allusion, we apparently like to trope what we eat and drink, too, extracting from it not only more nourishment but more meaning as well--more psychic nourishment, if you will. It just so happens that the more vivid, odiferous tropes that cheesemakers have teased out of milk can verge on the indecent, taking us places polite society doesn't like to go.

p 372: Yet to figure spiritual faith as a kind of fermentation--a transformation of the substrate of nature or everyday life into something infinitely more powerful, meaningful, and symbolic--well, that seemed to me exactly right.

p 376: But my principal motivation was the alchemist's: I was from an early age obsessed with metamorphosis, and this was not the first time I had tried to turn some common form of dross into something that might in some way glow.

p 399: [The Greeks] had crushed grapes and watched great urns of blackish must begin to seethe and breathe and come to life, under the influence of a transformational power they ascribed to Dionysus. And they had felt what that same force did to their minds and bodies when they drank its creation, the way the liquid seemed to ferment them: shifting the mind's attention from the physical to the spiritual, italicizing everyday experience, proposing fresh ways of seeing the most familiar things--new metaphors. The Dionysian magic of fermentation was at once a property of nature and of the human soul, and one could unlock the other.

p 403: By the time I got down to the bottom of the glass, where a pale powdery remnant of champagne yeast had collected, I could feel the warm, suffusing glow of alcohol wash over me. There's really nothing quite like that first soft spring breeze of intoxication. Keep drinking all you want, but you will never get it back.
Nothing has really changed, you're the same guy sitting at the same kitchen table, and yet everything feels just a little different: Several degrees less literal. Leavened.

p 404: Yet even now, in a more sober hour, I wonder if there might not be something here, a metaphor worth stretching and bending to see what it can do for us. Try this: In the same way that yeasts break down a substrate of simple plant sugars to create something infinitely more powerful--more complex and richly allusive--so Coleridge's secondary imagination breaks down the substrate of ordinary experience or consciousness in order to create something that is likewise less literal and more metaphorical: the strong wine of poetry where before there was only the ordinary juice of prose.

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Melissa said...

The breast milk analogy. I can't. And he used the word alveolate in some form three times, and that was just in your top 20. Synecdoche twice.

I was in parts horrified, amused, and angry reading this. There is no excuse for this kind of writing. It reminds me of when I was in high school and thought being a snotty intellectual was somehow cool and "my thing" and then I met Steve and he made fun of my $50 words because guess what, he knew what they meant too, but didn't act like a pretentious douche about it.

And I can't believe this book has such stellar reviews on Amazon. I want to slap each and every one of the people who gave it 4 or 5 stars.

Daniel said...

Tell me what you REALLY think Melissa! ;) Heh.

Yeah. I mean, maybe this post sounds mean or unfair on some level--I worried about that when it came time to click publish. Kind of like I worried whether it would be a mistake to criticize Marion Nestle for logic abuse a little while ago.

Pollan means well, and his other books are formative for a lot of food bloggers. But I think he'd do himself and his readers a gigantic favor if in his next book he cut back on the sheer number of painful quotes like these.


chacha1 said...

I actually enjoyed the passages on wine from pp 399 and 403, and I learned a couple of new words, but otherwise ...

thank you, Dan, for reading that book so I don't have to!

Janet C. said...

OK, Dan, I'm going to disagree with you somewhat here. Yes, those quotes may tend to be self-indulgent...but after all he's writing about food...and what is more self-indulgent than food? I would argue that its the ultimate self-indulgence...

I enjoyed Cooked, not so much for the writing, but because I really appreciate the attempt to get closer to the roots of what we eat. Yes, the language is excessive, but at least it makes me think about what things should or shouldn't taste like. It puts images in my head, good or bad, and our food should invoke memories and images. Food and smells do that. However misguided, he's trying to put those images in our heads and evoke memories of a time when we were far more thoughtful about what we ate.

I will confess that I'm an extremely fast reader, and read more for content than for style. So I'm less likely than most to be bothered by writing style or by specific quotes, so keep that in mind as I say this:

I read Cooked and I was enthralled. Again, it was WHAT he said, not HOW. I could care less about the how. But I learned from the book, about myself and about food. And that to me is the important part. I put the book down and said to myself: "I want to brew beer. And I want to make more soups and stews and maybe learn to pickle. Maybe even learn to bake bread someday". Well, I haven't started the beer thing yet, and I haven't baked bread, but I do make more soups and vegetable stews (no meat since DH went vegetarian on me)and I pickled some peppers and canned vegetables for the first time in almost 60 years of life this past fall.

So if Pollan's book inspired me even in part to do that, good for him. And my fear is that in tearing up HOW he says what he does you are also denigrating the WHAT. You might not like his writing style or even his politics, but he's made a lot of people think differently about food and what we eat. And his tag line "Eat food, mostly plants, and not too much" is a mantra we all could ascribe to. By tearing up his writing style so viscously I'm afraid that you discount the importance of those words.


Daniel said...

I hear you, Janet, but the reason it's so painful to read these quotes isn't because of any criticism or denigration from me. The quotes make the case on their own. :)

Like I said above, Pollan would do his readers a big favor if he cut back on the sheer number of them.


Judy Wyatt said...


Thanks for the giggle! I've read his Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. I appreciate that he is trying to get folks to think more about where their food comes from, how to gather and prepare that food, and how to pay attention to the sensory aspects of eating it.

But! He lives in a rarified, privileged environment that allows him to travel all over the world meeting other privileged people, selecting his food for its freshness and specialness, sneering at the choices of others who are not so fortunate as he is.

Not everyone has access to a supermarket, let alone a high quality farmers' market. Not everyone has a fully functioning kitchen, or awesome cast iron pots clad in porcelain. Not everyone has the time or skills to cook everything from scratch.

I'm sorry that he feels that the microwave oven is an affront to his high culinary standards. Some of us do have the time and means to cook from scratch, but some of us like to freeze food into meal-sized portions, and -- deep breath here -- actually defrost them in the microwave! And I know lots of folks who are grateful that they have the opportunity to find ready-frozen products at their supermarket or local store if they are so blessed as to have one nearby.

He may feel that he has a mystical, religious connection to food and cooking. Good for him. But I think he is seriously disconnected from real people. I seriously cannot imagine that it is possible to feed the entire world's population using his elite privileged opportunities.

Owlhaven said...

I read a writing book long ago by John Gardner-- he talked about purple prose, and about killing your 'babies'. Meaning, of course, the clever phrases that you feel most fond of in your first draft, but that really don't advance your story or make your point. Obviously some 'babies' should have been killed before this book went to press. ;)

chacha1 said...

I am a reader. I read a lot (fiction and non-fiction) and I am not all that picky about style. Purple prose definitely has its place! But IMO that place is in melodrama and/or romance, where often it is tongue-in-cheek, and not in memoir, as "Cooked" seems to be (more than exposition. Without reading it I can't really say, but the quoted passages are extremely personal; they are about MP's experience of cooking; they are not about *how to cook*).

Also ... with all respect to Janet, this notion that in some idealized past everyone cherished and appreciated every bite of food is sentimental nonsense.

Until the past 50 years, most people lived in a state of food insecurity such that getting ENOUGH was their primary concern. Moreover, before worldwide food shipping, what people ate was 100% seasonal and local, and if you haven't tried to make something interesting out of the winter's sixth bag of potatoes then you may not realize what limitations that imposes.

Luxuriating in the scents, textures, etc of food (not to mention writing Proustily about it) would have been just that: a luxury. As it is now. It's entertaining, but not particularly instructive.

botias said...

I like Pollan's work, generally, but couldn't make it past number 11. Hah! Not my kink! But I hope he's reaching his audience and they are all happy. Also, clearly he has never felt my joyful anticipation as I watch my delicious nachos rotating in the magic box.

Leigh said...

It's interesting to see this. I've read In Defense of Food and just started although didn't make it entirely through The Rules of Food.

In truth, I want to read Omnivore's Dilemma but just don't have a copy yet.

I've always been a bit disappointed by his books, mainly because they seem kind of obvious. Perhaps he started the obvious trend, and I've just been reading after the fact, but yeah...

It was funny to see your overview of Cooked... I'd also love to know what you think of his other books.

And is it worth it for me to read Omnivore's Dilemma now?

Janet C. said...

To Cha Cha: I wasn't talking about everyone's food memories. I was talking about my own. And despite that ugly birthday looming, I haven't been around THAT I don't really remember the food insecurities that you mention from more than 50 years ago. Again, I was talking about how the book made ME feel...that's all. To me, if a book makes one person think differently about something, its probably worth the paper or the pixels. And to the person who mentioned The Omnivore's Dilemna: you don't need to buy it...just go to your local library and check out a copy. If the writing bores you, stop reading it. Form your own opinion.

Anyway, as far as I'm concerned, anyone who cares about the taste and texture of their food is by definition self-indulgent. And as far as I'm concerned, that's perfectly ok. If it were just about keeping you alive, you would never attempt to spice anything; for that matter you might not cook anything. Raw spinach and almonds etc would probably fill your nutritional needs just fine.

And no offense, Dan, but if you really think the quotes speak for themselves, all you need to say is "check out the book from the library and read it if you must, but be warned about the style: he says things such as..." And maybe list one or two quotes. To dedicate an entire column to the 20 worst quotes reeks of one-upmanship to me....or maybe just plain old-fashioned jealousy. Sorry, Dan, but you're better than that.

And since someone mentioned the bag of potatoes and making something interesting out of it all winter, consider this: Both Pollan and I were lucky enough to grow up in the same time and place - a place where a variety of food grew year-round. Our perspective might indeed be different because of that. But I DO believe in making the most of what you have on hand....and I would love to read an article about fifty ways to cook those potatoes. Heck, I would like to write that article! Finally, I wish more people DID have access to cooking skills as well as gardening skills. I look forward to the day when instead of saying that some people will just have to rely on fast food, microwaves, and the corner convenience score that we actually start in elementary school teaching children the basics of easy simple cooking and gardening skills. Everyone can do it without spending a lot of money and without fancy tools or ingredients AND without the microwave. If you don't get that then you haven't been reading Dan's column very carefully. Again, IMO.

Daniel said...

Once again though, it's not like there were just three or four of these sentences, and I cherry-picked them and pretended that the whole book was written that way.

I can only speak for myself, but once a book starts racking up a staggeringly high "awful quote count" I feel a need to warn readers.

The thing is, every reader is different. If Proustian and alveolating quotes bother you, you are going to throw this book across the room by page 50. But if they *don't* bother you, you know you can read the book safely.


Daniel said...

Haters gonna hate.