Saturday, July 12, 2014

What Does the Contrast of Baking and Fermenting Mean? (A Half-Thought on Reading Michael Pollan's Cooked)

For our annual Centre sociology alumni study group we are reading Michael Pollan's Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.

In this very interesting study of the basic elements of food and culture, Pollan treats four elemental ways of transforming natural goods into human food under the heading of the four classical elements.  Under 'fire' he discusses roasting over a fire, under 'water', braising in a pot, under 'air', baking bread, and under 'earth', fermenting in many forms.

Pollan's account brings out the ways in which roasting is very masculine and braising very feminine.  This spectrum is not central to Pollan's analysis, but he notes this contrast as many others before have, notably the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss.

This has made me wonder if baking and fermenting form another pair of contrasts, perhaps cross-cutting the first.  Pollan does not directly contrast the two.  He does, though, note the association of fermentation with death - that we pause putrefaction long enough to eat the tangy middle phase.  Which suggests, then, that perhaps baking is the staff and symbol of life.  This certainly works in Christian mythology. 

Still, I have a nagging sense that there is a more down-to-earth pair that the making of 'air' and 'earth' foods is like.

Suggestions welcome.


Mary T. said...

His book The Botany of desire is a favorite of mine.

Anonymous said...

The thought that I had when I glanced at the comparison of the air and earth was that the two are parallels of one another as opposed to the idea of contrasting the two. They are two roads that begin at the same origin but lead to entirely different destinations. Wheat and barley may both be used in fermentation or in baking.