Category Archives: Research

Why I Write

When I saw the writing prompt about this week’s writing challenge by Chuck Wendig, I didn’t even have to think about what to say…


1977: It’s a rainy day in second grade and recess is inside. The fluorescent lights shine with a certain yellow glow under the dark grey skies, and I watch the rain stream down the windows as I think of how to string the words of a story together. I’d stapled some lined and plain paper into a neat stack. Illustrations filled the plain paper, and my shaky writing stayed as close to the blue lines as possible.

A shadow loomed over my desk. “What are you doing?”

“Writing a story,” I said. I still remember the feeling of the thick yellow lacquer on the pencil. It was starting to crack.

The teacher scowled at me. “What a waste of paper!”

I was then instructed to put my head down on my desk and take a nap. My “book” was thrown in the trash.

So much for supporting creativity in schools. My mother was horrified.


I’ve always been obsessed with writing. I’m filled with anxiety if I don’t have a means of putting pen to paper. There is a notebook and an abundance of pens in every bag I carry. (I’m old fashioned. My preferred implement is also a fountain pen. I’m more thoughtful about my words when I do it by hand.) Back then, characters were like invisible friends. I worked out the plots by talking to people no one saw. I suppose it’s still like that to some degree.

Up though high school, my stories were derivative of my favorite fantasy series: Tolkien’s work, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, and the Dragonlance series. In 1994, my brother told me I should see The Crow. I told him I hated stupid love stories. It was the last conversation I had with him. A few days later, he was killed while walking to work by a man who had no business driving. His closest friend brought a copy of The Crow on VHS with him when he stayed with me in the days before the funeral. I wasn’t able to tell Matthew how much I loved the movie, but while it played, I felt a desperate need to keep him alive. Writing him into a novel was the only way I knew how to do that.

Four hundred pages later, I was too wrapped up in the grief and had to put the manuscript aside. I began graduate work at Harvard Extension and found other sources of inspiration. And though I didn’t set out with this as my mission in life, a common theme was evident in all that I wrote: finding real women marginalized in history and giving them a voice to tell their tale.

It began with the consort of Vlad the Impaler. Legend had it she committed suicide during a Turkish siege. In movies, she’s referred to as his wife, but the more research I did, including reading Vlad’s letters, it was evident she was a concubine. I traveled to Romania to do research and stayed in the shadows of the Carpathians. This novel became the focus of my graduate thesis, and I self-published it two years later, in 2010.

People were intrigued by the list of women I kept for inspiration. Friends dropped off biographies of women they thought I should write about. Some made it to the list. Since then, I’ve written about Irish pirate queen Granía O’Malley, who negotiated with Queen Elizabeth I for her family’s freedom. A short piece was published about a woman who dressed as a man to travel with her betrothed, who was fighting for the Spanish armada and she couldn’t bear to be away from him. Her ghost allegedly haunts a barn in England. A trip to an Arizona museum resulted in finding an affidavit about a woman who shot her lover and served as the only female prisoner at the time in an all-male prison. May Woodman ran a cigar stand in Tombstone, and knew all the famous names we associate with that town. Her lover was killed on the same corner as where Virgil Earp was ambushed after the gunfight at OK Corral. May was scrappy and couldn’t stay out of trouble. She was pardoned and subsequently exiled from Arizona after officials discovered she was running a contraband cigar business out of her jail cell.

I delve into all eras and cultures: ancient Mesopotamia, medieval Baghdad, coastal Maine during the War of 1812, and beyond. I’ve branched into speculative fiction as well, bringing Sumer into the modern era as a space-age superpower in my fourth novel, due out next year. Visions of Enheduanna, named by some historians as the world’s first (known) author, link the story to the roots of civilization’s history.

I don’t write about Cleopatra or Anne Boleyn. As much appreciation as I have for the most famous names in history, what draws me to the women I write about is that they’re all underdogs, outcasts, and rebels. I never thought I put much of myself into my novels. I’m thorough in my research and hope to portray the most authentic world possible, no matter which slice of history I’m focusing on. But as I look back over my life, I see that correlation. I’ve always been the rebel and outcast. Like I’m an alien stranded on this planet, listening to dark ambient and space music while I write, focusing on the voices of women who led extraordinary lives but are generally overlooked or misrepresented. I’m so into creating accurate settings that I began a blog series about how food is portrayed in historical fiction, recreating recipes in my kitchen to more closely connect with my characters.

I’m 45 and my fourth novel is due out next year. My list of works in progress continues to grow, and I worry about how many I’ll actually get to. I just hope I’m doing them justice, and that somewhere out there, people are enjoying the books about these extraordinary women I happened to find on my journey through this incredibly strange, frequently discouraging, and yet absolutely amazing world.

Lost and Found: A Writer’s Guide to Navigation


Every so often, an event comes along that is incredibly interesting and while it has nothing in particular to do with a novel I’m working on, I know the notes I’ll take will find their way into my writing—sometime. The Radcliffe Institute’s science symposium about navigation, Lost and Found, is a perfect example.

In a word—this symposium was intense. It started out with presentations on neuroscience. One of the more accessible portions was the work of Eleanor Maguire, who studied the growth of the hippocampus in taxi drivers from training onward through their careers. As a result of memorizing London’s 25,000 streets, the hippocampus grew, and MRIs revealed brain activity as the drivers planned and dealt with unexpected obstacles using a simulation program. Upon retirement, the hippocampus began to shrink, and returned to average size within two to three years. Maguire’s research further demonstrated that people who say they have a poor sense of direction typically fall into a category of people who are able to recognize landmarks, but are unable to place them on a map. In contrast, people who find their way around well were able to draw detailed maps after playing a video game called Fog World. Maguire won an IgNobel award for her research in 2003. Though the IgNobels make light of a lot of research, there was also a good deal of appreciation for what she had discovered about brain function and the ability to navigate.

What followed were presentations on animal navigation and anthropological studies of migrations of people living in the South Pacific; then we were on to two of the most interesting lectures: lost person behavior, and navigation in outer space.

It was these afternoon sessions I found a lot of inspiration as a writer. Professor Richard Feinberg talked about the different types of tools used by cultures: the Carolinian star compass, the wind compass, star paths, and so on. Whether you’re portraying a real human culture and need your seafaring characters to know the trade winds as they cross the ocean, or characters in a fantasy world are trying to determine how to find their way to a land they’ve only heard about in legend, there were a lot of great details that could help shape how your characters journey in known and unknown lands.

The most dynamic presentation of the day was about lost person behavior. There are tons of novels and movies about people being lost, or trying to find someone. Did you know there is a database of more than 100,000 people that characterizes their behavior based on the data collected by search and rescue teams?


After obtaining information about all the wheres: Is it known where the person went? Have they been lost before. If so, where were they found? Where have other people been found if they have been lost in the same area? Is the person a hiker, angler, mushroom forager, or straying child? Once an initial planning point (IPP) has been determined, such as where the person’s abandoned bicycle was found, search efforts begin in earnest. The person’s cognitive abilities provide a wealth of detail that help search and rescue teams: Alzheimer’s patients tend to stick within 15 meters of roads or paths, and usually stop wandering in a short time. Autistic children are often drawn to light, water, and reflective surfaces. There are distinct patterns that emerge ass data continues to be collected. There are specific phases f being lost: (1) The error at the Decision Point, (2) terrain analysis, (3) confirmation bias, or “bending the map,” where people ignore the obvious signs they’re on the wrong track and are convinced they know where they’re going, (4) phase of anxiety, (5) realization of being lost, and (6) the self-rescue strategy, of which there are many.

Self-rescue strategies involve everything from deciding to stay in a straight line to finding contour paths that reach a wider area, or, staying put and hoping to be found. And over the years, statistics have changed due to technology. In the past, most hikers headed down, with only a few staying at the same elevation, and a good percentage heading up to get a view of the vista in order to find the best path out. Now many hikers head up to a higher elevation to find cell phone service.

These known patterns help establish several strategies for finding people, and the maps of probability are based on these behaviors. Robert J. Koester, the presenter of this amazing information, has written several books on the subject. If being lost is at the heart of your plot, you may want to seek these books out to make the lost person’s behavior, and that of the rescue team’s, more realistic.

The final session of the day was perfect fodder for sci-fi fans. With the study of pulsars, we have learned that they can serve as a sort of GPS. In fact, the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes carry plaques suggested by Carl Sagan, to serve as a beacon to show any spacefaring alien life the way to Earth. (Of course, if you’re a fan of Douglas Adams, you know this could be a very bad idea, if the Volgons show up to read their poetry before blasting your planet into pieces to build a galactic superhighway.)


The solar system at the bottom of the plaque is obvious. But the star-like graph to the left? It maps 14 pulsars that were known at the time of the plaque’s creation, and they position Earth at the center. Presenter George Hobbs talked about how time and position could theoretically be used as a GPS system in space, if a ship could map at least 4 pulsars. It was fascinating to think of how this could be used in fiction. My fourth novel does have space travel in it, but only as far out as Mars and the asteroid belt. But thinking about using pulsars as a means of navigation made me want to send my characters out even further into the galaxy.

Pulsar NASA

I’ve always been a strong supporter of continuing education, and believe it’s a key component for writers, regardless of genre or writing style. There is a traditional image of writers being sequestered away in their garrets, writing manically and producing book after book. But for practicality’s sake, many of us need careers to support our craft. Publishing houses offer little in the way of advances for a vast majority of authors, and even in the indie world, being discovered by readers on a scale of being able to live off the royalties is a challenge. Indeed, there are those who say authors need to be connected to the world—the awesome blog run by the Alliance of Independent Authors made this point recently.

There are endless, free resources out there for authors to use. And symposia such as these are of immense benefit to all kinds of writers.

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat


The can opener was invented 50 years after canning was patented. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, knives were individualized to each owner as specifically as wands in Harry Potter, and didn’t become part of standard tableware until the 17th century. Modern salted butter is 1 to 2% salt; in 1305 AD, it was 10% salt for the purposes of preservation. In Western Europe, the overbite only developed recently—toward the late 18th century—due to the utensils we came to use every day. In Asia, the overbite was around for centuries because of the use of chopsticks.

This is just a smattering of facts that are detailed in Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson. Its thirteen-page bibliography is a testament to the meticulous research that went into writing this book. Broken down into basic elements of the kitchen, each chapter covers the gradual evolution of life in the kitchens. From the humble wooden spoon to the types of metal used for pots and pans, Wilson provides a fascinating history of cooking. With examples from around the globe, we learn how hearths were incorporated into the home, and eventually, the multi-room structure of aristocratic kitchens, with wet and dry pantries, game larders, sculleries, dairy rooms, bakehouses, and rooms for smoking meats, salting, and pastries. Sounds labyrinthine and the perfect setting for a novel!

The number of inspirational examples that begged to be included in fiction were plentiful. A two-tiered steamer made of Corinthian brass called an authepsa sold at an auction in ancient Rome for the same amount of money that could have bought a farm, according to Cicero. Cauldrons were so enormous and important as private property that they were passed down in wills. The Celts believed cauldrons to be a source of eternal abundance and knowledge, and an empty one symbolized absolute misery.

Consider the Fork cover

As a resource for writing about food, Consider the Fork is wonderful. Whether it’s for historical fiction, or building a world for an epic fantasy, this book offers insight into how culture and culinary life grew around the kitchen. Each chapter gives a long view—from ancient history to modern technology, and the idea that a fridge may someday be able to sort your food for you so that things that are about to expire are placed up front—shows how we adapted all the tools to meet our needs over centuries. The author demonstrates the sometimes-healthy, sometimes-silly skepticism that came with each new wave of technological development. Refrigerators were cause for concern because butchers could sell outdated meat. Currently, it’s the sous-vide. Another trendy device to take up counter space, or truly a wonder that refines taste and texture in the best way? It’s fascinating to read a history of everyday objects so many people take for granted. One thing is for sure—whenever I write about cooking in my novels, I’ll remember many details from this book, and the kitchens will be all that much warmer and fragrant.

Harvard’s Science and Cooking Series: “gAstronomy”


What is the connection between astronomy and cooking? An interesting notion. And for me, an irresistible draw to the Science and Cooking lectures at Harvard. A series open to the public and based on the class offered to the students of the College, it brings together world-class chefs and scientists to do live demonstrations of Modern Cuisine and talk about what really happens on a molecular level when you melt chocolate, boil pasta, or make gravy. Part magic show, part deep intellectual endeavor, this series has captivated the crowds that pack into the Science Center for a few years now.

I faithfully attended most of them the first year, but due to tumultuous upheavals and schedules, it was an unfortunate casualty of lost hobbies while I brought my life back to an even keel. (And there is consolation in that the videos are archived online.) It’s a delight to be able to return to them, and what better way than to attend a lecture that blends two of my favorite subjects: cuisine and astronomy.

Bill Yosses, former White House pastry chef, and Dr. Steve Howell, project scientist for the Kepler and K2 missions at NASA, are the instructors I wish I had in high school. Instead, I was alienated from chemistry and physics because the teacher spent every class being the cool kids’ smart-alecky buddy, making dumb jokes and telling anecdotes about kids’ parents who were in his class a generation before. Not a townie, and a perpetual outsider, I attempted to decipher the massive text book on my own, only to fail each brutal test that came with no help whatsoever. I hated to hate science, but it was the byproduct of a deeply flawed educational experience. At least I was able to turn that around as an adult.

Bill Yosse (left) and Steve Howell (right) demonstrate spherification.

Bill Yosse (left) and Steve Howell (right) demonstrate spherification.

An old sense of tension dogged me while Bill Yosse and Steve Howell tossed out terms like “nucleation” and “Raleigh scattering.” But with the colorful array of objects on the table at the front of the lecture hall, I knew this would be a different experience. Nucleation was demonstrated by a beaker partially filled with hydrogen peroxide, dyed with red food coloring to clearly show the dramatic effect of the addition of potassium iodine (used to seed clouds for rain). An oxygen molecule was ripped from the hydrogen peroxide—H2O2 to H2O—making it water. The reaction was a colorful spout of foam shooting at least six feet into the air before landing in a messy heap on the table. The beaker was hot to the touch.

As they stepped through each example: spherification, surface tension, atmospheric pressure, and so on, I was astonished by the links between cooking and astronomy. Gels and polymers, essential to many desserts and a key element of Modern Cuisine, where flavors are layered in unusual ways—are also used in similar ways in space, from insulating instruments on the Mars rover to using a gel to catch particles from passing comets. Suddenly, I got it. So much of the science that bewildered me years ago made perfect sense.

It was really a kind of nirvana—seeing these two topics combined—and a few details emerged that will most certainly find their way into my fiction. How flames look in zero gravity or the fact that a lower density atmosphere means a lower boiling point (demonstrated by water being boiled as an ice cube was placed on the beaker) are great for the novel that involves space travel. Even the explanation of the spectrometer and Kepler mission—how we find planets and figure out what gasses their atmospheres are made of—is useful knowledge for my characters to have.


Then Bill Yosse mentioned one of the world’s first (at least that we know by name) celebrity chef, Antonin Carême, who cooked for kings and czars around the time of the French Revolution. While outside of my usual theme of writing about real women in history, tales of his elaborate pièces montées, large sculptures used as centerpieces at banquets, made of marzipan and other ingredients, sparked something. I have no idea how this will transform into my writing, but visions of his creations invited a new Muse into the realm of imagination.

As for the science and cooking lectures, I look forward to more. All the details about the series can be found here.

Open Access and Harvard’s DASH Project

HAA Open Access lecture A revolution is quietly taking place in libraries. Challenges to copyright law grow as the importance in sharing research in the Digital Age becomes evident. The high cost of peer-reviewed journals is breaking library budgets. As with the traditional publishing model, there is a great need for change in order to maintain a sustainable model. Open access is the key to this in academic research. A couple of weeks ago, I attended an event hosted by the Harvard Alumni Association where two advocates of Open Access talked about the university’s DASH project. DASH collects scholarly articles, theses, and dissertations from across the university’s schools. To date, more than 19,000 works can be searched, viewed, and downloaded. Started in 2009, DASH’s global reach has grown significantly. Articles and theses have been downloaded more than 3 million times. The contents of the projects are indexed by major search engines like Google. People from around the world share accounts of how DASH has helped them, and DASH solicits these testimonials on every download. For example, a person wrote to say they had found vital information to bring to the doctor to find a treatment that may be more effective. The doctor agreed, and the experience provided a successful outcome. Open Access One of the speakers, Peter Stuber, is director of the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communications and director of the Open Access Project. Harvard is the first university to adopt an open access policy, and the faculty vote was unanimous. At least 50 other university have adopted Harvard’s model, and more are doing so all the time. Faculty have the option to opt out of sharing their work, but many see the value that has previously not been possible in peer-reviewed journals. Unlike expensive journals that have a limited reach, making research openly available enhances scrutiny and the ability to check the reproducibility of results. Outside of the academic world, policymakers, journalists, nonprofits, and citizens from anywhere in the world can view and use the research for their own purposes. Peter Struber’s book on the topic, Open Access, is (of course) freely available on DASH, and well worth the read. Kyle Courtney, an attorney affiliated with the Harvard Library and the Office of General Counsel, talked about the inaugural Fair Use Week, which took place from Feb. 24 to 28 of this year, and will go national in 2015. The future of libraries lies in digitization, and as the ambitious efforts of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) have shown, a thorough review and reform of copyright law is essential to the future of libraries and academic institutions. Newly staffed with a “copyright first responders” team, Harvard Libraries now provide guidance to those seeking insight into open access. And as with DPLA, the biggest challenged is with orphaned works—books whose authors (or rights holders) or publishers are unreachable, and the copyright is indeterminate. This is one of the key issues to be resolved. Open Access lecture 2 How has DASH come in handy for me as an author? My “How Do They Feast?” series delves into how food is portrayed in fiction. Cooking is a passion, and I love to be able to feature food in my stories. I believe it helps readers connect to the stories, and I love the challenge of accurately showing the cuisine of a particular culture. I have a novel set in the Ancient Near East in the works, and a preliminary search on the term “culinary” gave me a paper on the early advances in agricultural life in Sumer. Avoiding anachronism is all that much easier when you can see what food people had access to. A search on Mesopotamia in general gave me access to several papers by scholar Jason Ur (students of Mesopotamian history will get the irony of his surname). The release of formerly classified images from satellites show roads and locations that were not known. Dozens of other papers in this topic can help me better establish the cities, culture, war, and trade in ancient Sumer. It’s an amazing resource that will help everyone collaborate and learn in new ways, and is one of the highlights of innovation in the Digital Age. Go check it out—and see how it can help you. *And in addition to DASH, you can also scroll down to the right sidebar on this site and search what’s available in the DPLA’s archives as well. Many thanks to the DPLA for developing this useful and widely sharable app! 

Announcing Whiskey and Rue

Whiskey and Rue Collage

This is a novel I never thought I’d write, but that’s what happens when the Muse visits. Sometimes there are surprises. Most of my inspiration comes from the ancient and medieval worlds—both European and Middle Eastern. My shelves are lined with books about Mesopotamia, the Abbasid Dynasty of Baghdad, Irish, Norse, and Germanic history, and Moorish Spain. I’ve spent months studying Herodotus, Xenophon, and Thucydides, chasing yet another idea for a new novel. I’m very, very close to delving into the epic fantasy series that I started in high school, which finally saw the light of day in the form of a short story in the anthology Shadows of a Fading World. So how did I come to be visited by a Muse inspired by the Old West?

In 2008, as the world’s economy headed for disaster, I was considering a move to Tucson, Arizona. With a new master’s degree in a shining frame on my wall, I headed out west in hopes of setting a new path and pursuing a PhD. I had been to New Mexico in the mid-90s and fell in love with the desert. Friends said Tucson was worth checking out. I spent some time there to get a feel for the place, and really dug it.

While wandering the city, I found myself at the Arizona Historical Society. I was warmly welcomed by two people at the entrance. “This is a big place, you know,” said the woman who greeted me. “If we don’t see you in a few hours, I’ll send my partner here to look for you.” And truly, it was the largest historical society I have ever visited, complete with a massive replica of a mine, with mannequins dressed as workers. Nearby was a replica of an apothecary from the 1800s, and rooms and rooms of interesting items from the state’s past.

The glass display case I came to stand before seemed innocuous at first. A framed police report caught my eye. A women nicknamed “Roadrunner,” who was known for consorting with the cowboys (a pejorative term at the time, mind you!), had shot her lover. The defense held that she suffered severe mental side effects from herbal abortives and an insanity plea was used. Just months before, the man who shot President Garfield also used the insanity plea—the first major case to use it in US history. I took a few notes and went on my way.

Weeks later, I couldn’t shake what I had read in the police report. I contacted the historical society and asked if they had any additional information. Not only did they have the complete court transcripts and press clippings, but also subpoenas and the decision made by the jury which was handed to the bailiff at the time of the woman’s conviction. After sending a small donation to the historical society, they made copies and sent me a large file containing everything.

May Woodman Conviction

Courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society

What was fascinating was that May Woodman wasn’t allowed to testify. Men spoke for her. There was no doubt she shot her lover, Billy Kinsman, but there was also evidence that she was beaten while pregnant. Some shady testimony from a doctor suggested that this medicine—whatever it was—did negatively impact her state of mind. She tried to commit suicide twice after being convicted of manslaughter. She was sent to Yuma Prison, where she was the only female prisoner. She got involved in an illegal cigar-manufacturing scheme, and during an inspection, federal officials found thousands of cigars hidden in her cell. To avoid a brewing scandal, she was released, and put on a train to California and told never to return to Arizona territory again. And that is the last we hear of her.

To date, Whiskey and Rue is the most unusual story I’ve ever written. It’s far from the style of the ones I’ve done in the past. It took less research, there were far more thematic elements and a certain writing style that echoes my love for Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, and for the first time, I didn’t use an outline. The novel has undergone three massive revisions since I started working on it in 2011. It takes a sliver of my thesis, in showing the quest for women’s rights and the negative influence of control and conformity. One could say Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper is a strong influence as well in terms of developing these thematic elements.

What makes May Woodman interesting is that she provides an interesting perspective of Tombstone’s history. When we think of Tombstone today, the gunfight at OK Corral is the first thing that springs to mind. Much ink has been spilled over what happened that day. May’s story is but the briefest of descriptions in books about Tombstone, living in the shadow of the Earps and Clantons. She lived there at the time, and no doubt knew many of the men involved. She operated a cigar stand in Barron’s Barber Shop on Allen Street, across from the Cosmopolitan Hotel, and a block away from where Virgil Earp was shot out of vengeance for the gunfight at OK Corral. May shot Billy on the same street corner where Virgil was badly injured.

There are some difficult issues here. I’ve said it’s the darkest thing I’ve written, and that’s saying something for an author whose first book is about Vlad the Impaler. It plumbs the depths of a desperate and isolated woman who constantly finds herself in trouble. However, May’s voice is very strong, and she was determined to have me write this story. I’m moving ever closer to sending it off to an editor, and it’s on track to be released in fall 2014. Hopefully in time for the 132nd anniversary of the gunfight at OK Corral. If dark westerns are your thing, stay tuned.



Worldbuilding with Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

PicMonkey Elements Collage

Culinaria elementi: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water

While a displaced group of Satanists (and those curious about them) wandered Harvard Square in search of a venue to perform a black mass after the on-campus event was canceled due to rabid controversy, I waited in line to see Michael Pollan, who was giving a talk about his latest book, Cooked. Michael Pollan is a witty and engaging speaker. I can’t say the same for whoever performed the black mass—though finding out their costumed procession, reportedly including a caped man in a white suit and horned mask, led them to the sometimes-infamous Hong Kong restaurant, was highly entertaining in itself. Sadly, no photos have been posted that I can find.

The Michael Pollan event hosted by Harvard Book Store, however, was as orderly and interesting as one would expect from the august shop. The author discussed the evolution of his books, starting with the Omnivore’s Dilemma, which explores the development of industrial agriculture and the food business and how it connects to any number of dietary fads and the dangerous rise in diseases such as type 2 diabetes. In Cooked, he gets to the source of food production, and takes the reader back to the origins of cooking and its relationship to the natural world.

Divided into the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water, the book discusses man’s initial use of fire and subsequent evolution. With the advent of agricultural societies came steaming and boiling, and cooking became a collaborative effort. To explore each element, Pollan takes on a mini-apprenticeship. He begins with fire, at a famous BBQ place in North Carolina. He’s given a tour by the pitmaster—a place flanked by grills, where the meat is slow cooked at low temperatures overnight. Out of this “smoky crypt” comes the whole hog sandwich, a delight of various cuts of meat. The practice harkens back to ancient times, when priests were in charge of sacrifices.

For water, he describes the process of processing grain. Soups and softer foods provide an opportunity to wean babies at a younger age, and the ability for elderly people to better eat. Life is prolonged. Civilization grows.

With air, he takes us to breadmaking. He spent time with Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, where he learned everything about the importance of sourdough starters and how the smell of a starter is key to the success of the finished product. An avid surfer, Robertson balances two passions, and Michael Pollan spoke with great enthusiasm about his time at the bakery. What we learn is that in cooking, the essential factors are practice, patience, and presence. You have to be there—no dithering about on social media—lord knows how often I’ve burned something after losing track of time while answering an email, leaving an abandoned pot of something to burn on the stove. He’s right. It’s a consummate hobby that requires keen focus.


But industry sped things up, and it’s become the norm. Recipes are falsely sped up to shorten preparation and cooking times. Best-sellers carry titles like “30-Minute Wonder Meals.” Many people are clueless in the kitchen without the help of a microwave. Pollan’s argument is that it all needs to slow down. Let the dough rise for hours. The slower the process, the more flavorful, the more nutritious the result.

With the invention of the flour mill came pristine white flour. The nutrients were stripped. Immediately, people began to get sick. So industry added the nutrients back in—but in the form of fortified stuff…like Wonder Bread. It was all fake, filled with chemicals, and it’s been hurting us ever since. He made an interesting comparison: with the rise of the labor movement, Europe fought for time. They spend more time cooking than we do. In the US, we fought for money, and there is a difference in rates of diabetes and obesity, though numbers are now rising all over the world.

Finally, with earth, he talked about cheesemaking. As someone who adores naturally produced cheese—the more odiferous the better—I was fascinated by his description of cheese left to age in barrels. While steel is industry standard, it’s been found that the powers of lacto bacilli kill of dangerous bacteria, which actually flourishes in steel. The barrel is more effective, and produces a more authentic and flavorful cheese.

“Cheese is all about the dark side of life,” Pollan said. While other scents are more thoroughly described, there is a tendency to avoid describing cheese in too much detail. It’s earthiness is visceral, it “puts us back on all fours.”

This unique perspective of cooking and how humanity and civilization evolved with food production was a powerful experience. It led me to think more deeply about how food is portrayed in fiction. Fiction is about transformations—primarily in characters, but also in places and situations. How are characters impacted by their food supply? In an apocalyptic scenario, how does a linchpin serve to cause an environment collapse? If a society is in the early stages of collaborative cooking, how does it change as more people build settlements and rely on grains? What happens if a crop is blighted? In a futuristic setting, what would happen if a city entirely dependent on high tech went black, and people couldn’t access proper food?

There are any number of ways the essence of this book could be incorporated into a story. One of the best things about worldbuilding is to sit back and think—what if? Cooked provides plenty of fodder to answer that question.

Old hearth