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A Radius of Bounty

Smith, A. and J.B. MacKinnon. 2007. The 100-Mile Diet. Vintage Canada, Toronto.

Thoughts of local meals fly by, surrounded by memories.  It seems as if there comes a time each summer when I am home that each item on our dinner plates is suddenly, freshly, surprisingly produced within quite a small radius around our home.  Yet much premeditation goes into the steak – from the local butcher shop, and probably at the furthest 50 to 100 kilometres traveled – and much more consciously into the potatoes planted in spring, the perennial herbs that grace the food, and the multitude of other vegetables that we can choose from for our meal.  Zucchini both yellow and green, small carrots, and multicoloured lettuce are just some of the options coming from a garden that is started each year in the mind of my mother and father months before the first seed is sown.

The 100-Mile Diet, by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, is a glad departure from the fluid stylings of Michael Pollan.  I first read this book last summer, and I had already forgotten that each chapter (they are named after months of the year, beginning with March) began with a local-food recipe.  The essence of their piece is simple; the pair aimed to eat only food produced within a 100-mile/160 km radius of where they lived – primarily Vancouver – with the exception of a few things already on their pantry shelves.

What if there were a scenario, such as a major war, in which we had to adhere to a 100-mile diet?  This is something I think about on occasion.  Meat and fish would still be available, though in somewhat fewer varieties.  The average person would likely eat less of it.  Eggs and dairy would also face a similar situation.  What of the focus of this class, plants?  A small variety of nuts can be grown in this area, including walnuts.  Almonds might be found at the southern tip of our 160 kilometre limit.  Fruit would be abundant in summer, dwindling in the fall but for drying and canning.  Depending on the scenario, we might still have electricity to freeze some of it.  Vegetable storage would once again become an art; the long shelf lives of foods like cabbage, leeks, onions, carrots and squash once again appreciated.  For starch, some quantities of corn, barley, and other grains are grown in the region.  Native plants are unlikely to sustain us all, so I suggest that local residents would turn to the potato, in its many varieties, as a major source of carbohydrates.  Sugar? Ha! There’s some honey production, a few trees that might be tapped at some times of year, and perhaps a stray sugar beet, but this commodity would be scarce.  Salt? Double ha!  There are no seas here.  Suddenly celery, which is said to be relatively high in sodium, might take on a new value.   Or perhaps, one of the salt pans in our area might not contain only unusable salts of other metals, but a form of edible NaCl.  Oil would be much easier to procure; oilseed plants such as mustards can be grown here, and animal fat rendered to produce lard.  Sunflower seeds might also be pressed.  What of herbs and spices?  Most tropical spices would be unavailable, and our use of herbs such as parsley, lovage or basil would increase.  Fungi can be grown or picked, so their price might increase, but their availability would not be overly constrained.  Tea or coffee drinkers would need to find a substitute, as well as anyone who enjoys chocolate.  Still, those who enjoy a beer or wine need not despair, as barley, hops, grapes and other stock for a fair variety of fermented and distilled beverages would be available.  Those craving absinthe might even investigate the use of the local Artemisia species in their drink.

The bards of the region might regale us with a poem of our prized local foods:

Of plants we know many a type, the short lasting and the long

The tomato, lettuce, radish and rhubarb in their places

With cabbage, leeks, onions, carrots and squash in the cellar

We move to meaty creatures with faces

 

Pork beef fish game and fowl of the land and water

We eat their flesh to sustain our own

For our wellbeing other kinds we slaughter

But think not that this is overblown

 

For we sup on the best of ales of barley and of hops

On the toast of wine of grape and mead and liquor too

As truly we must allow that flesh is scarce in the shops

So plants make up the great large part of what feeds me and you

 

Oils we find in mustard seeds and nuts and perhaps corn

And spices are rare signs of wealth but herbs are all around

Though we have not salt but celery be not forlorn

The chili and paprika live and herbs’ leaves and seeds abound

 

Sweetness is a pleasure once more in form of syrup and honey

A beetroot or an apple will do or perhaps a sweet new peach

For sugar cane costs exorbitant money

And is quite out of our reach

 

Tea and coffee are not known but there are other brews

Herbal tea is one that is common but what is my greatest pleasure?

A nut if I had just one to choose

Almonds and walnuts luscious beyond measure

As I near the end of this final freewrite, I think it has been a stimulating exercise, particularly for my writing skills; simply to practice them helps a lot.  The overall message Smith and MacKinnon are writing is that a local diet is liveable, very interesting, and sometimes hard work.  They do not suggest that it is for everyone, but they have inspired others to try the same thing.  Looking through the beginning sentences of each chapter is disappointing, but perhaps it is sometimes in the near-beginning sentences that the gems are to be found, like this one on page 253: “We could eat anything, anything on Earth.”  While perhaps not the most stunning sentence, its message opens millions of possibilities.  What to eat?  The realization of the hidden price of food on page 31 is just one of the many issues that the authors cover in this intriguing book.  “I don’t have to pay for the dams, the wild places given over to reservoirs and farms, and the resulting decimation of species from chinook salmon to the least Bell’s vireo to all the plants of the bunchgrass prairies.”  Naturally, my estimation of a well-crafted sentence is quite likely different from yours, but that is the nature of perception.  Surely there are some much more beautiful sentences tucked into this book, the message of which I enjoy and aim to partly incorporate into my life.  So ends a semester of blogging about the stories that plants and people share.  Thank you.

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The Nuanced Flavours of Summer

An apricot is stable, a point of relative constancy amid a sea of activity.  It is neither sunrise nor sunset, but the noontide sun in fullest flame, directly overhead, on one of the hottest days of the year.  An apricot is wonderful, a slightly sweet smell and the taste as of nectar on the tongue under the shade of its progenitor in that blistering starlight.  An apricot has a place, and for me the locations that thrill with the concept of “apricot” are Grand Forks, for history, Savona, for exploration, and Lower Nicola, home, for stability.

I sat on a couch, wondering.  Why would you want a hard pillow? Great-aunt Julia said it was filled with apricot pits.  I turned my attention to the dried apricots offered from the racks above the big woodstove.  Harder but with a better taste than the storebought dried apricots with their oniony aftertaste, which I was later found are treated with sulfur dioxide for colour and quality preservation.  Grand Forks, home of our nearest relatives, was a regular destination in spring and fall during my childhood.  Sister, father, mother and I would drive the four or five hours to see great-aunt, great-uncle and cousins.  This was also where we received some of our best apricot trees, whether through seed or sapling.  My history with apricots travels a long road from the cool spring of the Kootenays to the heat of Savona.

In my mind, Savona is a place locked in summer.  When we dropped by in winter it seemed cool and still.  In hot weather, Savona is livelier, locals splashing in the shallows of Kamloops Lake and a few clouds drifting slowly through the blue sky.  From Lower Nicola we followed Guichon Creek past numerous lakes: Mamit, Logan, and Tunkwa.  Reaching the high point, we would descend on gravel and later, paved roads past Mount Savona and Mount Durand along Durand Creek.  Kamloops Lake was a broad vista of blue opening up below us on a clear day.

Several apricot trees are scattered around Savona, their orange fruit a delight to the eyes when they ripen in July.  A few already litter the ground, and after a swim comes time to pick some apricots.  No one is responsible for picking the bounty of fruit by the school.  Their character varies surprisingly by place – in a good year buckets can be gleaned from these places, the schoolyard ones bursting with flavour, a juicy flesh with an ethereal summery taste.  Months later, apricots in jam or frozen form cannot match this flavour.  Near the railroad, a stunted tree grows near a culvert, dropping its smaller fruit.  Faint bitterness sometimes clouds these, yet most years they are just as good as or better than the others, packing a wallop of flavour into a fruit the size of a ping pong ball.  We hoist the buckets into our small pickup and make our way with open windows back through the highlands.  A farmstead with solar panels near Tunkwa Lake looks to have a few trees, even at higher elevation.  I always wonder whether they produce anything.  Before long, we’re back on our side of this little plateau, hot wind streaming through the open windows of the truck.

At the end of the day, we make it back to our home, pulling in past our own apricot trees.   Much like the sense of terroir often referenced in grape-growing, each tree has its characteristic fruit.  I feel that the trees have a sense of identity, something intangible.  For me it is a mental construct taking into account their location, origin, fruit, height and form.  Some are easy to describe, like a Siberian apricot, whose fruits are next to inedibly bitter, or one of the first that we grew, a commercially grafted tree.  The fruits of this tree are edible but always slightly mealy and less flavourful than those from homegrown trees.  They nonetheless make good bulk for adding to jam.  Nearer the house are a few smaller trees, these surely grown from seeds we threw into the flowerbed.  They scrape along the walls of the house when the wind blows, and in recent years have begun to make fruit of their own, heavy orange golf balls that are so juicy as to drip onto the ground when picked at full ripeness.

Outside of summer, the rest of the year is varied, but also beautiful.  May is a time of happiness and a time of worry.  It is a pivotal month for the fruit trees at home.  The neighbourhood is some distance above Guichon Creek’s meandering path toward the Nicola River.  The north-south valley is dominated by our Interior friends, Ponderosa Pine and Bluebunch Wheatgrass.  May is a time when many flowers bloom and the last frosts come.  But it is these very frosts that can kill our hopes of a good apricot harvest for another year.  There’s little we can do; the trees are too tall to cover and we don’t wish to install a giant fan.  We hope and wait.  When the frosts stop we know our luck.  The apricots will be abundant this year, or they will not.

Before May comes, we spend our winter not ignoring, but largely leaving the apricot trees alone.  We eat the jam made from them in previous summers and stew the frozen ones for some warm-season fruit in a colder time.  At times, we recall how laden the branches were the previous summer.  One tree in particular had its branches propped up on sawhorses so they wouldn’t break.  We prune some branches here and there to keep the trees in a semblance of order.  Otherwise little happens in the winter.  A discussion might arise about the pronunciation of the first syllable of the word.  Is it āpricot, with an ‘eh’ sound, or is it äpricot, with an ‘ä’ sound?  The quarrel is moot if we speak in Berndeutsch, a dialect within Swiss-German; in this language, the sound is ‘ah,’ as in aprikosen or aprikosä.

Spring passes quickly in the drylands.  The snows still fall sporadically until April, albeit melting away before the afternoon shadows lengthen.  The rains sometimes continue into summer, but the apricots flower in May, pinkish or white in the corner of our yard.  Their buds hold if the frost is kind, and before long the garden is gregarious green, crowded with all manner of vegetables.  Potatoes bow to fast-growing radishes, which will be long gone before the starchy tubers are dug up.  In the small orchard the asparagus peek out and then disappear onto our plates, red fruits later manifesting on the spindly branches of the ones that have grown tall.  After the summer is gone and the last apricots picked or consumed by ants, autumn arrives and in its short splendour lights up the orchard with red from the plum tree and yellow-orange from the apricot trees.  The season of growth has finished, but the year never ends for the plants of our yard.

References

Brüning, G., I. Haase, R. Matissek, and M. Fischer. 2011. Marzipan: Polymerase Chain Reaction-Driven Methods for       Authenticity Control. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 59: 11910-11917.

Malik, S.K., R. Chaudhury, O.P. Dhariwal, and S. Mir. 2010. Genetic diversity and traditional uses of wild apricot (Prunus armeniaca L.) in high-altitude north-western Himalayas of India. Plant Genetic Resources: Characterization and Utilization 8: 49-257.

Ruml, M., D. Milatović, T. Vulić, and A. Vuković. 2011. Predicting apricot phenology using meteorological data. International Journal of Biometeorology 55: 723-732.

The stoned jaguar

Pollan, M. 2001. The Botany of Desire.  Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York.

CJOB News Team. March 24, 2012. Graham James eligible for day parole this September.  Available: http://www.cjob.com/News/Local/Story.aspx?ID=1675557

Renzetti, E. March 9, 2012. Pat Robertson and stoners? Praise be to strange bedfellows. Available: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/elizabeth-renzetti/pat-robertson-and-stoners-praise-be-to-strange-bedfellows/article2365038/

A forbidden plant, but should it be forbidden?  What was once legal may be again within our lifetime, with no fewer than four former attorneys-general of British Columbia and a number of other luminaries agreeing that the “war on drugs” has failed and has, by making the sale of drugs even more economically profitable, increased the drug trade.  They suggest that marijuana should be legalized once again (Renzetti). When you look at a jail sentence of ten years for possession in some Canadian and American jurisdictions , and compare it to the measly two year sentence (with day parole quite likely come September) that a child molester like Graham James, former hockey coach, received recently, does it bug you at all? (Renzetti, CJOB News Team).  It certainly gives me the idea that maybe our priorities are in the wrong place.

The war on drugs, of course, is against more than just marijuana, more scientifically known as Cannabis sativa or C. indica or now, mostly, a cross of the two, Cannabis sativa x indica.  But this is the particular plant that Pollan has chosen to represent the desire for intoxication in the third chapter (pages 111-179) in the Botany of Desire.  So lest I continue to cite news articles and outside sources, I now aim to present a topic that I have reasonable book knowledge but no personal experience with, and even that is tainted with the indoctrination of this “war on drugs” that has been simmering for years and years.

Pollan begins by describing how plants can contain alkaloids, often used for antiherbivory but also typically intoxicating to humans (Pollan p. 114).  He emphasizes the trial and error that animals have gone through to find which plants are edible or otherwise interesting (p. 116).  “How do you tell when a jaguar is hallucinating?” (p. 116) Well, it acts weird, much like a cat on catnip, or a human on one of the various drugs available.  I will touch only briefly on the “flying ointment” of page 119, sure to be well-recognized by the other students of my class in our collective amusement/embarrassment/indignation at what a broomstick probably really was.  “All at once the bones in my legs began to go soft,” writes Pollan of his encounter with the woodcutter-police chief, as he fervently tried to hide the pot plants by his shed (p. 123).  On page 125, Pollan mentions the intensification of anti-drug sentiment, as if marijuana was ascribed with new powers.  I wonder how much money the US and Canada would save if, instead of going after drug users and dealers, they legalized cannabis and taxed it.  They would probably even make money!  Pollan moves through Amsterdam once again (p. 129) and shows the importation of C. indica seeds from Afghanistan, which would later be crossed with C. sativa (p. 131).  He moves on to psychoactive substance use in general, noting that nearly every culture on earth has used something.  Transcendence is mentioned on page 145, and this is often a basis for religious leaders and teachings.  Drugs happen to be one of the best ways to achieve this, as well as harrowing vision quests and intense physical activity like ritual dancing or running.  From the use of marijuana by poets to his own use, Pollan continues to keep the reader interested.  However, this takes up such a large chunk of the chapter that I am unsure whether I don’t smell a hint of regret that he is not allowed to grow some cannabis in his own garden.  He briefly goes on to highlight the use of hemp fibers in ancient China, later Europe and America, and compares it to the use of marijuana as a drug from central Asia moving into India, Africa and then to the Americas (p. 157).  After this, he returns to what may simply be curiosity about human sensation and perception.

Pollan’s message in this chapter doesn’t need to be clear, but to me it goes something along the lines of the following.  This is pot, marijuana, cannabis.  This is the plant, this is the active ingredient.  Here’s what it can do to you and for you, and these are some of the ways that cultures have used it in the past.  In recent times, some countries have cracked down on it, which may have partly resulted from our adulteration of the two species in a hybrid with stronger properties.  The “war on drugs” does not appear to have helped a lot.  Finally, as we talked about in class, the medicinal-psychoactive-deadly line can be a tenuous one.  For marijuana, it mainly hovers around the psychoactive area, with forays into being medicinal.  Cultural use seems more measured, and reasonable; there is a goal to get high for spiritual transcendence, instead of what many American and Canadian people use marijuana for today, as an escape from daily life, or as a method of experimentation, or as a way to avoid instead of to fully engage.

Creosote bush: a reminder of sagebrush

Nabhan, G.P. 1990. Gathering the Desert.  University of Arizona Press, 209 pp.

“What’s that?” says my uncle to my mother as we zip along the flank of Swakum Mountain in his rental car.  My aunt and my sister are there too.  It turns out what he’s looking at is sagebrush.  We come to a halt on the side of the winding road.  What has he seen?  Sagebrush, big sagebrush.  Not something they would see back in Switzerland.  There’s some rabbitbrush around too, but neither species is flowering now, in late spring.  It’s a barely-warm morning, and we walk around a little in the wind.  One quality of the sagebrush can always be found; that is its pungent odour.  I rub some leaves between my fingers and hand them to my aunt.  She makes a face.  A strong smell.

Reading the excerpt from Gary Nabhan’s Gathering the Desert, which focused on the creosote bush from page 11 onwards, reminded me of this scene not too far from our home in Lower Nicola.  To summarize briefly, Nabhan begins with an overview of the many things native plants are used for in the Sonoran desert (p. 4-5).  The plants “served as calories, cures, and characters in tribal legends,” he writes (p. 5).  That is a very nice alliterative description of their uses.  From page 11 begins the section “The Creosote Bush is Our Drugstore,” a title which fits well what Nabhan shows in this section.  From the idea of creation of greasewood (another name for creosote bush) as the first plant (p. 11) to its persistence in the form of the King Clone (p. 11-12), a giant 22 metre wide clonal grouping that is likely 9400 years old, Nabhan writes scientifically while stringing the reader along (in a good way).  While the scientific basis of creosote bush’s use in medicine is not necessarily proven, the local peoples of the Sonoran use it for alleviating many problems, from coughs to congestion to cramps (p. 14).  It even has its own cryptic, a species of grasshopper that blends in perfectly while being able to metabolize some of the plant’s many compounds (p. 14). The penultimate act of the chapter outlines the story of a local woman’s snowbird friend who uses creosote bush to help work against her cough, but Nabhan has one point remaining.  The persistence of this bush is measured against the atomic bomb that was once detonated in a patch of the plant; almost all of the plants have resprouted and are vigourous.

The sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and antelope brush are among the hardy bushes of our region, and while not closely related to the creosote bush, are important in their own way.  Though I was born in this area and enjoy seeing the sagebrush and smelling the fragrance emitted when it rains, much like the creosote bush (p. 14), I am certainly not of the First Nations, to which the plant has much more traditional importance.  One of my few experiences with this comes from a First Nations elder who came to our elementary school and mentioned the burning of sage in passing.  More impactful was the time on my sixteenth birthday when my family and I were driving to the river and saw a deer that had just been hit (the driver has gone).  An older First Nations couple had also stopped, and they agreed that we should go to the house of a nearby acquaintance.  The deer, which was mortally wounded, was then shot by the acquaintance and the older couple took sage and burned it, thanking the deer for its life.  We left not long after to continue our day, but that day has stuck with me.

Sagebrush is used by First Nations in BC as a remedy for a variety of ailments as well as in ceremonial applications as I have described and in many other ways.  It is interesting, too, to think of what I have seen of the uses of other plants such as Arrowleaf Balsamroot or Lemonweed.  Many were used medicinally or as food.  Gary Nabhan writes on page 7 of the potential dietary benefits of eating that which we are evolved to eat.  I sometimes wonder what my traditional food would be; not that of this region but that of some faraway slope in Switzerland or elsewhere in central or eastern Europe.

I took from this chapter an appreciation of different areas’ vegetation and its uses, as well as a better idea of what a creosote bush is.  Its significance to the people of the Sonoran desert and the continued use of native plants in the face of supermarkets gives me some hope, even as I wonder what the future holds.

The Sweet and the Strange

Pollan, M. 2001. The Botany of Desire. Random House, New York.

There’s an apple tree that stands just a couple of metres tall in the rock garden, surrounded by oregano, hens-and-chicks, and small cacti.  Dandelions bloom nearby on the parched gravel of the driveway.  Just behind the tree is the garden, greening in the spring with all manner of plants.  Each year the tree makes a few white blossoms and they develop into small, sour orbs of apples grown from seed.  We have no grafted tree at home, but these two ways of growing apples are crucial to the journey that Pollan takes in attempting to reconstruct some of Johnny Appleseed’s legendary travels through the American frontier.

Pollan follows the apple from its roots in Central Asia to its grafting by the Chinese and uses even in Roman times to its eventual redomestication in America (p 11-15).  In this story, the benefit of sexual reproduction for adaptation to different conditions is clearly seen, as the author notes on page 10.  Our own scraggly apple trees have, over the years, never produced anything of consequence for our consumption, and yet their blossoms overjoy us each spring with their simplicity and beauty, their enduring thin trunks and windblown cover of leaves a show of perseverance in a land not meant for them.  Yet what Pollan emphasizes is instead the flavour of the apple, and its central quality that fulfills a basic human desire: that of sweetness.  Though beauty is amazing, it cannot feed us.

But has reality and strangeness been traded for a cheap sweetness? So questions Pollan on page 7.  Reality suggests that John Chapman, as Johnny Appleseed was actually named, was a purveyor of alcohol to the frontier (p. 9), a “pagan wood god,” an “American Dionysus.” (p. 36).  Strangeness is included here too, with the particularly enjoyable sentence “He was a kind of satyr without the sex – a Protestant satyr, you might say,” (p. 35) as well as the assertion that Chapman may have taken a child bride (p. 30).  A taste for sweetness appears to be universal among humans, and is coded into coevolutionary relationships with plants that can fill that desire (p. 19).  For some, like Bill Ellery Jones, that may go too far.  He appears to see the world through sugar-coated eyes; the ideal Johnny being a Disnified version who was more Christian than history suggests and less strange to boot (p. 24, 31).  Still, even this makes some sense; “Chapman’s ability to freely cross borders” between different worlds confounded many (p. 33).

Pagan wood god or devout Christian (Chapman was known to follow Swedenborgian doctrine), this man seemed to have some business sense.  Apple cider was not forbidden in the Bible, and thus the settlers of America drank it in large quantities (p. 20-21). In fact, it was even considered to be a beneficial drink for children, although primarily because it was more sanitary than water (p. 22).  Chapman pre-empted other people who might have had a similar idea by forging ahead by river and land, planting thousands of apple seeds.  Pollan does well to write “It’s safe to say his catamaran was bearing several whole orchards into the wilderness” (p. 4).  His nurseries, established in areas he felt were ripe for settlement, likely made him a good living, although he was often described as being poorly dressed (p. 8).  Alcohol was long the primary use for apples in America; only when Prohibition loomed did apple producers begin touting the fruit as healthy eating (p. 9).

I found this chapter more enjoyable the first time I read it than when I went over it again to take notes.  Perhaps the slow sections with Bill Jones put me off, or maybe it is his dislike and my support for the “stranger, pagan hero” (p. 11) that Chapman could be.  Pollan did not endear himself the second time around with endless comparisons of Apollo and Dionysus, but I must say, the comparison was apt.  A free spirit of alcohol as opposed to a sober god of order.  Pollan cannot really offend, just make the mind’s wheels turn.  He is a student who gets 100 percent and here I am giving him 95.  So despite what is perhaps my impatience reading it again, Pollan still wrote a good chapter.  I have several other Pollan chapters to compare it against now, though, and I don’t know if it is my favourite.

I’ve chosen to focus on John Chapman for this freewrite, but nearly half the chapter looks at the “apple rush,” with cider producers or farmers striking gold upon finding a great tree in their cider orchard (p. 48-49), as well as the subsequent shift to a nationwide market (p. 50) and concentration of apple production in a few areas.  In the later pages of the chapter, Pollan visits the apple genetic diversity bank in Geneva, New York and writes a bit about the protection of the apple genome, because it is the apple’s genetic variability that allows it to persist.  I think back to our sour apples and their relatives, the crabapples, and of the sad saccharification of this fruit, its shift from a complexity of flavour to sweetly dimensionless.

If Only

Pollan, M. 2006. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Penguin Group, Toronto.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan has a frightening message: corn is in nearly everything.  The chapter is simply called Industrial: Corn, and runs from page 15 to 119.  In writing this chapter, Pollan follows what seems to be his pattern.  With personal anecdotes throughout, he visits a supermarket, a farm, a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO), a model processing plant, and a McDonald’s restaurant, where he eats his meal of industrialized “food.”

The multitude of aspects that the author touches on cannot be simplified into just a blog post, but I’ll try to touch on a few that I found of particular interest.  I will discuss first, the idea of “corn walking,” (p. 19), second, CAFOs and feeding corn to animals not adapted to eating it (for example, p. 75), and third, the sheer amount of corn by-products in processed food today (p. 90).

The Maya of Mexico may consider themselves the corn people, (p. 19) yet norteamericanos, the non-Mexican North Americans, may have a better claim.  I appreciate Pollan’s phrase that “it does take some imagination to imagine the ear of corn in the Coke bottle or the Big Mac.” (p. 20) Yet corn is extremely efficient at converting freely available substances into food for humans and livestock (p. 21-22). This is why it has been commodified (p. 51-52, 59-60).  Pollan spends a reasonable amount of time on George Naylor’s farm, discussing fertilizers, planting and the move from polyculture to monoculture on American farms.  What this leads to for many of the animals we eat is perhaps more shocking to some.

A CAFO is a concentrated animal feeding operation, a place where cattle are used “to help dispose of America’s corn surplus” (p. 66). It makes me uncomfortable that as a society, most of our food comes from factory farms of plants and animals after this fashion, where money is king and no consideration is given to the nature of us or our food.  Cattle, as Pollan says on page 78, can develop acidosis on a diet of corn, and only antibiotics keep the majority of them from dying before slaughter.  Throughout the section, Pollan follows his steer, 534, throughout this operation.  I strongly expect that the cattle on Polyface Farm in the organic chapter are much happier than 534 is for most of his life.  Pollan moves on to the corn-processing plant and dissects its products and their uses at this point.

On page 85, Pollan comments how little corn we eat as corn.  Corn is broken down into sugars, acids, vitamins and alcohols, among other things. (p. 86) It says something about the capitalism of the process that the companies will not even allow the author to go into one of their plants; instead, Pollan goes to Iowa State University to see their model processing plant.  He describes some of the different ‘fractions’ that corn is broken into, and outlines how much corn and soybean matter is in some processed foods (p. 91).  On page 97, he shows the distortion created by industrial food companies, to the extent where natural ingredients are viewed by food companies as a “wild mixture of substances created by plants and animals for completely non-food purposes – their survival and reproduction.”  If there was ever a purpose of food, wasn’t it particularly for the survival and reproduction of organisms?

Pollan goes on to discuss the effects of a surplus of food on the population: they will eat more (p. 102).  This section goes a long way toward explaining the so-called ‘epidemic’ of overweight and obesity that has occurred.  Pollan ends the chapter with the unsatisfied feeling a McDonald’s meal has given him (p. 119).  McDonald’s is something I avoid fervently, but I think of all the other foods I consume and which I am unsure whether they are provender or poison.  It leaves me with a lingering question.  If we produced our food a little more sanely, with thoughts toward the holistic rather than the monetary, would we choose a different method by which to grow it?

Different plants, different rates of development

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, Germs, and Steel. W.W. Norton and Company, New York.

I would say that I read these chapters voraciously.  However, there is a caveat: Diamond is not Michael Pollan.  In fact, I put the entire book The Omnivore’s Dilemma ahead of my reading of chapters 4, 5, 6 and 8 (as well as Chapter 7, which I read earlier).  These comprise a portion of Part 2: The Rise and Spread of Food Production in Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel.  As such, they fit into Diamond’s overall argument as to why different areas of the world and different subsets of the species Homo sapiens sapiens prospered and conquered while others did not.  While Diamond’s writing takes a bit more thought to read then Pollan’s, and is less viscerally satisfying, I can say that Guns, Germs, and Steel is scientifically deeper and addresses a larger picture than do Pollan’s books.  This is not a critique of either author; in the end, I appreciate both of their writing styles for different reasons.

Back to Diamond.  It is a credit to Pollan that he encroaches on a freewrite on which he isn’t actually invited, but – shoo, Michael, get out of here!  You’ll get more blog time later!  Chapter 4 examines food production, indirectly, as a “prerequisite for the development of guns, germs, and steel.” (p. 86) It looks at how farming allows a sedentary lifestyle and thus allows the accumulation of more people (p.88).  Higher population densities resulted in germs proliferating, as well as the ownership of horses, which are an important facilitator for successful war (p. 90-91).  Diamond also touches on the idea that farming allowed cultures to produce a surplus of food.  This leads to an ability of some members of a group to specialize; to be, for example, artisans, administrators or soldiers (p. 92).

Chapter 5 looks at the question “where, when, and how did food production develop in different parts of the globe?” (p. 98).  In this section Diamond tries to find in which areas food production began spontaneously, also considering that production may have spread to some areas from relatively nearby regions (p. 98).  Some areas suited to cultivation were never used for this by the people who lived there (p. 103).

The question of whether to farm or not comes up in the sixth chapter.  Diamond writes about the transition from hunting and gathering to food production in different areas, as well as the timing thereof (p. 105).  He suggests that there need not be a hard distinction between these two aspects of feeding a culture (p. 106), but that they were likely mixed in different ways, and that there were many aspects to consider for an optimum combination (p. 107-108).  At the end of the chapter, he ties these ideas in with farming resulting in denser, larger populations including specialization and increased germ prevalence (p. 112).

Skipping Chapter 7, which I wrote about in The Botany of Almonds, we move on to Chapter 8.  In this chapter, Diamond asks why agriculture did not arise in some seemingly suitable areas, and why the timing was different in varying places (p. 131).  This chapter focuses on “problems with the locally available wild plants,” while diminishing the strength of arguments based on “problems with the local people,” which would essentially be racist arguments (p 131).  Diamond recognizes that some species occurred in a far larger region than that in which they were initially domesticated (p.133).  But he argues that not just one such useful plant but a complex that could support a culture pulling away from hunting and gathering would need to be present (p. 134).  The fertile crescent, writes Diamond on page 136, represents a coincidence of a Mediterranean climate with an area that happened to include several edible plants.  On pages 138 to 142, five main advantages appear to have been conducive to agriculture in western Eurasia.  The aforementioned Mediterranean climate, along with 32 of 56 large-seeded grass species, varied elevations, ancestors of domesticated large mammals, and less pressure from hunter-gatherers.  In addition to this, several of the plants were hermaphroditic and thus changed less than plants that outcross often (p. 137).  Diamond goes on to ask why the eastern United States and New Guinea did not develop as strong a capacity for food production as the fertile crescent.  He finds three limitations in New Guinea’s biota: that it lacked cereal crops, that it did not include large animals for domestication, and that the native crops had a dearth of available protein (p. 148-149).  The eastern United States had seven high-protein food crops, but these were limited in other ways, such as tiny seeds or probable irritant status (p. 150-151).  In both cases, new crops arriving from elsewhere, like the sweet potato in New Guinea and the corn-beans-squash trinity in the US, led to improved farming and increased populations (p. 149, 151).  Thus the availability of plants which can be domesticated and the qualities of these plants was crucial to each of the three civilization hotspots Diamond discusses.  He concludes by suggesting that, had exploration by Europeans (and the items and crops they brought with them) not disturbed development in various areas of the world, each of those areas would likely have turned to food production given sufficient time to develop techniques required for doing so (p. 155-156).

To me, one of the functions of Guns, Germs, and Steel as a whole seems to be as a strong argument against racism based on differences in the inherent ability of people in different areas.  While this blog’s purpose is not to discuss the book outside of the assigned chapters, you can be certain that part of my motivation for reading the rest of the book will be for its in-depth analysis of the world through this lens.  In addition, these chapters, along with Chapter 7, help me to explore a long standing question.  That is, how did humans figure out what to eat?  Populations as a whole experimented, trying different things out, and ultimately magnifying the effect of the individual who might have tried a bright red berry.  Human curiosity appears to rival and, evidenced by our relatively wider range of foodstuffs, outstrip that of the proverbial cat.  It is our coevolution with plants that I feel has contributed greatly to our success as a species.  But will that same interdependence result in our collective downfall?