Saturday, March 28, 2009

Pollan's Progress

Michael Pollan is the prophet for the local food/real food movement, to the extent that there was a serious effort to have him named as Secretary of Agriculture in the Obama administration. He is probably the person most single-handedly responsible for shifting the perspective of a significant proportion of our nation regarding food and how it should be produced. If he did not coin it, he has clarified and explained the concept of "industrial agriculture". Reading his book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (2006), has been what many have described as the signal moment when they realized that they had to redefine their relationship to food, and how it is produced. He has certainly had a profound influence on my thinking.

I've become more and more interested with his progression to where he has arrived. I was intrigued by his statement on a recent TV interview that he had reached this place because of his experience as a gardener. If I recall correctly, he said that gardening had made him think about food and how it was produced. I've been reviewing his books and his personal evolution, as reflected through them. The books are remarkable in that they are both intimate and lofty. While he poses big, universal questions, he then muses aloud, relating his own personal experience (with sometimes embarrassingly self-revelatory snips, like reading The Selfish Gene while stoned on pot), and yet manages to place the subject within an extensively researched and broad historical context (most of his books have a comprehensive bibliography) .

Pollan is a journalist who wrote extensively for the New York Times Magazine before beginning with books. But he bought a piece of an old farm in Connecticut in 1983, began to garden, and then to write about it. This eventually led to his first book, "Second Nature", first published in 1992. The book made quite an impression on me when I read it shortly after its publication. It is a personal exploration of his own evolution as a gardener, with chapters on miscellaneous subjects like choosing a tree to plant (alas, it was a Norway maple), the politics of garden catalogs, his grandfather's garden and what he learned from it, lawns, weeds, and rose gardens. There are some amusing stories, some that are touching. But Pollan gives away his real identity as a seriously serious writer in the Introduction: "...I soon came to the realization that I would not learn to garden very well before I'd also learned about a few other things: about my proper place in nature...about the somewhat peculiar attitudes toward the land that an American is born with...about the troubled borders between nature and culture; and about the experience of place, (and) the moral implications of landscape design..." He then somewhat bashfully admits, "It may be my nature to complicate search for large meanings in small things...". Yup.

Probably the most significant chapter in the book is "The Idea of a Garden", in which he explores most of those questions from the Introduction. He tells a sad story of old-growth trees in a Nature Conservancy tract that were felled by a tornado. What to do? Remove the trees, which would make the forest pretty again, and less likely to be a fire hazard? Or let "nature" take its course by leaving them in place? The final decision in such cases is destined to meet some human desire (whether for a pretty scene or a sense of untouched wilderness). This leads to a musing on what the real "nature" of such a place really is, and what is the meaning of wilderness in the presence of humans. The overall conclusion is that we treat all of nature as a garden, even when we are trying to "preserve" or to "restore" it.

His next book (if we skip over a book about building a house) was The Botany of Desire (2002). Here again is the theme of the interaction of humans and nature. But a new insight is expressed here - that we are interacting with plants, influencing their evolution while they influence us. Pollan chooses just four plants to discuss, the tulip (a discussion of tulipomania and our fascination with flowers), the apple (Johnny Appleseed, wild and heritage apples), marijuana (humanity's need for intoxication), and the potato.

Particularly in this last chapter, we see the present Pollan emerging. He discusses the spread of the potato across Europe and the effects of the late blight epiphytotic in Ireland in the 1840s, while also traveling to Monsanto in St. Louis to learn about genetic engineering. Talk about going into the belly of the beast - just as he would later buy a steer and follow it all the way to the slaughterhouse, he obtains potatoes that contain the gene for Bt resistance and plants them in his own garden (he would later discard them rather than serve them to the unsuspecting). He later visits a potato farmer in Idaho, where he sees the many baths of pesticides that potatoes grown conventionally must be treated to. (A moment of hilarity ensues when he is served a potato salad made of freshly dug potatoes that include the genetically engineered variety as well as some presumably pesticide-treated ones.) Afterwards, he visits an organic potato farmer, whose complex adaptive strategies are described at length. And then for the first time, he uses the phrase "industrial agriculture", as he discusses the efficiencies of monoculture and the problems it creates. (Of which the Irish potato famine is again presented as a prime example.) After musing on our collective responsibility for demanding perfect McDonalds' french fries and thus perfectly industrially produced potatoes ("the problem of monoculture may be as much a problem of culture as it is of agriculture"), he goes home to harvest his own (untreated) Kennebecs.

So - the perfect circle, from the gardener to the front lines of the food system, and back to the garden again, where it all begins.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Green Mystery

Ah, spring, thou art come at last. I am in my garden, and the students are drinking green beer. Both of these are related to the celebration today of St. Patrick's Day. Who or what St. Patrick was is scarcely relevant to the fact that it gives us all a chance to wear or consume green. But it is also the day on which I aspire to be planting my first crop of the year. I didn't quite make it today because my vegetable garden is still a little too "mudlucious" (apologies to e.e. cummings). Since it was in the mid-60s today, I'll see tomorrow whether I can cultivate a row of soil and sow some lettuce seeds. Some years I have been able to do this on St. Paddy's day. I cover them with row cover and after the obligatory late March snow storm, I find little lettuce seedlings smiling up at me. It means we can enjoy early salads.

I think every human being must notice and rejoice in spring. But to a gardener it is truly like a universal rebirth. There is nothing to make the heart rejoice like the first flowers. I found snowdrops and winter aconites blooming under the shrubs on our east border just a few days ago. But what is even more notable is that our plants are preparing to do their work again to make possible human life and all animal life on this planet for another season. Pretty generous of them, all considered. Although I am thoroughly enchanted by the flowers, another important discovery was that the garlic I planted late last fall is sending up sprouts. The garden has begun.

As a botanist, I've studied details of the miracle of photosynthesis, by which plants convert the energy of sunlight into carbohydrate and thus food. Think about it— our entire global economy is based on it. It is the basis of our "growth strategy"—without a continual energy input, nothing we recognize would exist. And though this process varies in some qualities within organisms that practice it, it always requires chlorophyll, where the actual energy capture occurs. And that is green.

It is surely not an accident that many ancient religions made spring into a special event. And many of them celebrated the green. Most notable of these were perhaps the Druids. From my extensive reading of the literature— er, that's the English mystery novel literature—I know that the Green Man is still regarded as a mythical figure in some English recreations of rituals.

The "mystery religions", secret societies that celebrated the renewal of life, often through the rebirth of a dead god or emissary, have often been cited as the precursors of Christianity. Of course this has been controversial but many Christians, including Martin Luther King, have taken the trouble to rebut this concept. As one of these explained, "The annual vegetation cycle was often at the center of these cults. Deep significance was given to the concepts of growth, death, decay and rebirth." It might be noted that we of the Christian tradition celebrate Easter in the spring, with eggs a symbol of new life. Zorastrianism, another religion sometimes credited as a predecessor of Christianity, made the first day of spring as the beginning of the New Year. Persians (Iranians) still celebrate this festival, called Nowruz . Though they are mostly Moslem now, this ancient Zorastrian holiday (at the spring equinox) is very important in Iran, and is celebrated among other things by having a bowl of wheat, lentil or barley sprouts on the table, as well as an egg for everyone.

My own belief is that all of these rituals and celebrations indicate a deep understanding that those first green sprouts of spring mean that the universe will continue, the plants will bring it to life around us, and we will also persevere, by grace of the green. Lift a mug to it, if you will.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Hunger and Appetite

I've been thinking about hunger recently. Our local food pantry has been participating in a survey of "Hunger in America", which is directed at people who utilize food pantries, soup kitchens, and other food distribution programs. I volunteered to help administer the survey, which required asking some perfect strangers rather intimate questions. "In the last 12 months, were you ever hungry but didn't eat because you couldn't afford enough food?...was your child ever hungry but you just couldn't afford more food?...did you or other adults in your household ever not eat for a whole day because there wasn't enough money for food?" (Emphasis mine.) I'm happy to say that no one so far answered "yes" to that one but they did say they had been required to choose between food and paying for utilities or rent - and answered "yes" to the first two.

It is hard to think of people being actually, physically hungry in our overfed and obese nation. But it is happening. Our local pantry is trying to meet the needs of more and more people. One of the other volunteers, who also works at a soup kitchen, said that they have had to cut back on second helpings so there is enough to go around at lunch, causing some tension.

The economic problems in our country are causing other people to cut back on eating out and learn to cook at home. I was reading Jane Brody's suggestions for eating on a reduced budget and found that I am already doing most of the basic, simple things she offers. These amount to using relatively unprocessed food (or what a recently discovered blogger calls first-order food) and cooking them at home. But it occurred to me in reading it that part of the problem for most of us is not hunger, it is finding the appetite to eat these sensible food choices. Doesn't this make your mouth water? "Cabbage...more than your money's worth of only 17 calories a cup eaten shredded and raw." (from the article) I thought of this with my new acquaintances at the food bank, too. They are being given fairly basic foods that will keep them from being hungry, and should be nutritious. (Although there are more canned goods and boxed cereals than I like.) But what does this do when what they are really hungry for a pizza or Chinese take-out?

We know the reasons to eat mostly unprocessed food, especially local produce or that you have grown yourself. It is more nutritious, more healthful (NOT "healthy", please!) better for the environment, and sometimes less expensive (at least, it costs less than buying prepared food or going to restaurants). Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food has pretty much laid it out for us. But his conclusion is pretty depressing: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Where's the fun in that???

What it means is that we are all in for some serious attitude adjustment. We have to relearn our food instincts, unlearn the first preference for sugary fatty easily assimilated foods, half of which are pizza. Fortunately, there is an army of food bloggers out there with ideas. I even know one that is all about cooking and eating kale. We can use spices, seasonings, oils and vinegars to make our basic foods more palatable. But elaborate preparations with exotic ingredients may require more time and money than are practical on a day-by-day basis.

There will always be holidays and feasts, and everyone deserves a treat now and then. But I think that the most essential step in coming to grips with "the food problem" is learning to appreciate the very nature of the food and then simple ways to prepare it. It requires rethinking your expectations and retraining your appetite. It probably helps, too, if you are just a little hungry.

Simple Vegetables

Here are a couple of easy everyday ideas for vegetables. Disclosure: I grew up in the South so don't work well with raw or lightly steamed unadorned vegetables.

Carrot and Raisin Salad
Raw carrots, grated (large size holes) example: 2 large
Black raisins example: 1/4 cup
Commercial mayonnaise just to moisten example: 1 teaspoon

Mix and serve immediately, or will keep for a couple of days in the refrigerator. Amazingly sweet.

Roasted Vegetables

This is so well-known and obvious that I hate to mention it, but just in case...

Any fleshy dense vegetable - carrots, yams good example
Scant olive oil
Dried herb like oregano or basil
Salt, pepper

Peel, cut into roughly equivalent sticks, put on baking sheet, cover with a film of olive oil, bake at 400°. They become incredibly sweet and soft inside. Potatoes (cut in discs) like this too, and I've also done brussels sprouts though they get crunchy on the outside. I was shocked that I liked beets roasted with peel on, then sliced and a little vinegar added. On the Splendid Table, the first recommendation is often "turn on the oven to 400°". And have you tried asparagus cooked this way?