Friday, 13 April 2012

60.9344 km diet (I’m Canadian and I believe they are too)

I did not know much about this book when I dove head first into it. I had an idea from the title but that was about it. First off I’d like address that I enjoyed how they alternated writing chapters, I thought that was a very neat way of going about this kind of book. Also, being written by two different people this book was far less biased than I expected. I enjoyed this book primarily because it was not preachy.
Like Pollan, Smith and MacKinnon shared their experiences and revealed some interesting topics and secrets but do so in a fashion that was not pushy or forceful. The read seemed much more like I was listening to a friend tell me of his or her adventure. I also enjoyed the recipes that were presented at the beginning of each chapter (month). I look forward to making December’s Poached Salmon with Wine Cream Sauce!
            One thing I struggled with when I first started this reading is how much it cost to eat locally. I was blown away at the $128 grocery bill they first post up. I thought “I would love to eat local food, but I’m a student and thus am poor. With a grocery bill like that I’ll be dead in 2 weeks.” Slowly though they showed me how to reduce that bill while still eating locally. Unfortunately that only extended my lifespan an extra week at that rate.
            I fully endorse and actually agree with the idea of eating locally, but there has to be much more support for it to bring prices down because right now local prices are far too high. Does this seem backwards to anyone? We’re paying twice the price for something to come 50 km as opposed to something that comes 12,000 km from Chile. Where is the logic here?
            Smith and MacKinnon both describe the strain on their relationship as a result of this diet. Petty things seem to get to them such as packing and freezing corn one October evening. I found that was much of the second half of the book, less of the diet as we saw in the first half of the book which was not as fun to read.
One thing that shocked me was they live beside a salt water body and it takes them nearly the entire book to figure out how to get salt? That seemed pretty obvious to me from the beginning. I guess they had other things on their mind though.
I didn’t have much to say on this book unfortunately. It was an easy read and like I mentioned earlier was much like a story I was hearing from a friend. One line however stood out to me on page 194 and relates to my earlier discussion. It reads: “My grandfather told me, ‘Someday you’ll have to buy water.’” Sylvester shook his head at the memory. “In the days coming, only the rich people will be able to afford to eat.” Possibly my greatest fear.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Mary Jane, Marijuana, Weed, Pot, the list goes on...

            Although it is a pastime I do not partake in, I found the topic of marijuana and conscious altering substances interesting – topic only. Most of you already know how I feel about the writing, but that is a different story. One question I had not given much thought to before and about the only question that intrigued me was “…why is it forbidden?” It cannot be any more damaging than regular smoking or more mind-altering than alcohol. The addiction from it is no more harmful than regular cigarettes. I thought about it for a bit before sitting back and concluding I had no answer to it, so I read on. Of course in true Pollan fashion, he presents us with a question then takes the longest route to it as possible. A story of his garden and a re-enactment of his somewhat humerous run in with the police were very much sidetracked and just when I thought Pollan was getting back on track on page 127 with “Did Marijuana possess a grave threat to Public Health…?” he diverts his discussion again. And yet again he goes to find “The real story” in Amsterdam.
            “I began to piece together the story of how American gardeners…” blah blah blah. It is sentences such as these that bother me; now he has the story, not a story, as if he has alone uncovered the truth and will educate us now. Maybe I am being cynical and tedious now because I already dislike his writing, but it is the little things that make a difference when writing.
            The history he has uncovered continued and was not without its interesting facts. I enjoyed the section regarding religion and sacred plants. I find it neat how culture ties into psychoactive plants and fungi. However nothing really grabbed me until I came across Richard Dawkins’ name. As a big fan of Dawkins and his views on evolution I was immediately intrigued. I was surprised to see Pollan actually liked Dawkins’ perspective on psychoactive plants on culture.
Wait…Did Pollan and I just agree on something?
            As quickly as he sparked my attention with Dawkins, Pollan lost me again when he started describing his own encounters with marijuana again. I continued to read through the scientific section on THC as that made sense and was relevant, but was still rather mind numbing.
            Allyn Howlett described being “high” as cognitive dysfunction which met approval with me. Pollan goes on to discuss that these scientists do not yet fully understand consciousness which I found very interesting. I feel like that is a very multidiscipline field of biochemistry and even psychology. I would be excited to hear more about this. (P.s. Chocolate slows the breakdown of THC? Does this have any relation to “The Munchies?”)
            Pollan, yet again, lost me for a bit. I read but just can’t help from zoning out as I do so. I reappeared at Aldous Huxley. I wasn’t surprised, but was interested in the part about visionaries. Huxley proposed that the mystic visionaries were a result of a lack of nutrition and vitamin deficiencies which “wreak havoc on brain function and probably explain a large portion of visionary experiences in the past.” I loved this quote. It completely fits my belief systems and views on the supernatural world; it was perfect.
            I did not have much to say on this weeks writings. Not much stood out as it is not a subject I choose to involve myself in. The last section of this chapter was a disappointment to me because he still did not answer the question he proposed at the beginning of this chapter: Why is Marijuana illegal? Oh well, I’ll just add that to my list of things to research on my own.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Nature is Neat

Desert Plants and the Creosote Bush
The first paragraph of Desert Plants had me captured. There is no pretentious demeanour and yet they describe a story and their experiences. The author states no “facts,” merely what they found interesting and their observations about it on their empirical experiences. I think this is a well written piece.
            There was a two paragraph section on the second page where the author eats a mesquite pod atole that really caught my attention. The elderly lady serving this to our author states that it is easy to make and quite nutritious, but the reason it is not made anymore is due to laziness. The current generation thinks “…food must come only from the [big supermarkets].” At first read of this I thought, “what a typical old lady,” but as I read further I was enlightened by the authors comment “It is easy to dismiss such remarks as typical of any oldtimer unsettled by the younger generation’s enthrallment with the trappings of the material world.” I immediately realized I had passed judgement on this without thinking as to the author’s next paragraph which continued to describe that this lady does not hate modern society and what it has brought her. She utilizes its many of today’s luxuries such as medical care, transportation and electronic communications. This elderly lady was merely trying to state that as a society we have lost our resourceful ways by profiting from what is around us – which I may add, is exactly right. Kudos to those who grow any of their own food.
            I found it interesting later in the reading when the author is speaking of these few select desert plants and says they helped shape and succour cultures in the Sonoran Desert. I think every culture had a few select crops or plants native to that region that helped them survive that particular environment. It was neat to see this particular cultures catalyst. How neat is that?

I also enjoyed the link between plants and the people’s homeland and past “…serving as a conservative element to slow change,” and how looking into a family’s kitchen will determine their ethnic origin. This thought lead into nutrition which I also took great interest in. I especially liked Nicholas Hildyard’s quote because, you know what? It is true that nutritionists are needed in those societies whose culture has broken down. Exactly where those who have lost touch with how their culture used to thrive off of the land they were situated on.  à This chapter had to be one of the best readings yet.

“Winter” did not start off with the bang that Desert Plants did. I was expecting a similar story with more interesting adventures, but the opening did not produce. I did not realize there was so much to write on creosote. It was interesting in a sense because I have only known creosote as the harmful chemical that prevents wood rot (and is not legal anymore) for use on docks and whatnot. I did not know why creosote was used for this, I assumed it was a synthetic chemical only to find out it is natural and deters pests and herbivores (though I’m sure the commercial creosote has other additives). Apparently only the grasshopper can handle it, way to go little dude! Although it was used for curing worms, syphilis and used in other remedies for humans. I thought this stuff was poisonous? The later paragraphs prove me wrong, though I did note that it may have detrimental effects on the kidneys leading to my final verdict: No I do not want to use this plant. This portion of the chapter I found much more interesting than the beginning.
The testimonial at the end of this chapter sounded a little farfetched, but then again, I am a great sceptic when it comes to miraculous healings. But you know what, if it works for her then why stop? (Even if it is a placebo effect) The mind is a powerful thing - especially when it comes to health.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

The Apple, or everything BUT the apple?

Appleseed, huh. This is the guy who introduced cider to the world – a cosmopolite, barefooted drunk – lovely. As you may have been able to tell, I did not enjoy this chapter. Michael Pollan is quickly working his way up my list of people I despise. Not because of what he writes, but how he writes. First off I would have much preferred a timeline of the apple rather than the life of Johnny Appleseed. I would even go as far as to compare Pollan to Michael Moore. Yes they raise good points but I struggle (a possible understatement) with how they present their “data.” Maybe it is the choice of words they use: “…nortions of health and wholesomeness turns out to be a modern invention, part of a public relations campaign dreamed up by the apple industry…” Modern invention and dreamed up are very strong accusations versus the apple industry without little more than Johnny Appleseed’s life story. Even if he has done more research, he has not presented enough to us to justify his harsh view points. It was seen again on page 22.
Maybe this seems petty of me to see this, but it is these small things that I see throughout the writings of Pollan that infect and invalidate the evidence he puts forward. Of course I do not completely dismiss his writings because yes, there is good research and points in there. But it most certainly makes me question his very empirical style of book. Definitely the redeeming feature of this chapter was Pollan’s reference to Henry David Thoreau, a fantastic author and inspiring person.
Of course I found the section on alcohol interesting. Not that I’m a big drinker, I just found it interesting how it shaped certain communities and cultures. Because it was so accessible and more likely to be sanitary to drink than water it was consumed more – even for children.  
Page 28…why are we reading about Johnny Appleseeds feet and later on into his general life? This continues too! This chapter name is a bit misleading. “The Apple” describes the first 5 pages, then it becomes ramblings by a man whose writing I dislike – especially after his suggested slander of Thoreau having a “polymorphous love with nature.” Good try Pollan.
Finally on page 45 Pollan gets back to the actual apple by using the author he has previously disgraced. He uses Thoreau to discuss the great apple rush and its spread throughout America. He describes a bit of the diversity and varieties of apples, but overall I found this reading rather mundane. Sorry Lyn! Pollan is not my favourite author.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Corn - Not my thing

The Omnivore’s Dilemma (pg 15-119

Wow. I have heard all this information before (from the first chapter) but it still blows me away how much corn there really is in our everyday lives. Corn is in everything and it is horrifying to find it in things you would never imagine. I have seen parts of Pollan’s movie Food Inc which is where I have heard most of this before and I assume much of what he has said in the first chapter is what was used for the movie. In the first chapter Pollan speaks of corn producing the greatest number of calories for its yield. This immediately got me thinking of North America’s obesity epidemic. I don’t think I have to say much in this sense as it’s pretty self explanatory. Is there a possible correlation between our overweight population now and our acceptable weight before corn? I also found it interesting that the corn species would not have survived if not for the human race nurturing it over many generations.
            One thing that does not surprise me however, is that farmers are struggling to bring in profit from their crops and work. Pollan talks of George Naylor, a farmer from Iowa whose crops cannot even support his own family. His crops of corn are not suitable for humans and are mostly used for cattle and other livestock.
            Pollan speaks of Naylor as some kind of farming god. The description and style of talk Pollan uses sort of bothered me. He spoke as if he found some guru of the farming community that would fix the agriculture fiasco; as if Naylor had found the solution but just no one was listening. It was a very one sided, un-open view. Although there was some interesting content and information, I felt Pollan spoke too affirmatively about George Naylor and his solution. For example: “He calls it the Naylor curve (Remember the Laffer curve? Well this one looks a little like that one, only it’s true” Sure it may have some truth to it, but this seems more like an argument rather than a story, almost like he is writing a research paper on it with no peer reviewed studies to back it up. I personally do not agree these stories because they do not offer up opinions, but rather tell you what to think based solely on empirical evidence (sometimes not even first hand). I did not like this part of the book.
            Being the curious cat that I am, I decided to see what others had to say on this matter. (And I site wikipedia) “Economist Tyler Cowen argued, "The problems with Pollan's 'self-financed' meal reflect the major shortcoming of the book: He focuses on what is before his eyes but neglects the macro perspective of the economist.” I bolded what I thought the most important part of the quote because it supports my belief also.
            Pollan goes on to talk of the feedlot and how the cattle/livestock are raised – much of which I have seen and heard before. When Pollan dropped the number 37 thousand into his story I raised an eyebrow in shock. 37 thousand animals in one feedlot? That is insane. This of course results in 50 thousand tons of corn an hour to sustain these poor farmed (not farm) animals.
            The processing plant had to be one of the most revolting parts of this read and I don’t know that I can look at corn the same way or even pick up a food without checking the label for corn products (which would probably result in me putting it down anyway). The description of the break down into a white mush of protein and starch really painted a picture in my mind that was not pleasant. The go on to use the word slurry which I do not want to hear when thinking of my food. “Putting it back together again” was equally as disturbing. I have seen most of Pollan’s movie “Food Inc” so this is not new to me, however it still disgusts me, so enough of that.
            The last section regarding the consumer did not surprise me at all. Facts such as: 3 of every 5 Americans are overweight and of those 5, 1 is obese actually seems a little low to me. However that could be a result of the publication date. It was interesting to hear about coke and pepsi switching to HFCS over sugar as a sweetener due to a reduced price. At that level though, those few cent differences can make a huge impact on the company and I think that example describes the entire food industry.
            The last chapter was also no surprise to me, especially when Pollan describes chicken nuggets from McDonalds. 13 of 38 ingredients in McNuggets are derived from corn – at this point it just becomes funny.
“So what? Why should it matter that we have become a race of corn eaters such as the world has never seen? Is this necessarily a bad thing? The answer all depends on where you stand.” Although I don’t completely agree with Pollan on all his points and his evidence, I stand against. I believe it is a factor in our obesity epidemic and our overall poor health. It is not for me.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Decline of Hunter/Gatherer and Increase of Food Production – Diamond 4,5,6,8

Most certainly an interesting read. Although I have not read the introduction to the book (making some things a bit hazy), I dove right into chapter 4 as I did 7 last week. It was not your typical textbook readings, which I have come to like in Diamond’s writings. Even though it was a bit drawn out, I enjoyed chapter 4 and seeing how the domestication of animals and plants have directly and indirectly affected and assisted human culture and growth. I especially found it neat when Diamond described how the British finally overcame the Maori tribes of New Zealand.
            Chapter 5 was a little more textbook style and I found rather dull. Carbon 14 dating is neat, however I do not think it can be illustrated in the same fun and enlightening way that chapter 4 was portrayed. I do not really have much else to say on this chapter…
            I felt the next section (chapter 6) sort of picks up where chapter 4 left off – almost as if chapter 5 was a brief interlude to explain a side topic. I thought it neat that certain areas of the globe still live by the hunter/gatherer way of life. I like the idea of the simplicity behind it. It is unfortunate however that the decline of hunter/gatherer way of life is due to such things as decreasing game populations and cultural attitudes. I also found it interesting how a male hunter would often work on prestige. That is, bringing home 1 giraffe a month than twice the weight in food by gathering nuts and berries. This chapter also describes 5 reasons for the decline in the hunter/gatherer way of life, all of which one would not think of until presented with it, ie. the decrease in wild game and plants; something I did not even think of until I read it.
            Chapter 8 was a lot to think about and difficult to summarize for my own understanding though there were a few things I took from it and most certainly was an interesting read. Diamond pulls out a statistic on the second page of this chapter that sort of shocked me: of the 200,000 wild plant species on this planet, only a few thousand are edible. I would have guessed far more than a few thousand, not to mention that he goes on to say that only a few hundred of these have been domesticated. Really? Of the few thousand we do eat, we have only domesticated a few hundred? The next section of this chapter was neat, though a little drawn out. Diamond explains well how the fertile crescent was instrumental and quicker in developing food production, though he could have slimmed it down a little.
Overall a fun read for the week though.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Yep, these were supposed to be last weeks readings.

Pollan - Intro
Diamond - Chapter 7
So taking a step back, I looked at Jared Diamond’s book (chapter 7) as well as the intro to The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, though let’s start with Diamond: how to make an almond. The chapter discusses the mutation and intergenerational development of the plants we know today, most notably the almond. At Christmas time, when I eat an almond I do not stop to think of how this nut came to be before I eat it. I assume it grows as every nut does; then I crack the shell and pop it into my mouth to devour. Diamond describes the progression of the nut from its previous poisonous state when it contained an element which broke down into its more common form cyanide. I am baffled by this nut, how once it was extremely deadly to humans, but from a few mutant genes, it flourished into a staple in our regular diets.
I was also interested in the domestication of fruits by means of unintentional selection and how they prospered through farming. I thought Diamond did an excellent job of presenting intentional and unintentional selection which led nicely into artificial and natural selection. Diamond referenced Darwin nicely to complete this chapter and hammer home his point.
Botany of desire was taking a step back for me as I had already read chapter nine on the GM potato. The intro, however tied up some loose ends and gave me more of an understanding of the book itself as well as the chapter I had already looked at. Pollan also incorporates Darwin into his intro much like Diamond did. Considering the topic it is suiting after all, however Pollan introduces Darwin much earlier than Diamond did. Instead of referencing Darwin for solidifying the idea of the story, Pollan uses Darwin as more of a resource to explain and provide some history on the subject. Both books provide a different look at it, though Pollan was just an intro. I look forward to reading more from both authors. I seem to enjoy these more than I would a regular text book. These provide information as well as a story and feeling to go with it, making it much easier and more pleasant to read.