Posts Tagged ‘Michael Pollan’


Here it is! The first tomato to make it from seed to dinner plate this year is Silvery Fir Tree, a variety that Fiddlegirl shared with me. This was a surprise winner. I was expecting Sub-Arctic Plenty to win handily, but its tomatoes are still quite green. We had 3 of the Silvery Fir Tree fruits with supper last night. The tomatoes are on the small side of medium, a nice bright red, and a pleasant, juicy mild flavor. I like something a bit more tart, myself, but these were quite fine. Ah, nothing like those first tomatoes straight from the garden!

Here are the Silvery Fir Tree tomatoes on the plant.


I started my tomato seeds on March 19th and wrote about them in a post titled Tomato Season Begins, linked here. I had 7 varieties of tomatoes neatly labelled, but due to an unfortunate cat-astrophe, the seedlings ended up in a jumbled pile on the floor one day. They all survived, but lost their labels. As the plants mature, I can make a good guess at which plants are which. These are surely Indigo Rose. Cool, no? They’ve been that deep rich colour for a while now, but are still hard to the touch. I’m looking forward to tasting them.


I’m pretty sure these are Sub Arctic Plenty, which is a good producer.


And these look to be Michael Pollan. I couldn’t resist adding the namesake of this great writer to my garden. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend The Botany of Desire. I’m looking forward to reading his latest book, Cooked, which is in my big stack of ‘waiting to be read’s.


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Gardening books will tell you that tulip hybrids are not a good long-term investment for your garden dollars. You may set their bulbs lovingly in the soil in the autumn and enjoy a beautiful display in the spring, but often that is the beginning and end of the tulip show. In the following year you may or may not get a repeat, and before long, the bulbs will be just a garden memory. Daffodils are made of sterner stuff. An investment in daffodils can be expected to pay dividends year after year, as these sturdy, brilliant wonders robustly increase in number, and unlike tulips, which make quite a tasty snack for a squirrel, daffodil bulbs are poisonous and are left alone by marauders. I do love daffodils and I have a number of different varieties in the garden. You can also grow species tulips, which are more persistent than the hybrid tulips. Still, those hybrids are hard to resist. I try to plant at least a few each year so that I may enjoy their colours, some vibrant, some gentle, on dull spring days…and sunny days too.


Tulips have a fascinating history. The tulip was introduced to Europe in the mid-16th century from Turkey and by the 1630s, an explosion of interest in the bulbs led to speculation and skyrocketing prices. As noted at Wikipedia, At the peak of tulip mania, in February 1637, some single tulip bulbs sold for more than 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. It is generally considered the first recorded speculative bubble (or economic bubble). The craze became known as Tulipomania or Tulip Mania. There are a number of books that outline the full history of the bulb. Michael Pollan gives a good summary in The Botany of Desire, which is reviewed here. A great fictional account of Tulipomania is offered by Alexandre Dumas in The Black Tulip. Worth checking out.


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Last week was rainy and cold, cold and raw and autumn-like. So this weekend, when we had a couple of sunny days back-to-back, I decided it was time to bring the potatoes in. We’ve been enjoying fresh potatoes for a few weeks now, but I’ve just been digging them up on a need-to-eat basis!


Some years I grow potatoes and some years I don’t bother. I was inspired to make the (albeit tiny) effort this year by Michael Pollan’s account of the industrialization of potato production in The Botany of Desire. It’s both eye-opening and alarming.

I was quite pleased with the harvest, a nice binful. I planted several different varieties, but they came in a mixed bag, so I don’t know which varieties are which. Except the purple ones. They’re easy to spot. Here’s one cut in half.


How cool is that? I sliced this particular potato into long strips and made oven fries to go with hamburgers. Russian Blues are an heirloom potato. From the little I was able to glean via Google, Russian Blues really were developed in Russia, although they originated, like all potatoes, in South America. Like a lot of things in the horticultural world, their “blue” isn’t very blue. They’re a deep purple. The plants weren’t big producers, but I thought they were well worth including in the garden for their novelty value.


I was a little disappointed that I didn’t experience the raptures that Michael Pollan records while digging my potatoes. I was expecting maybe heavenly choirs. Still, it was a pleasant chore. And I love potatoes. Baked, mashed, fried, potato soup, scalloped potatoes, it’s all good. Next year, I’ll maybe plant beans in this location to refresh the soil and move the potatoes to a new spot.


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Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan. Penguin, 2009

In his introduction, Michael Pollan observes that eating has become complicated. What with talk about antioxidants and saturated fat, gluten and probiotics, you need to be a scientist to figure it all out. No one talks about food. While completing research for his previous books, In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan came to a shocking conclusion. All you need to know about what to eat can be expressed in seven simple words: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. Food Rules is a distillation of what Pollan has learned, expressed in a slim paperback that can be easily read in one sitting. He sets out 64 easy guidelines for selecting the food you eat, divided into three sections that answer the questions “What should I eat?” “What kind of food should I eat?” and How should I eat?”

Under “What should I eat?”, Pollan includes advice such as: Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food (eg. Go-Gurt Portable Yogurt Tubes and thousands of other foodish products that never existed a few decades ago); Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry; Avoid food products that contain high-fructose corn syrup; Avoid food products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce; Avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients; Avoid foods that have some form of sugar (or sweetener) listed among the top three ingredients.

I put these rules to the test when sampling a snack bar offered to me the other day. I suppose these Special K bars are meant to be the answer to Rice Crispy Squares, only better, right? Everyone knows Special K is better for you than, say Cap’n Crunch.

Here’s the list of ingredients from the wrapper: Cereal (rice, sugar, whole wheat, wheat gluten, wheat germ salt, wheat flour, malt (corn flour, malted barley) maltoextrin, thamin hydrochloride, colour) sugar/glucose-fructose, fructose, dextrose, vegetable oil, hydrogenated palm kernel oil, rolled oats, wheat flour, sorbitol, milk ingredients, glycerin, applesauce, brown sugar, natural and artificial flavours, soy lecithin, calcium carbonate, salt, sodium proprionate, tocopherols, BHT.

Wow, these bars fail on pretty much every one of Pollan’s rules. They sure don’t seem like food when you look at the ingredient list. Each bar contains 100 mg of salt and 90 calories. Seven of the bar’s 22 grams are sugar. Jeez, I could have one of those mini 100 calorie chocolate bars and be better off, and have chocolate to boot! Or, for under 100 calories you can eat an apple and take in some vitamins as well.

Under “What kind of food should I eat?”, a sampling of rules are: Eat mostly plants, especially leaves; Treat meat as a flavoring or special occasion food; Eat your colors (the bright colours of many vegetables reflect the antioxidant phytochemicals they contain); Sweeten and salt your food yourself; Eat sweet foods as you find them in nature.

Under “How should I eat?”, some rules are: Pay more, eat less; Stop eating before you are full; Eat when you are hungry, not when you are bored; Limit you snacks to unprocessed plant foods.

It’s all very sensible advice and I couldn’t argue with any of it. The book is laid out in a fun, imaginative way. I liked the term “flexitarian” – people who eat meat a couple of times a week, which is where I would class myself.

The problem is, it takes time and planning to eat this way. When you are hurrying home from work at 5 o’clock, knowing that a mate and offspring will be expecting a meal on the table in an hour, it is tempting to throw some pre-prepared frozen meal in the oven and go off to start the laundry. And while it is easy to plan, shop for and prepare a nutritious meal for tonight, the problem is there is still tomorrow night and the night after that and the night after that, etc. When women returned to the workforce in large numbers, when stay-at-home moms became the exception rather than the rule, one of the things that went by the boards for many was the time and energy and planning it takes to make a meal from scratch every night of the week. At the same time, the additional family income has allowed for the purchase of highly-processed foods and expensive meats. It takes a lot of effort to break these habits. But one thing is easy to do: Lose the Special K bars!

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One of the most charming of American tall tales is the story of Johnny Appleseed. Many versions exist, but one of the nicest is Steven Kellogg’s picturebook. [Johnny Appleseed: A tall tale retold and illustrated by Steven Kellogg. Morrow Junior Books, 1988] Kellogg’s colourful illustrations bring the story of John Chapman to life. There really was a Johnny Appleseed. He was born in Massachusetts on September 26, 1774. He left home as a young man and finally found his way west to Ohio, still a wilderness frontier. There, he began his life’s work, planting apple orchards.

Johnny cleverly realized that as settlers arrived on the frontier and began to build homesteads, there would be a market for apple trees. Indeed, a law required settlers to plant fruit trees on their property as part of their commitment to the new land. Once Ohio began to become “crowded”, Johnny moved on to the wilds of Indiana, where he continued to clear land and plant orchards. Johnny never settled down himself, but led a rough, outdoors life. Gradually, stories and legends about his adventures and deeds also took root. When Johnny Appleseed died, in 1845, he left a significant estate, some 22 parcels of land, planted with orchards.

As his name suggests, Johnny Appleseed planted, not grafted apple trees as nurserymen do now, but apple seeds. Apple trees don’t grow true to seed. That is an apple tree grown from seed can be quite unlike its parent. As Michael Pollan points out in his book The Botany of Desire, by spreading apple seeds across the frontier, John Chapman gave the apple the gift of diversity. He made it possible for all sorts of apples to grow, and those trees best suited to the climate of America were then propagated by farmers. Most of the trees that John grew wouldn’t have had the plump, juicy fruit we munch on now. Rather, many would have been small, bitter apples, not good eating, but fine for making cider. As Pollan notes, what John Chapman really brought to pioneer settlers was the gift of alcohol.

At one time, cider was a very popular drink in America. Even children drank cider, as it was sometimes safer than the water, which might be polluted. Cider could be cheaply produced by anyone with enough space to grow a few apple trees. Prohibition and the temperance movement changed all that. While beer and spirits rebounded after the end of prohibition, cider never regained its earlier popularity in America.

The first time I drank cider was in England, where it remains popular and is readily available. Indeed, my old grannie introduced me to cider as it was her preferred drink. Cider is probably the easiest alcoholic beverage for a new drinker to enjoy. It has a pleasant, mild flavour and an alcohol content similar to or a bit higher than beer. Today, cider is fairly easy to come by in Ontario, but in spite of the fact that there are lots of apples grown here, the cider is usually an import from England. Strongbow is quite common, although there are a couple of other brands available.

The only Canadian brand regularly available is Growers, which is produced in British Columbia. It is made with Granny Smith apples, which is a bit ironic as Granny Smith is an Australian apple. Growers is a very sweet, sparkling cider and is quite like drinking pop, apart from the 7% alcohol content.

There is a bit of a cider renaissance underway, and perhaps more varieties of cider will be available in the future. One that is produced not too far from here is Waupoos Premium Cider. It is more like the British ciders than Growers is. Waupoos is produced in Prince Edward County, near Picton, Ontario. For more on cider, visit The Palate Jack.

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The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-eye View of the World by Michael Pollan. Random House, 2001.

In recent years, Michael Pollan has spent a considerable amount of time at the top of the best-seller list with his books The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. There’s even an Omnivore’s Dilemma for Kids. My interest in his earlier book was piqued by a recent PBS special based on The Botany of Desire. I really enjoyed it and highly recommend it if you have a chance to view it.

The idea behind The Botany of Desire is simply this: perhaps we are not, as we think, controlling plants for our own purposes but rather they are using our tastes to forward their own agenda, which is to extend their own range and numbers. Pollan looks at four different plants that owe much of their success to their ability to satisfy a human desire. Apples fulfill a wish for sweetness, tulips for beauty, marijuana for intoxication and potatoes satisfy the desire to have control over a food source.

Each of the four sections is interesting. Pollan is an amiable guide and the book is an entertaining read. My favorite, however, was the concluding essay on the potato. His description of what goes into growing a potato on a typical Idaho potato farm is an eye-opener. More than that, a shocker. It’s more like a chemical factory process than something you would connect with a garden. The regimen of pesticides and fertilizers that are applied relentlessly across the season is mindboggling. Part of the driving force behind this method of farming is another corporation, McDonald’s, who require a particular type of potato, the Russet Burbank, to produce the perfect fry, thus promoting a monoculture of Burbanks.

From this discussion Pollan seques into a discussion of the New Leaf potato, a genetically-modified vegetable that has Basillus thuringiensis (Bt) a common bacterium found in the soil introduced into its genetic makeup. The Bt makes the potato resistant to the scourge of potato plants, the Colorado Potato Beetle. How fields and fields, countless acres, of this genetically-modified plant would affect pollinators like bees or the resistance of non-Bt plants or weeds, or even the long-term health of people eating it is not well understood. Ultimately, there is agreement that the attacking beetles would become resistant to the modified plant, perhaps in 30 years. Then what? Monsanto, the developer of the plant doesn’t know. They say: We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Trust us!. Pollan also briefly discusses another wonder from the giant corporation, the terminator seed, a seed that has been modified not to reproduce. I suppose it’s overly dramatic to call such an invention the incarnation of evil, but really, what kind of greed does it take to even conceive of such a thing?

No discussion of potatoes could fail to look at the Irish Potato Famine. The Irish were among the first Europeans to embrace the plant, introduced from the Americas by the Spanish. The potato played a vital role in allowing the population of Ireland to climb from three million to eight million in less than a century. Young men could marry earlier and support larger families. As the supply of labour increased, wages fell, keeping the Irish impoverished. When the blight that destroyed the potato crop hit in 1846, and again in 1846 and ’48 one in every eight persons died, and thousands emigrated to America. Ireland’s population was halved within a decade.

The argument for commercial farms and genetically-modified crops rests in part on the view that the world’s population cannot be fed by any other means. It seems that we are perhaps heading in the same direction as the 19th-century Irish. Our population has grown too large to be supported by conventional farming methods. When the cheap oil that fuels it all collapses, what then?

My favorite part of the book is the conclusion, in which Pollan talks about his own garden, the neat, orderly rows of the spring season, the wild abandon of the late summer. He speaks of the pleasure of digging up potatoes with a rapture that leaves me longing to get out in the dirt. It’s been a few years since I grew potatoes. Hmm. Next year…potatoes.

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