Thanks to a bit of trans-generational intellectual “pollination,” via the son of a friend from Atlanta who once owned a restaurant and had a passion for food, I was introduced to Michael Pollan’s work “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” a decade ago, which I have read and reviewed on...
Thanks to a bit of trans-generational intellectual “pollination,” via the son of a friend from Atlanta who once owned a restaurant and had a passion for food, I was introduced to Michael Pollan’s work “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” a decade ago, which I have read and reviewed on Amazon. Most regrettably, I had not read a second of his works until now. The man has a lot to say; and says it all too well. It is a case of “all the news NOT repeating itself,” to invert one of John Prine’s laments.
“The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” published in 2007, is subtitled: “A Natural History of Four Meals.” The number “four” is also operative in “The Botany of Desire,” which was published in 2002. It is the story of four plants: apples, tulips, cannabis and potatoes. Reflecting the theme of the title, there are four human desires that are associated with these plants: sweetness, beauty, intoxication and control, respectively.
Early in the book Pollan teasingly throws out the idea that perhaps the classic view: “People cultivate plants” should be inverted. For sure, Pollan does not fall off some “New Age talk-to-the-plants” cliff (and they will talk back) but posits a sound argument that without a conscious effort, plants evolve to utilize humans and animals to make up for their lack of mobility. His introduction is entitled: “The Human Bumblebee.”
Alma-Ata (Kazakhstan) means “father of the apple.” From the surrounding area the apple spread throughout the world, in part, aided by John Chapman, an American folklore hero more famously called: “Johnny Appleseed.” Pollan traveled to eastern Ohio, which, in 1806, was once the American frontier, and attempted to sort out the man from the myth, providing many an illuminating insight. Among those insights: apples were planted not for eating, but for drinking… in fermented form, and it was Prohibition that forced the apple growers to concoct the marketing slogan: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
Tulips originated in Turkey. An Austrian Ambassador to the Court of Suleyman the Magnificent in Constantinople served as the “bumblebee” in this case, bringing tulip bulbs back to Europe, where they spread to Holland and fueled one of the more famous financial “bubbles,” ironically among normally staid Calvinists, in the 17th Century. A “holy grail” among tulip cultivators is a black tulip since black occurs so infrequently in the living plant world. The grail is still elusive but Pollan is proud of his dark maroon one.
Cannabis is associated with the desire for intoxication. Hidden in plain sight, as Pollan says, is the chronic problem with mind-altering substances that are abused: “toxic.” Pollan provides a brilliant exposition on this perennial flashpoint of America’s cultural wars. Anslinger, and “Reefer Madness” make the obligatory cameo appearance. Much more instructive was the update from the ‘60’s, in terms of how marijuana is raised and cultivated in the United States, and the pendulum swinging back and forth towards legalization (written in 2002, he does not anticipate its legalization in neighboring Colorado, or a handful of other states). He has justified concerns about the two “errant” plants in his backyard, noting under federal asset forfeiture laws that if a case was brought: “The People of Connecticut v. Michael Pollan’s Garden”, his land could become the property of the New Milford Police Department. Pollan introduced me to Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli scientist who isolated the chemically active component: THC. The author provides a BRILLIANT description of “plain-ol’” vanilla ice cream as experienced in an altered state of consciousness, and questions whether, chemically there is a difference between the chemically-aided version and that induced by meditation, fasting, and other methods. Indeed, there is a “sense of wonder,” as Pollan says, about seeing things fresh and anew, as a child might, that can make a trip worthwhile, so all the news does not repeat itself.
Potatoes are the subject of the last chapter, starting their journey from their historic epicenter high in the Andes and brought back to Europe by the conquering Spaniards. They may have been introduced into Ireland by a shipwreck from the Spanish armada in 1588, providing a godsend to a starving people where other crops would not readily grow. A “godsend” until the famine of the 1840’s caused a reduction by half of Ireland’s population (through starvation and emigration). The dangers of an agricultural “monoculture.” Pollan visits the headquarters of Monsanto in St. Louis, which is doing so much to introduce the entire world to the “intellectual property” of patented genes and seeds and goes off to Idaho to describe its implementation.
Indicative of Pollan’s outlook and writing style is the following quote concerning his visit to the St. Louis Monsanto headquarters, and his meeting with Dave Hjelle, the company’s director of regulatory affairs: “Dave Hjelle is a disarmingly candid man, and before we finished our lunch he uttered two words that I never thought I’d hear for the lips of a corporate executive, except perhaps in a bad movie. I’d assumed these two words had been scrupulously expunged from the corporate vocabulary many years ago, during a previous paradigm long since discredited, but Dave Hjelle proved me wrong: ‘TRUST US’.”
To see anew, and act anew, and the catalyst can come from a book: 6-stars for Pollan’s many, many fine insights.