Posts Tagged ‘Food’

This food is a gift of the whole universe, the earth, the sky and much mindful work.

May we eat in mindfulness so as to be worthy of it.

May we transform our unskillful states of mind and learn to eat in moderation.

May we take only foods that nourish us and prevent illness.

May we accept this food to realize the path of understanding and love.

My friend Andre Talbot writes, “The five eating contemplations now hang on my refrigerator door as a constant reminder to be grateful of the efforts and work that it took for this food to make it to my table. They remind me to chew my food slowly and mindfully (to allow for healthy digestion), to really enjoy the tastes and sensations, and to be fully awake and present in each moment of my life.”

  • American paradox – unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthy.
  • Our culture codifies the rules of wise eating in an elaborate structure of taboos, rituals, recipes, manners, and culinary traditions that keep us from having to reenact the omnivore’s dilemma at every meal.
    • The lack of a steadying culture of food leaves us especially vulnerable to the blandishments of the food scientists and the marketer, for whom the omnivore’s dilemma is not so much a dilemma as an opportunity.
  • Some philosophers have argued that the very open-endedness of human appetite is responsible for both our savagery and civility, since a creature that could conceive of eating anything (including, other humans) stands in particular need of ethical rules, manners, and rituals. We are not only what we eat, we are how we eat, too.
  • A great many of the health and environmental problems created by our food system owe to our attempts to oversimplify nature’s complexities at both the growing and the eating ends of our food chain.
    • In fact, the whole history of agriculture is a progressive history of simplification, as humans reduced the biodiversity of their landscapes to a small handful of chosen species.
    • By contrast, the efficiencies of natural systems flow from complexity and interdependence – by definition the very opposite of simplification.
  • Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds.
    • The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss described the work of civilization as the process of transforming the raw into the cooked – nature into culture.
    • Agriculture has done more to reshape the natural world than anything else we humans do, both its landscapes and the composition of its flora and fauna.
    • Instead of eating exclusively from the sun, humanity now began to sip petroleum.
      • The food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the U.S. (about as much as automobiles do).
      • As in so many other realms, nature’s logic has proven no match for the logic of capitalism, one in which cheap energy has always been a given.
    • By fertilizing the world, we alter the planet’s composition of species and shrink its biodiversity.
  • Omnivores are torn between two conflicting emotions, each with its own biological rationale:
    • Neophobia – a sensible fear of ingesting anything new – the comfort of the familiar
    • Neophilia – a risky but necessary openness to new tastes – the pleasure of variety
    • Evolutionary trade-off between big brains (human) and big guts (koala) – two very different evolutionary strategies for dealing with the question of food selection.

Industrial: Corn

  • Few plants can manufacture quite as much organic matter (and calories) from the same quantities of sunlight and water and basic elements as corn. (97% of what a corn plant is comes from the air, 3% from the ground.)
    • Corn is a C-4 plant.
    • Corn is the most efficient way to produce energy, soybeans the most efficient way to produce protein.
  • Corn’s dual identity, as food and commodity, has allowed many of the peasant communities that have embraced it to make the leap from a subsistence to a market economy.
  • Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) – “They are messing with three billion years of evolution.”
  • Hybridization represents a far swifter and more efficient means of communication, or feedback loop, between plant and human; by allowing humans to arrange its marriages, corn can discover in a single generation precisely what qualities it needs to prosper.
    • Basically, modern hybrids can tolerate the corn equivalent of city life, growing amid the multitudes without succumbing to urban stress.
  • All life depends on nitrogen; it is the building block from which nature assembles amino acids, proteins, and nucleic acid; the genetic information that orders and perpetuates life is written in nitrogen ink.
    • Nitrogen as supplying life’s quality, while carbon provides the quantity.
  • These days the price of a bushel of corn is about a dollar beneath the true cost of growing it, a boon for everyone but the corn farmer.
  • The invention of commodity grain severed any link between the producer of a foodstuff and its ultimate consumer.
The Feedlot
  • CAFOs – Confined Animal Feeding Operations
  • When animals live on farms the very idea of waste ceases to exist…One of the most striking thing animal feedlots do is to take this elegant solution and neatly divide it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm (which must be remedied with chemical fertilizers) and a pollution problem on the feedlot (which seldom is remedied at all).
    • CAFOs transform what at the proper scale would be a precious source of fertility – cow manure – into toxic waste.
    • For half a century now the industry has devoted itself to shortening a beef animal’s allotted span on earth.
    • Its chief advantage is that cows fed corn, a compact source of caloric energy, get fat quickly; their flesh also marbles well, giving it a taste and texture American consumers have come to like. Yet this corn-fed meat is demonstrably less healthy for us, since it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids than the meat of animals fed grass.
    • The contemporary beef cow is being selected for the ability to eat large quantities of corn and efficiently convert it to protein without getting too sick.
    • Much like modern humans, modern cattle are susceptible to a set of relatively new diseases of civilization.
      • What keeps the feedlot animal healthy – or healthy enough – are antibiotics.
      • Here the drugs are plainly being used to treat sick animals, yet the animals probably wouldn’t be sick if not for the diet of grain we feed them.
  • Growing meat on grass makes superb ecological sense: It is a sustainable, solar-powered food chain that produces food by transforming sunlight into protein.
  • As cannibal tribes have discovered, eating the flesh of one’s own species carries special risks of infection.
  • Ratio of feed to gain determines efficiency.
    • Chicken, the most efficient animal by this measure, is two pounds of corn to one of meat; cow 8 to 1 – thus chicken costs less than beef.
  • We inhabit the same microbial ecosystem as the animals we eat, and whatever happens in it also happens to us.
    • The unnaturally rich diet of corn that undermines a steer’s health fattens his flesh in a way that undermines the health of the humans who will eat it.
    • The species of animal you eat may matter less than what the animal you are eating has itself eaten.
  • Eating industrial meat takes an almost heroic act of not knowing, or, now, forgetting.
The Processing Plant
  • Wet milling – an industrial version of digestion – a good is broken down through a series of steps that includes the application of physical pressure, acids, and enzymes.
    • A complex food is reduced to simple molecules, mostly sugars.
    • Wet milling is an energy-intensive way to make food; for every calories of processed food it produces, another ten calories of fossil fuel energy are burned.
    • Processed food has become largely supply-driven business – the business of figuring out clever ways to package and market the glut of commodities coming off the farm and out of the wet mills.
  • The dream of liberating food from nature is as old as eating. People began processing food to keep nature from taking it back.
    • Corn has done more than any other species to help the food industry realize the dream of freeing food from nature’s limitations and seducing the omnivore into eating more of a single plant than anyone would ever have thought possible.
  • If the industry hope to grow faster than the population, it has to figure out how to get people to spend more money for the same 1,500lb of food (our annual consumption), or entice them to actually eat more (creating while new eating occasions i.e. protein bar or Pop-Tart) than that.
  • There is money to be made in food, unless you are trying to grow it. – Food Industry Executive
  • The further a product’s identity moves from a specific raw material – that is, the more processing steps involved – the less vulnerable is its processor to the variability of nature.
    • As Tyson understood, you want to be selling something more than a commodity, something more like a service: novelty, convenience, status, fortification, lately even medicine.
    • Evidently we are moving into the fourth age of food processing, in which the processed food will be infinitely better (i.e. contain more of whatever science has determined to be the good stuff) than the whole foods on which they are based.
    • Due to our current reductionist premise – that food is nothing more than the sum of its nutrients…We breakdown plants and animals into their component parts and then reassemble them into high-value-added food systems.
The Consumers
  • The United Nations reported that in 2000 the number of people suffering from overnutrition – a billion – had officially surpassed the number suffering from malnutrition – 800 million.
  • Thrifty gene – our hunter-gatherer ancestors feast whenever the opportunity presented itself, allowing them to buildup reserves of fat against future famine.
    • Useful adaptation in an environment of food scarcity and unpredictability; disaster in an environment of fast food abundance – our bodies are reserves of fat against a famine that never comes.
  • Like most warm blooded creatures, humans have inherited a preference for energy-dense foods, a preference reflected in the sweet tooth shared by most mammals.
    • A sweet tooth represents an excellent adaptation for an omnivore whose big brain demands a tremendous amount of glucose (the only type of energy the brain can use).
    • The adult human brain accounts for 2% of our body weight but consumes 18% of our energy, all of which must come from a carbohydrate.
  • The power of food science lied in its ability t break foods down into their nutrient parts and then reassemble them in specific ways that, in effect, push our evolutionary buttons, fooling the omnivore’s inherited food selection system.
The Meal: Fast Food
  • Like other comfort foods, fast food supplies (besides nostalgia) a jolt of carbohydrates and fat, which, some scientists now believe, relieve stress and bathe the brain in chemicals that make it feel good.
  • Vegetarians advocate eating “low on the food chain” – every step up the chain reduces the amount of food energy by a factor of ten, which is why in any ecosystem there are only a fraction as many predators as there are prey.

Pastoral: Grass

  • Polyface Farm
  • Healthy soil digests the dead to nourish the living – earth’s stomach.
  • It is impossible to take a decidedly Eastern, connected, holistic product, and sell it through a decidedly Western, disconnected, reductionist Wall Streetified marketing system. – Joel Salatin
  • We are going to have to refight the battle to preserve the right to opt out, or your grandchildren and mine will have no choice but to eat amalgamated, irradiated, genetically prostituted, barcoded, adulterated fecal spam from the centralized processing conglomerate. – Joel Salatin
  • The Whole Foods shopper feels that buy buying organic he is engaging in authentic experiences and imaginatively enacting a return to a utopian past with the positive aspects of modernity intact.
  • Enjoy the best of both worlds – the sophisticated order of art and the simple spontaneity of nature. – Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden
  • The short-term boosts in yield fertilizers delivered could not be sustained; since the chemicals would eventually destroy the soil’s fertility, today’s high yields were robbing the future.
  • Artificial Manures lead inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial food, artificial animals and finally artificial men and women. – Sir Albert Howard
  • The notion of imitating the whole natural system stands in stark opposition to reductionist science, which works by breaking such systems down into their component parts in order to understand how they work and then manipulating them – one variable at a time.
  • But in an agricultural system dedicated to quantity rather than quality, the fiction that all foods are created equal is essential.
  • Management-intensive grazing aka rotational grazing
    • Grazing the optimal number of cattle at the optimal moment to exploit the blaze of growth – yields tremendous amounts of grass, all the while improving the quality of the land.
  • Grass farmers grow animals – for meat, egg, milk and wool – but regard them as part of a food chain in which grass is the keystone species, the nexus between the solar energy that powers every food chain and the animals we eat.
    • A polyculture of grass, with its wide diversity of photosynthesizes exploiting every inch of land as well as every moment of growing season, captures more solar energy and therefore produces more biomass than a cornfield; also, only the kernels are harvested from a cornfield, whereas virtually all the grass grown in a pasture find its way into the rumen.
  • All agriculture is at its heart a business of capturing free solar energy in a good product that can then be turned into high-value human energy. – Allan Nation
  • Our civilization and, increasingly, our food system are strictly organized on industrial lines. It prizes consistency, mechanization, predictability, interchangeability, and economies of scale.
    • Grain is the closest thing in nature to an industrial commodity: storable, portable, fungible, ever the same today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow. Since it can be accumulated and traded, grain is a form of wealth. It is a weapon too – the nature with the biggest surpluses of grain have always exerted power over the ones in short supply.
  • Attributes of a wonderful tent dweller – always living on less than you have and more lightly than you need to.
  • A symbiotic relationship – in each case the birds dine on the insects that would otherwise bother the herbivore; they also pick insect larvae and parasites out of the animal’s droppings, breaking the cycle of infestation and disease.
    • Left to their own devices, a confined flock of chickens will  eventually destroy any patch of land, by pecking the grass down to its roots and poisoning the soil with their extremely “hot”, or nitrogenous, manure.
  • It’s all connected. This farm is more like an organism than a machine, and like any organism it has its proper scale. Farming is not adapted to large scale operations because of the following reasons: farming is concerned with plants and animals that live, grow, and die. – Joel Salatin
  • The idea is not the slavishly imitate nature, but to model a natural ecosystem in all its diversity and interdependence, one where all the species “fully express their psychological distinctiveness.”
    • What distinguishes Salatin’s system is that it is designed around the natural predilections of the pig rather than around the requirements of a production system to which the pigs are then conformed (as a protein machine with flaws).
    • When chickens get to live like chickens, they’ll taste like chickens too.
  • When a livestock farmer is willing to practice complexity – to choreograph the symbiosis of several different animals, each of which has been allowed to behave and eat as they evolved to – he will find he has little need for machinery, fertilizer, and chemicals. He finds he has no sanitation problem or any of the diseases that result from raising a single animal in a crowded monoculture and then feeding it things it wasn’t designed to eat.
    • Most of the time pests and disease are just nature’s way of telling the farmer he’s doing something wrong.
    • A diversified farm will produce much of its own fertility and its own pest control.
    • Indeed, that’s why these chemicals were invented in the first place, to keep shaky monocultures from collapsing.
  • A holon (Arthur Koestler, The Ghost in the Machine) is an entity that from one perspective appears a self-contained while, and from another a dependent part.
  • Horrible as it is to contemplate, it’s not hard to see how the road to such a hog hell is smoothly paved with the logic of industrial efficiency.
  • There’s been a tremendous brain drain in rural America – Wall Street is always trying to extract brainpower and capital from the countryside.
  • The USDA is being used by the global corporate complex to impede the clean-food movement. They aim to close down all but the biggest meat processors, and to do it in the name of biosecurity. Every government study to date has shown that the reasons we’re having an epidemic of food-borne illness in this country is centralized production, centralized processing, and long-distance transportation of food.
  • Americans today spend less on food (10%, down from 20% in the 1950s), as a percentage of disposable income, than any other industrialized nation, and probably less than any people in the history of the world.
    • When you think about it, it is odd that something as important to our health and general well-being as food is sold strictly on the basis of price.
    • Our food system depends on consumers’ not knowing much about it beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner. Cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing.
  • …an increasingly globalized economy that turns anything it touches into a commodity, reaching its tentacles wherever in the world a food can be produced most cheaply, and then transporting it wherever it can be sold most dearly.
  • Allan Nation: Artisanal Economics in Stockman Grass Farmer
    • The classic way any industrial producer lower the costs of his product is by substituting capital – new technologies and fossil-fuel energy – for skilled labor and then stepping up production, exploiting the economies of scale to compensate for shrinking profit margins. In a commodity business a producer must sell ever more cheaply and grow ever bigger or be crushed by a competitor who does.
    • Artisanal production’s competitive strategy is based on selling something special than being the least-cost producer of a commodity.
      • Productivity and profits are two entirely different concepts.
  • A global food market…has smudged the bright colors of the seasonal food calendar we all once knew by heart.
  • The promise of global capitalism, much like the promise of communism before it, ultimately demands an act of faith: that if we permit the destruction of certain things we value here and now we will achieve a greater happiness and prosperity at some unspecified future time. As Lenin put it, in a sentiment the WTO endorses its ruling every day, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.
  • A successful local food economy implies not only a new kind of food producer, but a new kind of eater as well, one who regards finding, preparing, and preserving food as one of the pleasures of life rather than a chore.
  • …we ask for too much salvation by legislation. All we need to do is empower individuals with the right philosophy and the right information to opt out en masse.
  • Nature never puts all her eggs in one basket – the great virtue of a diversified food economy, like a diverse pasture or farm, is its ability to withstand any shock.
  • Too high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 can contribute to heart disease, probably because omega-6 helps blood clot, while omega-3 helps it flow.
    • Omega-6 is an inflammatory; omega-3 an anti-inflammatory.
  • Spirit – the word comes from breath, as in the breath of life.

Personal: The Forest

  • Agriculture brought humans a great many blessings, but it also brought infectious disease (from living in close quarters with one another and our animals) and malnutrition (from eating too much of the same thing when crops were good, and not enough of anything when they weren’t).
  • Like other important forms of play, hunting and gathering promises to teach us (didactic) something about who we are beneath the crust of our civilized, practical, grown-up lives.
  • Disgust – the fear of incorporating offending substances into one’s body – largely culturally determined
    • Disgust is intuitive microbiology.
  • Corn and beans each lack an essential amino acid (lysine and methionine, respectively); eat them together and the proper balance is restored.
  • Cuisines embody some of a culture’s accumulated wisdom about food. – Paul Rozin
  • If nature won’t draw a line around human appetite, then human culture must step in, as indeed it has done, bringing the omnivore’s eating habits under the government of all various taboos (foremost the one against cannibalism), customs, rituals, table manners, and culinary conventions found in every culture.
  • Nature does everything in the operations of a beast, whereas man contributes to his operations by being a free agent. The former chooses or rejects by instinct and the latter by an act of freedom, so that a beast cannot deviate from the rule that is prescribed to it even when it would be advantageous to do so, and a man deviates from it often to his detriment. Thus a pigeon would die of hunger near a basin filled with the best meats, and a cat upon heaps of fruit or grain, although each could very well nourish itself on the food it disdains if it made up its mind to try some. Thus dissolute men abandon themselves to the excesses which cause them fever and death, because the mind depraves the senses and because the will still speaks when nature is silent.– Rousseau
  • Without virtue, man of all the animal is most unholy and savage, and worst in regard to sex and eating. – Aristotle
  • The more anxious we are about eating, the more vulnerable we are to the seductions of the marketer and the expert’s advice.
    • The success of food marketers in exploiting shifting eating patterns and nutritional fashions undermine the various social structures that surround and steady our eating, institutions like the family dinner.
    • We find ourselves as a species almost back where we started: anxious omnivores struggling once again to figure out what it is wise to eat. Instead of relying on the accumulated wisdom of cuisine, or even on the wisdom of our senses, we rely on expert opinion, advertising, government food pyramids, and diet books, and we place our faith in science to sort out for us what culture once did with rather more success.
  • It may be that as a civilization we’re groping toward a higher plane of consciousness. It may be that our moral enlightenment has advanced to the point where the practice of eating animals – like our former practices of keeping slaves or treating women as inferior beings – can now be seen for the barbarity it is, a relic of an ignorant past that very soon will fill us with shame.
  • Equality is a moral idea, not an assertion of fact…The moral idea is that everyone’s interests ought to receive equal consideration, regardless of what they are like or what abilities they have…If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans for the same purpose? – Peter Singer
  • Equality is based on interests rather than characteristics.
    • The one all-important interest humans share with pigs, as with all sentient creatures, is an interest in avoiding pain.
  • The great advantage of being a reasonable creature is that you can find a reason for whatever you want to do. – Ben Franklin
  • Most domesticated animals cannot survive in the wild; in fact, without us eating them they wouldn’t exist at all!
  • The pig has a stronger interest than anyone in the demand for bacon. If all the world were Jewish, there would be no pigs at all. – One 19th Century Political Philosopher
  • Domestication is an evolutionary, rather than a political, development – coevolution
    • Before the arrival of sophisticated predators, the bison did not live in big herds and had much larger, more outstretched horns.
  • The bison is a human artifact, or it was shaped by the Indians. – Tim Flannery
  • A tension has always existed between the capitalist imperative to maximize efficiency at any cost and the moral imperatives of culture, which historically have served as a counterweight to the moral blindness of the market. This is another example of the cultural contradictions of capitalism – the tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society. Mercy toward the animals in our care is one such casualty.
  • The proper measure of their suffering is not their prior experiences but the unremitting daily frustration of their instincts.
    • For any animal, happiness seems to consist in the opportunity to its creaturely character – its essential pigness or wolfness or chickeness – characteristic form of life.
  • What happens when the choice is, as Singer writes, between “a lifetime of suffering for a non-human animal and the gastronomic preferences of a human being?”
    • One has to stop eating meat before one can in good conscience decide if one can continue eating meat.
  • No one in the habit of eating an animal can be completely without bias in judging whether the conditions in which that animal is reared cause suffering. – Peter Singer
  • The odder ironies of animal rights: It asks us to acknowledge all we share with animals, and then to act toward them in a most unanimalistic way (i.e. morals and rights).
  • Human pain differs from animal pain by an order of magnitude. This qualitative difference is largely the result of our possession of language and, by virtue of language, our ability to have thoughts about thoughts and to imagine what is not.
  • Morality is an artifact of human culture devised to help humans negotiate human social relations. It is very good for that. But just as we recognize that nature doesn’t provide a very good guide for human social conduct, isn’t it anthropocentric of us to assume that our moral system offers an adequate guide for what should happen in nature?
  • What’s wrong with eating animal is the practice, not the principle.
    • If our concern is for the health of nature – rather than, say, the internal consistency of our coral code or the condition of our souls – then eating animals may sometimes be the most ethical thing to do.
Hunting: The Meat
  • Only the hunter, imitating the perpetual alertness of the wild animal, for whom everything is danger, sees everything and sees each thing functioning as facility or difficulty, as risk or protection. – Jose Ortega y. Gasset
  • Hunting is the genetic way of being a man and because the animal we are stalking summons the animal still in us.
  • Since the successful hunter often ends up with more meat than he or his family could eat before it spoiled, it makes good sense for him to, in effect, bank the surplus in the bodies of other people, trading meat for obligations and future favors.
  • Every good hunter is uneasy in the depths of his conscience when faced with the death he is about to inflict on the enchanting animal. –  Jose Ortega y. Gasset
  • So much of the human project is concerned with distinguishing ourselves from beasts that we seem strenuously to avoid things that remind us that we are beasts too – animals that urinate, defecate, copulate, bleed, die, stink, and decompose – the incompleteness of our transcendence of our animal nature.
  • Humanity sees itself as something emerging from animality, but it cannot be sure of having transcended that state completely. The animal remains too close for us not to feel mysterious communication with it. – John Berger
  • It’s not as though the rest of us don’t countenance the killing of tens of millions of animals every year. Yet for some reason we feel more comfortable with the mechanical killing practice, out of view and without emotion, by industrial agriculture.
  • For one creature to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. – Aldo Leopold
  • The preoccupation with what should be is estimable only when the respect for what is has been exhausted. – Jose Ortega y. Gasset
Gathering: The Fungi
  • Our ability to identify plants and fungi with confidence, which after all is one of the most critical tools of our survival, involves for more sensory information than can ever be printed on a page; it is, truly, a form of “body knowledge” not easily reduced or conveyed over distance.
  • Some of their toxins may simply be fungal tools for doing what fungi do: breaking down complicated organic compounds.
  • Mushrooms have little to do with the sun (explanation for the lack of calories). They emerge at night and wither in the light of day.
  • Pop-out effect – when we fix in our mind some visual quality of the object we are hoping to spot – whether its color or pattern or shape (narrow visual filter) – it will pop out of the visual field, almost as if on command.
The Perfect Meal
  • Slow Food vs. fast food
    • The pleasures of the one are based on a nearly perfect knowledge; the pleasures of the other on an equally perfect ignorance.
    • The diversity of one the one mirrors the diversity of nature, especially the forest; the variety of the other more accurately reflects the ingenuity of industry; especially its ability to teases a passing resemblance of diversity from a single species growing in a single landscape: a monoculture of corn.
    • The first of the first meal is steep, yet it is acknowledged and paid for; by comparison the price of the second seems a bargain but fails to cover its true cost, charging it instead to nature, to the public health and purse, and to the future.
      • Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water – of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap.

The Human Bumblebee

  • Coevolution – two parties act on each other to advance their individual interests but wind up trading favors. E.g. Bee and apple tree: food for the bee, transportation for the apple genes.
  • Though we self-importantly regard domestication as something people have done to plants, it is at the same time a strategy by which the plants have exploited us and our desires to advance their own interests.
    • All these plants, which I’d regarded as the objects of my desire, were also, I realize, subjects, acting on me, getting me to do thing for them they couldn’t do for themselves.
    • We are prone to overestimate our own agency in nature – Our grammar might teach us to divide the world into active subjects and passive objects, but in a coevolutionary relationship every subject is also an object, every object a subject.
    • We give ourselves altogether too much credit in our dealings with other species…it takes two to perform that particular dance of domestication…plenty of plants and animals have elected to sit it out. (E.g. Oak tree)
  • Evolution may reward interdependence, but our thinking selves continue to prize self-reliance. (The wolf is somehow more impressive than the dog)
  • After ten thousand years of coevolution, genes are rich archives of cultural as well as natural information.
  • Plants are nature’s alchemists, expert at transforming water, soil, and sunlight into an array of precious substances, many of them beyond the ability of human beings to conceive, much less manufacture.
  • The great existential fact of plant life: immobility.
    • Why plants make chemicals to both repel and attract other species.
  • Evolution doesn’t depend on will or intention to work; it is, almost by definition, an unconscious, unwilled process.
    • Design in nature is but a concatenation of accidents, culled by natural selection until the result is so beautiful or effective as to seem a miracle of purpose.
  • All of nature is now in the process of being domesticated – of coming, or finding itself, under the (somehow leaky) roof of civilization.
    • Even the wild now depends on civilization for its survival.
    • For a great many species today, “fitness” means the ability to get along in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force.
  • We have to understand our place in the world in the fullness of its complexity and ambiguity.
  • Dionysian vs. Apollonian

Desire: Sweetness  Plant: Apple

  • Anyone who wants edible apples plants grafted trees (ancient cloning technique), for the fruit of seedling apples is almost always inedible.
  • Every seed in the apple contains the genetic instructions for a completely new and different apple tree, one that, if planted, would bear only the most glancing resemblance to its parents.
  • In effect, the apple, like the settlers themselves, had to forsake its former domestic life and return to the wild before it could be reborn as an American.
  • The word sweetness denoted a reality commensurate with human desire: it stood for fulfillment.
  • Sweetness has proved to be a force in evolution.
  • Alcohol is the other great beneficence of sugar: it is made by encouraging certain yeasts to dine on the sugars manufactured in plants. (Fermentation converts the glucose in plants into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide.)
  • The vast apple diversity has been winnowed down to the small handful of varieties that can pass through the needle’s eye of our narrow conceptions of sweetness and beauty.
    • Industry got together and decided that it would be wise to simplify that market by planting and promoting only a small handful of brand name varieties. That market had no use for the immense variety of the 19th century apply embodied.
  • In the wild a plant and its pests are continually coevolving, in a dance of resistance and conquest that can have no ultimate victor.
    • The problem is that apple trees no longer reproduce sexually, as they do when they are grown from seed, and sex is nature’s way of creating fresh genetic combinations. At the same time the viruses, bacteria, fungi, and insects keep very much at it, reproducing sexually and continuing to evolve until eventually they hit on the precise genetic combination that alls them to overcome whatever resistance the apples may have once possessed…so not people have to come to the apple tree’s rescue.
  • To domesticate another species is to bring it under culture’s roof, but when people rely on too few genes for too long, a plant loses its ability to get along on its own, outdoors.
    • Human artifice took dominion everywhere ordering the slovenly wilderness around it like a light in the darkness.

Desire: Beauty  Plant: The Tulip

  • All the useless beauty is impossible to justify on cost-benefit grounds.
  • Incredibly, there were no flowers in Eden – or, more likely, the flowers were weeded out of Eden when Genesis was written down.
  • Maybe the love of flowers is a predilection all people share, but it’s one that cannot itself flower until conditions are ripe – until there are lots of flowers around and enough leisure to stop and smell them.
  • There may or may not be a correlation between the beautiful and the good, but there probably is one between beauty and health.
    • In our own species too, ideals of beauty often correlates with health: when lack of food was what usually killed people, people judged body fat to be a thing of beauty.
  • The colors and shapes of the flowers are a precise record of what bees find attractive.
  • By contrast, the rose, the orchid, and the tulip are capable of prodigies, reinventing themselves again and again to suit every change in the aesthetic or political weather.
    • For a flower the path to world domination passes through humanity’s ever-shifting ideals of beauty.
  • Very often traits that commend plants and animals to people render them less fit for life in the wild.
  • Shame seems to be the going price for achievement, particularly the achievement of knowledge or beauty.
  • The tulip was a thing of beauty, no more, no less.
  • Black, like white, is a blankness onto which any and all desire (or fear) may be projected.
  • Tulipomania
    • The greater fool theory – although by any conventional measure it is folly to pay thousands for  a tulip bulb (or for that matter an internet stock) as long as there is an even greater fool out there willing to pay even more, doing so is the most logical thing in the world.
  • Great art is born when Apollonian form and Dionysian ecstasy are held in balance, when our dreams of order and abandon come together.
  • The desires of other creatures became paramount in the evolution of plants – gratifying those desires resulted in more offspring.
  • By producing sugars and proteins to entice animals to disperse their seed, the angiosperms multiplies the world’s supply of food energy, making possible the rise of large warm-blooded mammals.
    • With the advent of flower, whole new levels of complexity come into the world: more interdependence, more information, more communication, more experimentation.
    • Without flowers, we would not be.

Desire: Intoxication  Plant: Marijuana (Cannabis Sativa x Indica)

  • There are plants that manufacture molecules with the power to change the subjective experience of reality we call consciousness.
  • How does one tell dangerous plants from the ones that merely nourishes? Taste is the first tip-off. Plants that don’t wish to be eaten often manufacture bitter-tasting alkaloids.
  • Most of the ingenuity of plants – that is, most of the work of a billion years of evolutionary trial and error – has been applied to learning (or rather, inventing) the arts of biochemistry, at which plants excel beyond all human imagining.
    • Even now a large part of human knowledge about making medicines come directly from plants.
  • The all-out victory of one species over another is often Pyrrhic. That’s because a powerful, death-dealing toxin can exert such a strong selective pressure for resistance in its target population that it is quickly rendered ineffective.
    • A better strategy may be to repel, disable, or confound.
  • By trial and error animals figure out – sometimes over eons, sometimes over a single lifetime – which plants to eat and which forbidden.
  • Gardeners are alchemists – transforming the dross of compost (and water and sunlight) into substance of rare value and beauty and power.
  • Certainly marijuana’s close identification with the counterculture made it an attractive target.
  • Cannabis Cup [November in Netherland]
  • To succeed in North America, cannabis had to do two things: it had to prove it could gratify a human desire so brilliantly that people would take extraordinary risks to cultivate it, and it had to find the right combination of genes to adapt to a most peculiar and thoroughly artificial new environment.
  • …utterly failing to notice as their world would shrank to the dimensions of a fevered dream.
  • The desire to alter one’s experience of consciousness may be universal.
    • Consciousness changing as a basic human activity (work by Andrew Weil)
    • Even young children seek out altered states of awareness. They will spin until violently dizzy (thereby producing visual hallucinations), deliberately hyperventilate, throttle one another to the point of fainting, inhale any fumes they can find, and, on a daily basis, seek out the rush of energy supplied by processed sugar (sugar being the child’s plant drug of choice)
  • Historians can explain these shifts much better than scientists can, since they usually have less to do with the intrinsic nature of the various molecules involved than with the powers that cultures ascribe to them and the changing needs of those cultures.
  • All these plants are, at least potentially, mental tools; people who know to use them properly may be able to cope with everyday life better than those who don’t.
    • Tobacco smoking and coffee became socially acceptable because they aided in industrialization’s reorientation of the human organism to the primacy of mental labor.
  • Promoting certain plant drugs and forbidding other may just be something cultures do as a way of defining themselves or reinforcing their cohesion.
    • Culture tend to be more wary of these pants, and for good reason: they pose a threat to the smooth workings of the social order.
  • Psychoactive plants are bridges between the worlds of matter and spirit or, to update vocabulary, chemistry and consciousness.
    • Opium would give a philosopher an inner eye and power of intuition for the vision and mysteries of our human nature.
  • In the same way the human desire for beauty and sweetness introduced into the world a new survival strategy for the plants that could gratify it, the human hunger for transcendence created new opportunities for another group of plants. (entheogenic plant)
  • Meme are a culture’s building blocks, passed down from brain to brain in a Darwinian process that leads, by trial and error, to cultural innovation and progress.
    • Culture at any given moment is the “meme pool” in which we all swim – or rather, that swims through us.
    • Shifts in perception and breaks in mental habit they provoke are among the methods, and models, we have of imaginatively transforming mental and cultural givens – for mutating our inherited memes.
  • Allen Ginsberg suggested that the negative feelings marijuana sometimes provokes, such as anxiety, fear, and paranoia, are traceable to the effect on consciousness not of the narcotic but of the law.
  • Cannabis can’t reliably be used to change one’s mood, only to intensify it.
  • We assume that there is some sort of cause-and-effect relationship between molecule and mind, but what it is no one really knows.
    • Cannabis does not itself create but merely triggers the mental state that we identify as “being high.” The very same mental state, minus the “physiological noise” of the drug itself, can be triggered in other ways, such as meditation or breathing exercises.
  • Consciousness is precisely the frontier where our materialistic understanding of the brain stops.
  • The human cannabinoid system is the brain’s own drug for coping with the human condition.
    • Cannabinoid receptors shows up in vast numbers all over the brain…except the brain stem, which regulates involuntary functions such as circulation and respiration. This might explain the remarkably low toxicity of cannabis and the fact that no one is known to have ever died from an overdose.
    • The sensation of pain is one the hardest to summon from memory.
  • It is hard to conceive of a domesticated plant more plastic than cannabis, a single species answering to two such different desire, the first more or less spiritual in nature (marijuana) and the other, quite literally, material (hemp).
  • Our mental health depends on a mechanism for editing the moment-by-moment ocean of sensory data flowing into our consciousness down to a manageable trickle of noticed and remembered.
  • We spend altogether too much of our energy laboring in the shadows of the past – under the stultifying weight of convention, precedent, received wisdom, and neurosis.

Desire: Control  Plant: Potato

[To be continued]

Food Rules by Michael Pollan

Posted: May 28, 2010 in Book Notes
Tags: ,
  • Science knows a lot less about nutrition than you would expect – nutrition science is a very young science.
  • Two indisputable facts about the link between diet and health:
    • Western diet consists lots of processed food and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of refined grain, lots of everything except vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
    • Traditional diet suggests that there is no single ideal human diet but that the human omnivore is exquisitely adapted to a wide range of different foods and a variety of different diet – the relatively new Western diet that makes its people sick.
  • Instead changing the diet, we tried to identify the evil nutrient in the Western diet – leaving the diet undisturbed.
    • The more you process any food, the more profitable it becomes.
    • The healthcare industry makes more money treating diseases than preventing them.
    • Confusion too is good business – the nutrition experts becomes indispensable, the manufactures can reengineer their products to reflect the latest findings, media can report these issue – everyone wins except the eaters.
  • Journalism is in the explaining business and if the answers to the questions got too simple, they’d be out of business.
  • There is a deep reservoir of food wisdom out there, or else humans would not have survived and prospered.
  • Foods are more than the sum of their nutrient parts – we have yet to understand how these nutrients work together.
  • Rules are hard-and-fast laws; personal policies supply us with broad guidelines that should make everyday decision making easier and swifter.
  • Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.

What should I eat? Eat Food

  • Distinguish real foods from the highly processed products of modern food science.
  • Today foods are processed in ways specifically designed to get us to buy and eat more by pushing our evolutionary buttons – our inborn preferences for sweetness and fat and salt.
    • These tastes are difficult to find in nature but easy for the food scientists to deploy.
  • Cut down your sugar intake.
    • Especially avoid high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
    • Labels list ingredients by weight – avoid products that list sugar as the top three ingredients
  • Simpler, less ingredients is better.
  • Avoid food products that make health claims.
    • Generally it is the products of the modern food science that makes the boldest claims. Growers don’t have the budget or the packaging.
  • Removing the fat from foods doesn’t necessarily make them nonfattening.
    • Carbohydrates can also make you fat.
    • Eat the real thing in moderation rather than bingeing on “lite” products packaged with sugars and salt.
  • Avoid foods that are pretending to be something they are not – margarine, artificial sweetener, fake fats, soy-based mock meats.
  • Eat only food that will eventually rot.
    • The more processed a food is, the longer the shelf life, and the less nutritious it typically is – nutrients are removed so the food is less appealing to fungi, bacteria and insects – thus extending the shelf life.
    • Real food is alive and therefore should eventually die.
  • Snack on fruits and nuts rather than chips and sweets.
  • If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.
  • It’s not food if it’s called the same name in every language. (Big Mac, Cheetos, Pringles)

What kind of food should I eat? Mostly Plants

  • Eat mostly plants, especially leaves.
    • Plants are typically less “energy dense” – fewer calories
  • Treat meat as flavoring or special occasion food.
  • The water in which vegetables are cooked is rich in vitamins and other healthful plant chemicals.
  • Eat organic and local.
    • Soils rich in organic matter produce more nutritious food.
    • Nutritional quality of any kind of produce will deteriorate in time.
  • Eat wild foods when you can.
    • Contain higher levels of various phytochemicals – they have to defend themselves without our help.
    • Historically we tended to select and breed crop plants for sweetness.
  • Mackerel, sardines, and anchovies > tuna, swordfish, shark (high mercury content)
  • Fermented food – foods that have been predigested by bacteria or fungi.
    • Transformed by live microorganisms.
    • Yogurt, soy sauce, sauerkraut, kimchi, sourdough bread
  • Eating fruits > drinking its juice
    • In nature, sugars almost always come packaged with fiber, which slows their absorption and gives you a sense of satiety before you have ingested too many calories.
  • “The whiter the bread, the sooner you will be dead.”
    • White flour is not much different from sugar.
    • Whole grains contain fiber, B vitamins, healthy fats.
  • Regard nontraditional food with skepticism.
  • Have a glass of wine with dinner.
    • Be aware of your drinking pattern – better to drink little and often, and with food.

How should I eat? Not Too Much.

  • The French Paradox
    • Their eating behaviors compensates for the food they eat.
  • The American food system has for many years devoted its energies to increasing quantity and reducing price, rather than to improving quality.
  • Pay more and eat less.
    • Choose quality over quantity.
    • Americans spend less than 10% of their income on food, less than the citizens of any other nation.
  • Eat less!
    • Stop eating before you are full – when your hunger is gone.
    • Eat when you are hungry, not when you are bored.
    • Pay attention to what your body, not just your sense of sight – is telling you.
    • Eat slowly – it is a food experience.
    • Law of diminishing marginal utility – for as you continue to eat, you’ll b getting more calories, but not necessarily more pleasure.
    • Smaller portions – use smaller plates and glasses.
    • Serve a proper portion and don’t go back for seconds (or at least wait several minutes before you go for seconds – you may discover you don’t need it).
    • Eat meals and less snacking.
    • Better to go to waste than to waist.
  • Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.
    • America gas stations now make more money inside selling food and cigarettes than they do outside selling gasoline.
  • Do all your eating at a table.
  • Try not to eat alone – when we eat alone, we eat more.
    • Shared meal elevates eating from a biological process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community.
  • By growing your own food, you repair the relationship to food and eating.
    • You escape the culture that implies that food should be fast, cheap, and easy; that food is a product of industry, not nature; that food is fuel rather than a communion with other people, with other species, with nature.
  • Cooking for yourself is the only sure way to gain control of your diet.
  • Cultivate a relaxed attitude toward food – don’t stress over breaking food rules.
  • All things in moderations; including moderation.