Monday, 29 February 2016

The Story of Spice

Hanson, T. 2015. The Triumph of the Seeds. Basic Books, New York.

Chapter nine of The Triumph of the Seeds by Thor Hansen drops us into a scene where Hansen's hunt for the almendro trees seeds is halted by a native who makes a point about Hansen being a descendent of the man who only brought destruction to his country. This man was Christopher Columbus. Hansen and Columbus's journey's were made many years apart, but their goals were similar, they both wanted to find seeds. Furthermore, Hansen wanted to find the seeds of the almendro tree and Columbus wanted to find flavourful seeds that he could make a profit off of. The chapter then moves into explaining how hard it was to get spices into Europe. Extensive trade networks using Asian routes needed to be formed in order to get spices from the new world to the old world. Furthermore, no one knew what the plants that the spices came from looked like, this proved a challenge for the explorers trying to bring spices back with them. Moreover, historically spices had very diverse uses ranging from enhancing the flavour of bland dishes to masking the scent of decomposing bodies. Once spices were a hit among the elite of Europe Columbus tried to travel back to the spice islands. He got turned around and in the process landed in South America where he found chilies. He replanted chilli plants in Europe and started the trend of growing plants in non-native locations. This flooded the market and spices became cheap. Finally, towards the end of the chapter Hansen talks to another researcher to understand how spices themselves got spicy. The researcher, Noelle Machnicki, explains that the first spices weren't spicy, but over time with different selective pressures plants have developed varying degrees of heat in their seeds as a form of protection against fungus. There were many things I liked about chapter nine some of which include the comparisons Hansen used, the history on Columbus and the addition of information on other researchers.

  The comparisons that Hansen uses in the form of similes and metaphors are very clever. For example, Hansen compares the historical craving for spice to the modern day craving for oil. Furthermore, he claims that spices in the past and oil in present are limitless commodities with a high demand that anchor the global economy. Hansen makes good comparisons in his writing, but I also liked how he included history on Christopher Columbus.

   Hansen infuses information on Columbus throughout all of chapter nine to explain the history of spices. For example, Hansen comments on the misconception that Columbus only had one voyage, in reality he had four, but only one of the four trips was successful. His first voyage went well he found spices and sold them in Europe making a huge profit, but in his second voyage his crew was killed by natives, in his third he was accused of tyranny and in his fourth he remained ship wrecked on Jamaica for a year. The information on Columbus was interesting, but I also liked how Hansen included information on other researchers that were relevant to his writing.

   Throughout the chapters in this book Hansen commonly introduces other researchers, telling of their lives and any research relevant to that particular chapter. For example, from the first chapter he introduces Carol and Jerry Baskin, talking of how they met and their dedication and discovery in the area of plant germination and growth. Furthermore, in chapter nine Hansen introduces Noelle Machnicki, a researcher interested in mushrooms and the evolution of spice. Noelle explains to Hansen how and why some plants evolved increasingly spicy seeds while others did not.

  To conclude, chapter nine was fourteen pages about how spices came to be so frequently used around the globe. This chapter included information on how spiciness evolved in seeds and how they made their way across the world. Hansen has great writing and some of the things I liked included his comparisons, history on Columbus and inclusion of information on other researchers.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Everything Apples

Pollan, M. 1997. The Botany of Desire a Plants-eye View of the World. Random House of Canada         Limited, Toronto.

   To set the mood for chapter one of The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan I cut up a red delicious, granny smith and gala apple. Chapter one starts off by retelling the story of Johnny Appleseed's arrival to North america as Pollan sees it. As he retells the story, he himself follows the path that Johnny Appleseed took. Pollan then describes how different varieties of apples came to be and emphasizes humans universal love for sweetness and how this was selected for in apples. Apples were also commonly used in the production of alcoholic beverages and in Pollan's writing he claims that more apples made it into barrels than onto plates. Furthermore, throughout the first chapter Pollan develops Johnny Appleseed and Chapman as characters, by the end of the chapter you feel like you know everything their is to know about these two individuals including their appearance, personalities and goals. Towards the end of the chapter Pollan visits an orchard museum in geneva where they have 25,000 different types of apple trees. From here he ends the chapter with a discussion on the modern issues regarding apples. Today apple varieties are becoming less and less diverse. Apples are selected for two qualities which are beauty and sweetness, this contributes to the loss of diversity. Furthermore, orchards are commonly becoming clones of one tree, this reduces diversity and is also problematic because if disease takes out one of the trees it has the potential to take them all out because their clones of each other. There were many things I liked about Pollans writing some of which included his use of story telling, descriptive language, explanation of statements, personally following the history, identification of contradictions in characters and his expansion on the term sweet.

  I liked the way Pollan started chapter one with the story of Johnny Appleseed as he understood it. It sets the scene for the rest of the chapter when he describes a man in a makeshift boat floating along with thousands of apple seeds waiting to be planted. By using this story to introduce the topic of apples in North America and does a good job of explaining the history surrounding the arrival of apples and how they were cultivated. His use of story telling from the very beginning sets the scene for the rest of the chapter, but I also liked how vividly he describes different scenes throughout this chapter.

  The way Pollan describes different locations in his writing is great, you can really imagine the places he's describing. A scene that stuck out to me was when he describes Johnny Appleseed floating along with himself in one side of the pontoon boat and an equally large side of the boat for his apple seeds, while wearing some sort of tin hat. The description of this scene was so bizarre that it really stood out in my mind. Another scene that stood out for me would be his description of Ohio to Marietta as a landscape that progressively relaxes into hills that smooth out to form farmland. I love the way that Pollan describes places in his writing, but I also like that he can make bold statements and is also able to back them up with evidence.

   Pollan makes assumptions about characters that he describes in his writing whom he's never personally met, but provides reasoning for each of his claims. For example, Pollan has never met Johnny Appleseed, but he claims Johnny Appleseed was a vegetarian to the core. He backs this statement up with story's of Appleseed punishing his own foot because he accidentally stepped on a worm. Furthermore, Pollan claims that Appleseed loves the wilderness and backs this claim up with a story of Appleseed living in a hollowed out tree stump for some time. Pollan makes sure that every claim is backed up by evidence and he also followed the footsteps of Appleseed and Chapman himself.

  In this first chapter Pollan tells Appleseed's and Chapman's apple cultivation tales, but not only does he retell their story he personally follows their tracks as part of his research for the book. Evidence for this notion as placed numerous times throughout the first chapter some of which includes his claim of standing in the exact place that Appleseed first came to and boating over to Greentown to find Chapman's old tree nursery. I though it was great that Pollan followed in the footsteps of Appleseed and Chapman, but I also liked how he identified the contradictions present in Chapman's character.

  As the chapter moves along you can see how certain aspects of Chapman's developing character seem to contradict each other. Pollan identifies these contradictions and addresses them in his writing. Some of these contradictions include Chapman bringing gods word and liquor with him, these two usually don't mix. Furthermore, Chapman domesticates wilderness by planting apple trees, but he himself is comfortable and fond with the undomesticated wilderness. I liked how Pollan addressed the contradictions in Chapman's character, but I also liked how he expanded on how the term sweetness was used in the 1800's.

  If someone asked me to define sweetness I would say something along the lines of a response to a taste, this is how this word is commonly used today. Pollan claims that in the 1800's sweetness could refer to taste, perfection or highest quality. All of these diverse uses for the word sweet show that the word sweetness stood for fulfillment in some way. I've never though of the word sweet being used in this way and I thought it was interesting that he explained its other uses in language.

  To conclude the first chapter of The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan was a overview of apples in North America from their first arrival to their current information. I liked this chapter for many reasons some of which include his use of story telling, descriptive language, explaining each statement, personally following the history, identification of contradictions in characters and his expansion on the term sweet.


Tuesday, 2 February 2016

All Consuming Corn

  This week we finished the first half of Omnivores Dilemma by Michael Pollan. This reading starts with Pollan questioning where the food in his super market comes from. When sourcing ingredients in processed foods on the shelves of his local grocery store he was frequently brought back to an area called the american corn belt. The american corn belt is the combine area of Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and Minnesota where the majority of the crops grown are corn or soybeans. He then proceeds to go to the corn belt to talk to farmers and find out more information about the corn thats present in almost everything we eat. Corn is a C4 plant, which means that it has a high yield, can withstand high temperatures and drought making it a perfect plant to grow. Artificial selection techniques have improved corn, but until recently there was no way to patent it. The patent problem was solved with the development of a hybrid type of corn where if replanted it wouldn't create viable offspring. This forced farmers to buy new seed every year. Moreover, before corn became the most popular crop, farmers would plant a variety of plants including corn, but not exclusive to corn. Once prices for corn started to rise farmers started to clear more and more land for corn. Eventually a monoculture was formed and vast fields of only corn were present. The market was flooded with corn and its price began to drop. To counter this farmers tried to grow more corn just to maintain the previous years income. This created a huge surplus of corn that was used as cheap feed in the meat industry. Pollan followed the surplus corn to a slaughter house and farm where he bought a steer and followed it through its short lifetime from birth to slaughter. In the process he notes the conditions the steers were kept in, the food provided and the medications given to them. Some of which include keeping steers close to each other, feeding them huge quantities of mostly corn for carbohydrates and chicken bone meal for protein. Steers are supposed to be fed grass, the corn makes them bloated and can cause an array of health problems. This together with the cramped accommodations they are kept in results in frequent illness and therefore all steers are given antibiotics regularly. After visiting the feed lot Pollan goes to a factory where corn is processed into high fructose corn syrup, which finds its way into many if not all of our processed foods in supermarkets. Finally, to end part one and tie together all the previous information about corn he uses a trip to McDonalds with his family. At this point he explains how much of their meal is made or derived from corn and the various other non-food additives present. After 119 pages of Pollan I'm not hungry...

  Pollan has a knack for explaining dull topics in colourful ways. For example, he describes artificial selection as humans arranging marriages so that corn can see what it needs to become more successful in a single generation. Furthermore, he describes the addition of nitrogen to crops as eating leftovers from world war two because the nitrogen was originally made for explosives. Explaining technical details in this way makes his writing way more interesting to read. Pollan uses colourful language to make dull topics more interesting, but he also laces his writing with similes and personification.

  The use of similes and personification is useful because it makes you think about certain topics in different ways and helps to make them easier to understand. For example, Pollan compares corn to soldiers in that it stands perfectly straight and therefore allowing farmers to pack more corn into a smaller amount of land. He also claimed that corn could withstand the city life as a reference as to how they can grow in the poorest of conditions. Using language like this makes me think of myself as corn while I'm reading his writing. The language Pollan uses throughout his writing makes it more interesting to read, but I also liked how he emphasized how much corn our society really uses its astounding to think about.

   Pollan makes references throughout part one of his book as to how much corn we really eat. For example, he explains how much of each item in his McDonalds meal is derived from corn. The results were jarring. He describes his soda as being 100 percent derived from corn and even his milkshake being 78 percent derived from corn. Before reading this book if I was asked how much corn I think I eat I probably would say not much, but now I know its a huge part of my diet. I knew high fructose corn syrup existed, but I thought it was only in things like pop and candy I didn't think about it being in bread or other processed foods that seem on the healthier side. I certainly wouldn't have linked my corn consumption to the meat I was eating. Before reading this book I thought corn fed beef was a good thing. Although I liked many things about Pollan's writing I didn't particularly like how he was explaining how bad corn can be for animals, farmers and consumers, but he didn't change anything about his life.

  Pollan tells the story of how corn has become the centre of our food culture and how it negatively affects everyone except the profiteers in some way, but he himself hasn't changed anything about his life. This contrasts the hundred mile diet, where they changed their own lives in an effort to raise awareness about how far our food really travels. It seems sort of counter intuitive to write a book exposing the takeover of the food industry by corn, but continue eating meat from cattle that were fed corn and take your son to McDonalds where you know most of the food available is made from corn. Maybe the purpose of the book isn't change or corn consumptions, but rather just to make us aware of them.

To conclude, I enjoy Pollans writings, he explains dull topics in ways that make them interesting for the reader regardless of how interested they are in agriculture. I also liked that he uses colourful language, similes and personification. After reading half of this book I feel like I know a lot more about what I'm eating.