Wednesday, 23 March 2016

There Must Be Food for the Soul.

Smith A, MacKinnon JB. 2007. The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating. Toronto (ONT): Vintage Canada. p. 149-262.

Three essential rules to follow when making ice cream.

Rule #1: Don’t Cook Angry

“Sorry,” my brother says, elbowing me by accident as he reaches for the kitchen shears sitting across from me.

I swing my arm down to crack the egg in my hand. The shell shatters, puncturing the yolk in the process. I watch as whites, yolk, and egg shell combine in my bowl.

“No problem,” I grit my teeth and silently rage.

Rule #2: Don’t Get Distracted

I place the pot with the ice cream custard base onto the stove. During this stage, I have to be very careful not to cook it too quickly or the eggs in it will heat up too fast and scramble. Then I stand there at the stove, whisking, making sure the mixture never comes to a boil.

“Meow,” my cat, Morpheus, threads his way in between my legs.

“Hey kitty, are you hungry?” He flops onto his back and starts to purr. I reach down and pet him, cooing as he wriggles around on the floor. Suddenly a blob of custard splatters onto the floor beside my cat. I shoot up, panicking, and quickly shut the gas burner off.

I look at my now lumpy mixture of ice cream base.

“Ah crap.”

Rule #3: If Your Mother Suggests Something, Take Her Advice

“Wouldn’t it be easier just to use the juicer?” My mother asks me as I stuff some cherries into the food processer.

“Mom, the recipe says puree, not juice.” I roll my eyes as I flip the processor’s switch on. The machine comes to life with a whir and dices the cherries into lumpy pieces. I add the cherry puree to my chilled custard (strained of all egg pieces, of course). Then I pour the whole mix into my ice cream maker. In half an hour, I’ll have ice cream.

The ice cream maker stops. I take the lid off of it to look at my frozen confection. My heart sinks.

It was brown.

Pureeing the cherries didn’t release enough juices to turn the mixture into the pale pink I was hoping for. My mother looks at me, raising a delicate eyebrow. She opens her mouth to speak.

“-don’t.” I cut her off, “Just don’t.”

Making new food is always an adventure for me. I love to cook and most of the time what I cook ends up being pretty tasty. That’s not always the case with confections like ice cream. Confections are probably one of the things I will never master. I can’t count the number of times I’ve burnt my candy/caramel, burnt my hand, or burnt the stove whenever I try to make sweet things (not including cakes or cookies of course). So, when my second attempt at making ice cream was a success I felt a sense of accomplishment. I think that’s what Alisa Smith felt when she successfully made her first soup as well.

I finish my blogging journey of the relationship of plants and people in a full circle. Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon welcomed me back to the 100 Mile Diet just as they began their hardest months of local eating. I had last left the couple back in October just as the winter months began to set in.

I admit, I felt a little worried for the two of them because they would soon be saying goodbye to fresh fruit and vegetables as the farmer’s markets closed and their gardens withered in the cold. Smith and MacKinnon did not have an easy start to winter eating. Preserving corn in the wee hours of the morning did little to help preserve their wits. I could feel in Smith and MacKinnon’s writing how strained their relationship was becoming due to this experiment. It made me feel quite uncomfortable to read about it.

 The turning point, much to my relief, finally came when they found their coveted wheat farmer. As Dorothy Day once said, food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul. I full heartedly believe that bread is the food of the soul. What is more comforting than a freshly baked loaf of bread? And crackers! And pancakes! I was overjoyed when Smith and MacKinnon found this staple to hold them out throughout the winter. I pity the people on gluten free diets. I just love food too much to even attempt one.

Despite my happy feelings for the now happy couple, something dark lingered in the back of my mind. It came to a forefront when Smith sat down for a precooked dinner with her grandmother. What will the future of our food look like? Will there ever come a day in some dystopian future where preparing food yourself is unheard of? Will everything you eat come prepackaged at the supermarket? Will the thought of local eating fade away as some fanciful fad? It’s a terrifying thought.

I feel like just in the last few years I’ve begun to see more and more prepackaged vegetables. Of all things, vegetables! I don’t even remember when romaine lettuce started to come already prepared to use in a bag. When did that happen? I can finally see the importance of the 100 Mile Diet. This wasn’t just an experiment about local eating, this was a statement about our current way of eating.

We’ve lost connection with our food.

I feel like people today are too content with following other people’s advice about food. I feel like there’s too many people following food fads just because they are popular. I feel that people have become too passive with their food. We just don’t care anymore and because we don’t care anymore, it’s become too easy for corporations to pervert our food. I fell that this submissive attitude is the root of our problems.

At the beginning of this experiment I was skeptical about local eating. I am happy to say, that my attitude has changed. I am not saying that I will insist to my parent that we should only eat local food. I am saying that I will become more active with what I choose to eat, and yes, part of that includes trying to eat locally.
Today is March 23. Spring has just begun. Tulips are slowly pushing their way out of the soil. My future goals: go to the farmer’s market and cook a locally sourced meal for my family.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Grass: A Sunlight Sonata

Pollan Michael. 2006. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meal. New York (NY): Penguin Books.

The cheaper we make the cost of living the more expensive it becomes. Western Society has fine crafted the ways of perverting the natural order of life so that its people can benefit from it. We clone our corn, gorge our cattle on grains they were never meant to eat, and mutilate our pigs to prevent them from seeking relief from the depression of their lives. Our soils are swollen with toxins and our skies are choked with smog. Epidemics of obesity are on the rise but the price of your hamburger and fries just keeps getting lower. Am I coming off a little strong to you? Well, reading Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma make me very emotional, and not in the ‘sad sappy movie’ kind of way.

The subject matter that Michael Pollan touches on in the Omnivore’s Dilemma is capable of evoking emotions of anger, frustration, and guilt in me. However, Chapter Ten: Grass, also induced hope. When I read about The Conquest of Corn, I did not have much hope or faith that Western Society could ever change its ways. The system that arose from corn just seemed too integrated in our society today for there to ever be an alternative. I did not think that anyone cared. Or rather, I did not think that anyone cared enough to do anything about it. Then, Michael Pollan introduced me to Joel Salatin.

Joel Salatin is the owner and proprietor of Polyface Farms. His motto is all about natural organic foods and curing global warming with cow. Wait? What? But aren’t cows part of the problem? Well, yes, cows are part of the global carbon emission problem but that is only because of how we are raising them.

I learned earlier about the horrors of raising feedlot cows. Hundreds of cows are forced together in small, dusty, filth filled enclosures where they are force fed a diet of corn flakes and anti-biotics. These cows will never know a life outside these pens. They will never eat a single blade of grass. Salatin raises his cows as nature intended: on a diet of grass.

Salatin admits that his neighbours think he’s insane for the way he raises his cows. He is a grass farmer that practises rotational grazing and this means he moves his cattle every single day.  By practising rotational grazing, farmers can mimic the natural grazing cycle of ruminants. “’Whether it is wildebeests on the Serengeti, caribou in Alaska, or bison on the American plains, multistomached herds are always moving onto fresh ground, following the cycles of grass.’” (page 193) The cows eat just about everything in the paddock but they are moved to fresh pasture before they can destroy the natural habitat.

The grass is then given a chance to grow but this time it’s fertilized by cow manure. The cows also spread the grass seeds and create shady safe havens with their hoof prints where water collects and seeds can germinate. Cows that are raised with rotational grazing are also kept healthy and free of parasites that they would otherwise get from staying confined in enclosures that accumulate with their waste. The best part of it, I think, is that cows get to be cows. Too often humans forget that animals can think and feel themselves. Rotational grazing cows aren’t tormented like feedlot cows.

I mentioned earlier that Salatin believes that his way of farming can cure climate change. How you may ask? Well think about it. Instead of raising his cows on corn, he’s feeding them grass. Yes, yes, I know I ready explained this but hold on. The grass farm that Salatin grows is not a monoculture like corn. It is a polyculture. There are dozens of species of grass growing in his pastures. “A diverse enough polyculture of grasses can withstand virtually any shock and in some places will produce in a year nearly as much total biomass as a forest receiving the same amount of rainfall.” (page 197) So what does this mean?

It means that Joel Salatin’s grass farm is removing thousands of pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year! Now, imagine. What if we replaced all of those monocultures of corn that we use to feed cows, with grass? Not only will our cattle be living healthier and happier lives, the grass would offset the emissions of fossil fuels. “For example, if the sixteen million acres now being used to grow corn to feed cows in the United States became well-managed pasture, that would remove fourteen billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year; the equivalent of taking four million cars off the road.” (page 198)

I was really struck by Salatin’s words. “’I’m just the orchestra conductor, making sure everybody’s in the right place at the right time.’” (page 212) I thought this was a beautiful metaphor. I think, to extend the metaphor further, agriculture should be like going to the symphony. The plants and animals are the instruments, the farmers are the musicians and conductors, and the consumers are the audience. A symphony isn’t just about the music. A symphony is about the hard work.. The instruments must be well cared for and tuned to produce beautiful music. The musician must know his instrument intimately and he must practise for hours to produce the right sounds. Finally, the audience doesn’t come to a symphony just for they music. They come to appreciate the hard work of the musician. They come to marvel at how instrument, musician, and conductor can come together to produce a masterpiece.

Yes, I agree that Salatin is idealistic in his views of farming but the fact that someone is trying makes me feel hopeful. There is another way for the system to work. Western Society does not have to live the way it does. We have options. Life doesn’t have to be expensive to be cheap.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

A Rose by Any Other Name (or, how many different ways can I say marijuana?)

Pollan Michael. 2001. The Botany of Desire. Toronto (ONT): Random House, Inc.
Usually I like to start my blogs with a short paragraph or anecdote of how the weekly reading relates to my personal life. Stories, after all, are more interesting when personal connections can be made. This week’s reading of Chapter Three from Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire was difficult to make a personal connection with because the subject matter in question was about marijuana. My personal experience with marijuana starts with news broadcasts vilifying the plant and ends with the occasional skunky smell of it wafting through the air as I take my dogs for walks around the neighbourhood. I’ve never had a desire to experiment with it nor have I ever been peer pressured into trying it. The thought of filling my lungs with any sort of smoke makes me cringe. After all, I am a choir girl and singer; my lungs are a very precious tool to me. I may not have any experience with Miss Mary-J but I have heard plenty of stories of other people’s experiences with it. Many of which, like Michael Pollan’s, are very funny.

When I read about Pollan’s personal experience with growing the green bud I laughed out loud. Firstly, I would like to know how anyone could forget about growing something like that in his backyard. I did not realize a cannabis plant could grow so large. I thought they were short shrubby things. Of course, the movie Pineapple Express probably should not be taken as an accurate source for botanical descriptions (Further reading of Chapter 3 actually confirms that, yes, they can actually be short shrubby things). I had to reread the section of Pollan’s encounter with the chief of police because I was laughing so hard. For some reason, thinking about that scenario reminds me of a naughty child almost getting caught by their parents with something they should not have. I cannot even begin to understand why hash has become such a stigmatized plant. I would like to know which bureaucrat decided that a “garden can be found guilty of violating drug laws.” (pg 125)

I have to admit, this week’s reading bored me a little. That’s an unusual thing for me to say because usually I really like Michael Pollan’s work. However, it was probably just due to my lack of ‘appreciation’ for the subject matter. It was not all bad, I suppose. I did learn some interesting things about the history of marijuana and a bit of insight on the nature of human desire. I especially enjoyed reading from a Pollan-eyed view on page 160. On page 160, Pollan is explaining what our sense of consciousness does for us. He demonstrated, in a unique way, what we filter through our brain every waking second of the day. Pollan described everything he could see, hear, taste, and feel in that instant. I cannot say for certain that I have seen this sort of literary device used so extensively before.

I found the genetics behind growing dope interesting. I did not know that there were two strains of cannabis (sativa and indica) or that they actually ‘taste’ different. The fact that pot grown today contains 20% (nearly ten times as much as  the wild plant) of THC astounded me. I was not surprised, however, to learn that marijuana is cultivated by cloning. On page 135, Pollan discusses the innovations herb growers have come up with to cultivate it. “By 1987, all of these various advances and techniques had coalesced into a state-of-the art indoor growing regimen that came to be known as the Sea of Green…A Sea of Green garden consist[s] of a hundred clones, grown under a pair of thousand-watt lights in a space no bigger than a pool table.” I was strongly reminded in this instance of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Instead of cloning hundreds of humans and stripping away the very nature of humanity however, marijuana plants are cloned by the dozens and forced to exist in situations that are the very opposite of their nature.  

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Live and Let Die

Hanson Thor. 2015. The Triumph of the Seeds: How grains, nuts, kernels, pulses, & pips conquered the plant kingdom and shaped human history. New York (NY): Basic Books.

In this industrial age it seems to be quite easy to forget that plants provide more than just nourishment. Plants build our homes, they clothe our bodies, and even offer us the means to eliminate our enemies. Plants share a dichotomy of life and death. They are capable of saving lives just as well as taking them. Chapter 11 of Thor Hanson’s Triumph of the Seed brings attention to these two contrasting aspects of plants but mainly focuses on the toxins that seeds produce and the ways they are used.

Hanson begins his chapter on the grim tale of plants with a humorous start. If “Death by Umbrella” did not grab your attention then I do not know what would. The chapter title did grasp my attention but it was the first paragraph that really drew me in. When I first read The Triumph of the Seed I was not very interested. Yes, it was humorous to read his struggles of trying to open up a seed with his office desk but the following pages I read were not quite as easy to follow. I am not sure it was because Hanson progressed in his abilities to tell a story or if it was due to the fact I found plant toxins a more interesting topic to read about, but I devoured this chapter faster than my dog with a Dentastix (which, by the way, is really fast).

As morbid as it sounds, I really enjoyed the introduction of the James Bond-esque death of Georgi Markov that Hanson presented at the beginning of the chapter. Not only did it present a simple way to ease the reader into the subject material, it provided a bizarre and interesting real life example of how deadly a plant can be. I asked my mother what comes to her mind when I said deadly plants and her immediate response was “Venus flytrap”. To many people, a deadly plant should be large and intimidating. A deadly plant should have a great cavernous maw with rows of sharp jagged teeth-like spines and be capable of devouring animals in one gulp. These deadly plants should only be found in far off and exotic places where only the most intrepid explorer can find them. A deadly plant should not be available off the Internet with a few clicks of the mouse and a handy credit card.

I could not believe that something so dangerous could be so readily available to people, but Hanson demonstrated this was exactly the case. Castor beans, the source of the deadly toxin responsible for Markov’s death, can be purchased off the internet. They are also the main component in Castrol oil. In addition, castor bean can be used in jewelry or as an ornamental plant. I had to google what a castor beans looked like and why anyone would want to grow them. They are actually quite striking looking plants with red fuzzy looking fruit. I also discovered my neighbour down the street grows one in their backyard. Small world, huh.

Hanson involves other people in his story about seeds. In earlier chapters, we became acquainted with Carol and Jerry Baskin, two experts in seeds. We met with Bill DiMichelle later on in the bottom of a desert canyon as well. In this chapter, Hanson introduced us to his friend and colleague Steve Brunsfeld. I thought it was amusing to read about the two of them consuming almendro seeds despite the risks they pose to liver cells and the fact that Steve was a liver cancer survivor.  I was very upset to read he passed away later on due to remission of his cancer. Hanson already described the death of Georgi Markov but for some reason reading about the passing of Steve Brunsfeld felt more personal.

Looking back on the chapter, I began to realize how na├»ve and ignorant I am about the world of seeds. It really should not shock me that deadly plants are easily available to the general public. When I think about it, many of the plants we consume on a daily basis contain toxins. Just take apples as an example; the seeds contain cyanide. There reason for this toxicity is because the plant needs to protect its offspring. Hanson explains this quite well. “On the surface, the notion of lethal seed poisons seem to make perfect sense. It’s a natural extension of the same adaptations that led to spices, caffeine, and other natural defensive compounds. After all, what better way to protect your seeds than to kill anything that tries to eat them?” (pg. 172)

Hanson has further enlightened me about the world of seeds. As I said before, the toxicity of plants should not shock me. Plants need to be able to protect their offspring to ensure the continuation of their species. I guess I just never thought about toxins from a plants point of view. As a human, poison mean death, but to a plant, it means life.