The Last Mile

J.B. MacKinnon, Smith, A. 2007. The 100 Mile Diet: a year of local eating. Vintage Canada, Toronto, Ontario. P149-262.

This semester has flown by! It is hard to believe that I read the first half of, “The 100 Mile Diet,” all the way back in the first week of January. It really makes me reflect on when I first found out we had to make a dish that had only ingredients sourced from only 100 miles. At the time, it seemed impossible, but now it’s the week of the final feast!

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Menu and my delicious food from the HCCYS Feast!

 

The first half of this book was the start of Alisa and James’ year long journey to eat only within 100 miles. At the start, they found it difficult to find food and know what to eat. But by the second half of the book (and the second half of their year) I could tell that eating within 100 miles had become simply part of their daily routine. I feel this also speaks to my ability to analyze these readings and write about them. At the start of the semester I didn’t know how to look for character arc, descriptive writing and the “bigger picture.” However, now that I have had lots of practice, I feel like these readings and blogs have become a lot more natural.

To be honest, I found the second half of this book kind of depressing. Alisa and James were mad at each other more than they were happy. In addition, I felt like both Alisa and James weren’t as excited as they were at the start of the book. It seems like they were fed up with eating within 100 miles. However, with the media attention they were getting, they felt like they had to continue the diet so they wouldn’t disappoint anyone. After the last discussion on this book, it seemed like the majority of the class liked Alisa’s writing better than James’. I now have to agree with them. There were sections of Alisa’s writing that were very moving.

For example, on page 163-164, Alisa describes a fight she had with James that begins with, “Why do we even bother?” This eventually leads to her questioning whether or not her and James should even be together. “I’m thirty-three years old, always broke, and merely existing in what, without having been sealed by formal wedding vows, had become a traditional marriage… Any day, at any moment, I could change everything, and while many of those alternative lives featured James at my side – the truth was that some of them did not.” I really liked, but also really disliked this section. I disliked that Alisa was questioning her future with James. It also made me feel down because it’s obvious that at this point in time, Alisa isn’t happy. However, I liked this part because it was very raw and honest. I would like to think that Alisa and James are the perfect couple but it shows that even great couples fight sometimes and question how their lives would be different if they had taken a different direction. Alisa mentions that at any moment she could change her life but the fact that she doesn’t shows just how much she loves James.

Another section Alisa wrote that really stood out for me was her visit to the Gulf Islands were she met Sylvester. It’s easy to read about how much the food industry has changed in the past 100 years but to hear about it from Sylvester’s perspective really made it more of a reality as opposed to a fact. Sylvester talks about how when he was a kid he learned to hunt, spoke his native language often and his community had a strong sense of culture. However, nowadays, no one speaks their native language, people drive instead of canoeing and go to the grocery store instead of hunt. All of these changes have resulted in a loss of culture. “I speak my language – but who am I going to speak it to? We’re going to lose our history and way of life (pg. 198).” I think Sylvester’s story can be compared to the food industry as a whole. With globalization of food, we have lost our ability to know what foods grow in our area, what fruits and vegetables grow in different seasons and what the plants fruits and vegetables grow on even look like! This reminds me of a time I was visiting a friends garden and saw a broccoli plant for the first time and I was so in shock. Something I eat all the time, yet I had never even considered what a broccoli plant looked like. New technologies and globalization have caused Sylvester and his community to lose their native culture. Technology and globalization has also caused the average person to lose touch with something so basic. Food.

I love the idea of, “The 100 Mile Diet.” Eating local is better for the environment, our health and the community. However, seeing how much time and effort Alisa and James have to put into making all of their meals kind of turns me off. I think that the average person would agree with me. Today everyone is so busy with work, school and our obsession with being connected to everyone all the time through social media. The average person doesn’t have time to travel to local farms on the weekend and spend days making sauerkraut, jam, canned fruit and bread.

This reminds me of, “Soylent.” This chemist that created a power that contains all the essential nutrients the body needs to survive. You simply mix this powder with water and you don’t need to eat. The man who invented this drink, 24 year old Rob Rhinehart, claims to not eat and only drinks “Soylent.” This powder claims to be cheap and saves the time it takes to make and eat food. Perfect for the busy person. Now this is an extreme case of losing food traceability but is it crazy to think that this may be the future?

Although I would never do the 100 mile diet, I do respect James and Alisa’s reasoning for doing so. After reading this book I plan on purchasing local food over non-local food whenever possible. However, I don’t see myself surviving off of potatoes all winter long anytime soon…

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The Last Mile

The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side

Pollan, M.. 2006. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. The Penguin Group, New York, New York. P185-273.

It was a weekday evening when I decided I would sit down and begin to read this weeks reading of, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” I noticed the reading this week was quite long so I decided to get a head start on it. I had prepared a cup of my herbal, caffeine free coffee (to trick my brain into thinking it was getting caffeine) and placed it on the nightstand beside my bed. As I sat there all cozied up in my bed excited to see what Pollan had to say this time, I turned to page 185. The title read, “Grass: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pasture.” Okay… not the most riveting topic but I convinced myself Pollan would be able to make it interesting. However, for the first time, Pollan disappointed me. I read maybe ten pages before I decided to turn off Micheal Pollan and turn on some Micheal Scott (watch “The Office”). It would take me another two days to gather the willpower to start reading it again.

This reading details Pollan’s week long experience at a progressive, alternative style farm. He describes the methods of the farm, his personal experience and the story of the farmers. However, I felt as if the first third of this reading told the same story over and over. That story is Pollan wakes up tired, Pollan talks about why modern farming is unsustainable, Pollan talks about why grass farming is better, Pollan is tired again. Although I respect the science behind why grass farming is more sustainable than conventional farming, I just wasn’t interested in hearing about Pollan’s experience of moving cows from one area of grass to another. I found this first section very hard to get through. For me, the reading started getting interesting in chapter 11, “The Animals: Practicing Complexity.”

Pollan’s use of descriptive language in this chapter was exceptional. On page 209 he describes, “As I stumbled up the hill, I was struck by how very beautiful the farm looked in the hazy early light. The thick June grass was silvered with dew, the sequence of bright pastures stepping up the hillside dramatically set off by broad expanses of blackish woods. Birdsong stitched the thick blanket of summer air, pierced now and again by the wood clap of chicken pen doors slamming shut.” I found this writing to be both descriptive and poetic. Not only could I picture the scene Pollan was describing, but I felt as if I was also touched by the beauty of the scene.

Another scene Pollan describes in the same manner is when he is slaughtering the chickens. “The viscera were surprisingly beautiful, glistening in a whole palette of slightly electric colors, from the steely blue striation of the heart muscle to the sleek milk chocolate liver to the dull mustard of the gall bladder (pg. 234).” Even though Pollan is describing the image of a slaughtered chicken, he somehow makes the image sound very beautiful. I find it interesting that he uses foods (milk chocolate and dull mustard) to describe the colour of the organs. It feels as if Pollan is subtly trying to make the reader connect that this image of chicken organs isn’t far off from the chicken breasts that we eat for dinner. Why is it that when we see a slaughtered chicken cut open, organs exposed, we think “gross!” But, when we see a cooked chicken breast we think, “yum!”

Something I noticed that comes up a couple times during this chapter is how unfair the regulations imposed on small scale farms are. On page 230, Joel tells Pollan, “… we’re at war with the bureaucrats, who would like nothing better than to put us out of business.” Joel also mentions that the government imposes such impossible regulations on small scale farms because of their goal to centralize production and processing of food. Pollan thinks that Joel is perhaps being a bit paranoid thinking that the government is out to get him. Being a bit of a conspiracy theorist myself, I have heard claims and watched documentaries about the USDA shutting down small farms or putting them out of business by imposing impossible regulations. Hearing Bev’s story about his attempt at opening a small meat-processing plant only confirmed my beliefs. Pollan explains, “… the USDA abruptly pulled its inspector, effectively shutting him down. They explained Bev wasn’t processing enough animals fast enough to justify the inspectors time – in other words, he wasn’t sufficiently industrial, which of course was precisely the point of the whole venture (pg. 246).” It seems to me that this minimum requirement to be considered worthy of having an inspector supports Joel’s claim that the bureaucrats are trying to put these smaller farms out of business. Pollan also mentions the globalization of food into a global marketplace. “It took capitalism less than a quarter century to turn even something as ephemeral as bagged salads of cut and washed organic mesclun, of all things, into a cheap international commodity retailed in a new organic supermarket (pg. 257).”

Pollan mentions that every time we buy food, we are voting for the type of food system we approve of. “We can still decide, every day, what we’re going to put in our bodies, what sort of food chain we want to participate in (pg. 257).” Although I do believe in this statement, I disagree with Pollan in thinking that our food system will be able to transition from the current global supermarket to a food system based on local food. Sure, I love the idea of supporting local farmers! Who wouldn’t? However, in today’s society we have gotten so used to being able to go to the grocery store and buy whatever we want regardless of distance or season. Something I have learned over the years is that asking someone to change how they eat is like asking them to change who they are. Maybe I have a pessimistic view, but if you can’t convince someone to stop eating sugar-filled processed foods because it is bad for their health, how are you supposed to convince someone to switch to eating only local, in season food because it’s better for the environment, animals and farmers? I hope one day we can live in a world that is as sustainable as Joel’s farm but I just don’t see that happening…

The Grass is Always Greener on the Other Side

Puff, Puff, Pollan

Pollan, M. 2001. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Randon House Trade Paperbacks, New York, New York. P113-179.

“I think people need to be educated to the fact that marijuana is not a drug. Marijuana is a flower. God put it here…” -Willie Nelson

One cannot write a book about plants that satisfy human desires without talking about the desire of intoxication. In this chapter of, “The Botany of Desire,” Pollan discusses the co-evolution between the cannabis plant’s desire to thrive and animal’s desire to alter consciousness.

After recently writing the outline for my essay on my local dish, I found I was especially aware of how well Pollan was able to include his own personal experiences, the stories of others, science and his own opinions to contribute to his “big idea.” I think Pollan’s big idea for this chapter was the co-evolution between marijuana plants and animals and how this has influenced human history. For in the eyes of Darwin, what would be the evolutionary advantage for animals to alter consciousness? And even more difficult to understand, what would be the benefit for cannabis plants to produce THC?

Pollan starts off his chapter by stating it is not only humans that desire to alter consciousness. He mentions cattle, bighorn sheep, goats, pigeons, cats and jaguars have all been shown to purposely eat plants in the wild to alter consciousness (pg. 116, 117). He also makes us remember when we were children and would spin as fast as we could until we were dizzy to experience the mind altering effects (pg. 139). Pollan suggests that there is a universal desire for animals to alter consciousness so there must be a reason we see this across the animal kingdom.

Pollan also uses several of his own experiences to contribute to his big idea. One of my favourite stories has to be when Pollan tries to grow his own marijuana plants from seed. In a series of very unfortunate events, Pollan unintentionally invites the chief of police to his house where he has a close call with the law. This story is funny but Pollan doesn’t include it strictly for humour. He uses the story to lead to his next point which is how much marijuana has shaped our law. “If the chief of police had spotted my plants, things would have gotten uncomfortable for me, but it was not as if I would have gone to jail. In 1982 a legal slap on the wrist, and perhaps a certain amount of personal embarrassment (pg. 124).” However, if Pollan had been caught with marijuana plants in 1988 or later, a mandatory five-year jail sentence would be the new standard.

This is one of many stories Pollan tells of how marijuana and the law have also been co-evolving together. For example, with these stricter penalties for growing marijuana, growth moved indoors. This opened a whole new world for ways to artificially encourage the marijuana plants to be more potent, grow bigger and mature faster. With such strict penalties for growing and possessing marijuana, why do people still bother growing and smoking it? At the end of this chapter Pollan attempts to answer this question.

The evolutionary advantage of cannabis plants having THC is still unknown. It could protect the plant from UV radiation, act as an antibiotic or maybe act as a defense for the plants, but all of these ideas don’t seem to be enough (pg. 156). As for the advantage for animals, “…scientists said that the THC in cannabis is only mimicking the actions of the brain’s own cannabinoids (pg. 157).” The function that this would serve would be the release of “feel good” neurotransmitters but also to forget and impair memory formation. So again, what is the evolutionary benefit of memory impairment?

“Some of our greatest happinesses arrive in such moments, during which we feel as though we’ve sprung free from the tyranny of time – clock time, of course, but also historical and psychological time, and sometimes mortality (pg. 164).” I believe what this means, and what Pollan also feels, is that we spend so much of our lives not living in the present moment. Don’t quote me on this, but I heard a statistic recently that a typical person spends 40% of their lives thinking of the past, future or daydreaming. Marijuana allows for us to simply be. When one is smoking cannabis they are not thinking about the parking ticket they got earlier that day or the big test they have next week but just enjoying the present moment. As for the evolutionary advantage of altering consciousness, I suppose there is no concrete answer. Perhaps it serves to help us forget useless memories, but maybe it has simply evolved because of it’s spiritual benefits. Intoxication in the story of cannabis is not as straight forward as the desire for sweetness of the apple and control of the potato, but it sure is an interesting one.

Anyone interested in this topic should check out this TED TALK called, “The War on Consciousness,” about the spiritual connection between marijuana and other mind altering drugs and consciousness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0c5nIvJH7w

Puff, Puff, Pollan