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The Botany of Desire – Michael Pollan


The Botany of Desire

A Plant’s-Eye View of the World

Michael Pollan

Genre: Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: May 8, 2001

Publisher: Random House Publishing Group

Seller: Penguin Random House LLC

The book that helped make Michael Pollan, the  New York Times  bestselling author of  Cooked  and  The Omnivore’s Dilemma,  one of the most trusted food experts in America In 1637, one Dutchman paid as much for a single tulip bulb as the going price of a town house in Amsterdam. Three and a half centuries later, Amsterdam is once again the mecca for people who care passionately about one particular plant—though this time the obsessions revolves around the intoxicating effects of marijuana rather than the visual beauty of the tulip. How could flowers, of all things, become such objects of desire that they can drive men to financial ruin? In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan argues that the answer lies at the heart of the intimately reciprocal relationship between people and plants. In telling the stories of four familiar plant species that are deeply woven into the fabric of our lives, Pollan illustrates how they evolved to satisfy humankinds’s most basic yearnings—and by doing so made themselves indispensable. For, just as we’ve benefited from these plants, the plants, in the grand co-evolutionary scheme that Pollan evokes so brilliantly, have done well by us. The sweetness of apples, for example, induced the early Americans to spread the species, giving the tree a whole new continent in which to blossom. So who is really domesticating whom? Weaving fascinating anecdotes and accessible science into gorgeous prose, Pollan takes us on an absorbing journey that will change the way we think about our place in nature. From the Hardcover edition.

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The Botany of Desire – Michael Pollan

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Finally, a Cookbook Without Annoyingly Perfect Photos

Mother Jones

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If you’ve browsed your local bookstore’s cookbook section lately, you’ll likely find hardbound books filled with beautiful photos of exquisite dishes. They’re fun to look at, but these close-ups of perfectly plated food can be intimidating. As most home cooks can attest, dinners rarely come out as appealing as those on the glossy pages of cookbooks.

When Samin Nosrat, a former Chez Panisse chef who taught Michael Pollan how to cook, decided to write her book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, she deliberately chose not to include photos. On our most recent episode of Bite, we talked to Samin about her book’s illustrations, drawn by artist Wendy MacNaughton.

“I wanted to create this universal idea for people,” Nosrat said. “As much as I love food photography, it is deeply stylized. You create this magical fake world of sets and props and lighting and perfectly cooked food and in some ways it’s a little disingenuous.” Drawings and handwritten notes on everything from clam sauce to whipped egg whites color the pages of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.

Here’s a sampling of some of the great illustrations, and advice, throughout the book:

Wendy MacNaughton

Wendy MacNaughton

Wendy MacNaughton

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Finally, a Cookbook Without Annoyingly Perfect Photos

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Science Says Magic Mushrooms Can Help Ease the Horror of Late-Stage Cancer

Mother Jones

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Cancer doesn’t just ravage bodies. People stricken with life-threatening cancers are also prone to depression and anxiety, which can in turn make them more vulnerable to succumbing to the disease. So any treatment that can ease the psychological toll of cancer not only reduces suffering; it can also prolong lives. Two separate research teams—one at New York University, one at Johns Hopkins—published studies Thursday identifying such a remedy: a single magic-mushroom trip, experienced under controlled conditions with a therapist.

Even though these results are promising, they likely won’t lead to a treatment your doctor can prescribe anytime soon. In a June episode of Bite podcast, author Michael Pollan gave us a brilliant rundown on the history and science of hallucinogenic compounds like LSD and magic mushrooms (which contain psilocybin). Pollan explains how their ability to generate altered mental states has shrouded them in taboo—and made us turn away from their potential as medicines. As the NYU team notes, hallucinogens—including psilocybin—have shown promise for treating cancer stress for decades. But research on them halted in the mid-1970s, after the passage of Controlled Substance Act, which deemed LSD and magic mushrooms illegal substances.

As Pollan explained in a 2015 New Yorker piece, the gradual easing of the federal government’s “war on drugs” has opened space for a small renaissance of research. These two new studies are some of the earliest fruit of that effort. Both the NYU and the Johns Hopkins study focused on a group of cancer patients suffering from anxiety and depression, and used the “double-blind” method, meaning neither the subjects nor their therapists knew who got the real drug and who got the placebo.

The NYU team divided 29 patients into two groups, half of whom got a “single moderate dose” of psilocybin, the compound that brings the magic to psychedelic mushrooms; the other half got a dose of niacin, a common B vitamin. After seven weeks, the groups crossed over—the psilocybin-dosed patients got niacin, and vice-versa. Both also received psychotherapy.

The results were stark: A single dose of psilocybin “produced immediate, substantial, and sustained improvements in anxiety and depression and led to decreases in cancer-related demoralization and hopelessness, improved spiritual well-being, and increased quality of life.” After about six months, these benefits persisted for most of the participants.

The Johns Hopkins study also involved two groups of cancer patients. Instead of niacin, half of them initially got a tiny, “placebo-like” dose of psilocybin, while the other half got doses similar to the ones in the NYU study. After five weeks, they crossed over. “Drug sessions were conducted in an aesthetic living-room-like environment with two monitors present,” the researchers write. They continue:

For most of the time during the session, participants were encouraged to lie down on the couch, use an eye mask to block external visual distraction, and use headphones through which a music program was played. The same music program was played for all participants in both sessions. Participants were encouraged to focus their attention on their inner experiences throughout the session.

And the results were similar to those of the NYU study: After getting a dose of magic mushrooms, patients quickly showed “large decreases” in depression and anxiety, “along with increases in quality of life, life meaning, and optimism, and decreases in death anxiety,” effects that persisted for a majority of the patients six months later.

The decidedly positive results are a big deal, because as the NYU team notes in its study, cancer patients are often treated with conventional pharmaceuticals to treat depression and anxiety, but these drugs don’t take effect very rapidly or last very long, and carry “significant side effects” that make them unpleasant to use. By contrast, a single dose of psilocybin usually produced what might be described in layman’s terms as a “good trip”—what the authors call a “psilocybin-induced mystical experience.” As for unpleasant side effects, the NYU researchers found none. Some of the Johns Hopkins patients did experience elements of what might be called bad trips after their dose—15 percent endured nausea or vomiting, for example, and 32 percent reported some form of “psychological discomfort”—but none of these adverse episodes were deemed serious.

And there were positive side effects. In a press release, Anthony Bossis, one of the NYU researchers, noted study participants reported “going out more, greater energy, getting along better with family members, and doing well at work,” as well as “unusual peacefulness and increased feelings of altruism.” Bossis stressed, though, that no one, including cancer patients, should take psilocybin on their own or “without supervision by a physician and a trained counselor.”

Of course, bringing psilocybin to market as an approved pharmaceutical will likely require years of research and regulatory maneuvering. As Pollan argued on Bite, the paranoia psychedelics can generate is not confined to people on a bad trip. “They’re very threatening substances to institutional power, whether it’s religious institutions or the state,” Pollan said.

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Science Says Magic Mushrooms Can Help Ease the Horror of Late-Stage Cancer

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Michael Pollan Explains What’s Wrong With the Paleo Diet

Mother Jones

The paleo diet is hot. Those who follow it are attempting, they say, to mimic our ancient ancestors—minus the animal-skin fashions and the total lack of technology, of course. The adherents eschew what they believe comes from modern agriculture (wheat, dairy, legumes, for instance) and rely instead on meals full of meat, nuts, and vegetables—foods they claim are closer to what hunter-gatherers ate.

The trouble with that view, however, is that what they’re eating is probably nothing like the diet of hunter-gatherers, says Michael Pollan, author of a number of best-selling books on food and agriculture, including Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. “I don’t think we really understand…well the proportions in the ancient diet,” argues Pollan on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast (stream below). “Most people who tell you with great confidence that this is what our ancestors ate—I think they’re kind of blowing smoke.”

The wide-ranging interview with Pollan covered the science and history of cooking, the importance of microbes—tiny organisms such as bacteria—in our diet, and surprising new research on the intelligence of plants. Here are five suggestions he offered about cooking and eating well.

1. Meat: It’s not always for dinner. Cooking meat transforms it: Roasting it or braising it for hours in liquid unlocks complex smells and flavors that are hard to resist. In addition to converting it into something we crave, intense heat also breaks down the meat into nutrients that we can more easily access. Our ancient ancestors likely loved the smell of meat on an open fire as much as we do.

Michael Pollan. Ken Light.

But human populations in different regions of the world ate a variety of diets. Some ate more; some ate less. They likely ate meat only when they could get it, and then they gorged. Richard Wrangham, author of Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, says diets from around the world ranged greatly in the percentage of calories from meat. It’s not cooked meat that made us human, he says, but rather cooked food.

In any case, says Pollan, today’s meat is nothing like that of the hunter-gatherer.

One problem with the paleo diet is that “they’re assuming that the options available to our caveman ancestors are still there,” he argues. But “unless you’re willing to hunt your food, they’re not.”

As Pollan explains, the animals bred by modern agriculture—which are fed artificial diets of corn and grains, and beefed up with hormones and antibiotics—have nutritional profiles far from wild game.

Pastured animals, raised on diets of grass and grubs, are closer to their wild relatives; even these, however, are nothing like the lean animals our ancestors ate.

So, basically, enjoy meat in moderation, and choose pastured meat if possible.

Space Monkey Pics/Shutterstock

2. Humans can live on bread alone. Paleo obsessives might shun bread, but bread, as it has been traditionally made, is a healthy way to access a wide array of nutrients from grains.

In Cooked, Pollan describes how bread might have been first created: Thousands of years ago, someone probably in ancient Egypt discovered a bubbling mash of grains and water, the microbes busily fermenting what would become dough. And unbeknownst to those ancient Egyptians, the fluffy, delicious new substance had been transformed by those microbes. Suddenly the grains provided even more bang for the bite.

As University of California, Davis, food chemist Bruce German told Pollan in an interview, “You could not survive on wheat flour. But you can survive on bread.” Microbes start to digest the grains, breaking them down in ways that free up more of the healthful parts. If bread is compared to another method of cooking flour—basically making it into porridge—”bread is dramatically more nutritious,” says Pollan.

Still, common bread made from white flour and commercial yeast doesn’t have the same nutritional content as the slowly fermented and healthier sourdough bread you might find at a local baker. Overall, though, bread can certainly be part of a nutritious diet. (At least, for those who don’t suffer from celiac disease.)

3. Eat more microbes. Microbes play a key role not just in bread, but in all sorts of fermented foods: beer, cheese, yoghurt, kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, pickles. Thousands—even hundreds—of years ago, before electricity made refrigeration widely available, fermentation was one of the best means of preserving foods.

And now we know that microbes, such as those in our gut, play a key role in our health, as well. The microbes we eat in foods like pickles may not take up a permanent home in our innards; rather, they seem to be more akin to transient visitors, says Pollan. Still, “fermented foods provide a lot of compounds that gut microbes like,” and he says he makes sure to eat some fermented vegetables every day.


4. Raw food is for the birds (too much of it, anyway). There’s paleo, and then there’s the raw diet. Folks who eat raw tout the health benefits of the approach, saying that they’re accessing the full, complete nutrients available because they’re not heating, and thus destroying, their dinner. But that’s simply wrong. We cook to get our hands on more nutrients, not fewer. According to Wrangham, the one thing absolutely all cultures have in common is that they cook their food. He points out that women who move towards 100-percent raw diets often stop ovulating, because even if in theory they’re tossing sufficient food into the blender to fulfill their caloric needs, they simply can’t absorb enough from the uncooked food.

Our hefty cousins, the apes, spend half their waking hours gnawing on raw sustenance, about six hours per day. In contrast, we spend only one hour. “So in a sense, cooking opens up this space for other activities,” says Pollan. “It’s very hard to have culture, it’s very hard to have science, it’s very hard to have all the things we count as important parts of civilization if you’re spending half of all your waking hours chewing.” Cooked food: it gave us civilization.

5. Want to be healthy? Cook. Pollan says the food industry has done a great job of convincing eaters that corporations can cook better than we can. The problem is, it’s not true. And the food that others cook is nearly always less healthful than that which we cook ourselves.

“Part of the problem is that we’ve been isolated as cooks for too long,” says Pollan. “I found that to the extent you can make cooking itself a social experience, it can be a lot more fun.”

But how can we convince folks to give it a try? “I think we have to lead with pleasure,” he says. Aside from the many health benefits, cooking is also “one of the most interesting things humans know how to do and have done for a very long time. And we get that, or we wouldn’t be watching so much cooking on TV. There is something fascinating about it. But it’s even more fascinating when you do it yourself.”

For the full interview, in which Pollan also discusses cheese made from his bellybutton microbes and the latest research on how plants can hear insects snacking on neighboring leaves, listen here:

This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by best-selling author Chris Mooney and neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas, is guest hosted by Cynthia Graber. It also features a discussion of the new popular physics book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, by Amanda Gefter, and new research suggesting that the purpose of sleep is to clean cellular waste substances out of your brain.

To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. We are also available on Swell. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the “Best of 2013” shows on iTunes—you can learn more here.

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Michael Pollan Explains What’s Wrong With the Paleo Diet

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