I have not experienced an author whose thought process and writing style so utterly captivates me than Michael Pollan. While his books are non-fiction, they are by no means scientific but rather well-researched investigative journalism. As a result, his books are an awesome mix of investigating complex subjects written in easy-to-digest layman’s terms. Pollan typically splits his books up into 4 independent sections that each explore a topic that pertains to the book’s title.
In fact, Omnivore’s Dilemma A Natural History of Four Meals was one of the driving forces in my desire to establish a sustainable farm. I was so captivated by the book that I illegally snuck my mp3 player into oil refineries I was mapping in the middle east at the time to continue listening to the audiobook while working. The 3 sections of this novel explore how each eating choice we make affects the environment and consist of industrialized food, organic/sustainable food movement and modern gathering/gardening. From the amount of corn in fast food including 13 of 38 ingredients in a McNugget, to the conversion of explosives to synthetic fertilizers, to the fact that its takes 435 calories of energy to transport a 5 calorie strawberry to your dinner plate, this book will help you re-evaluate your food choices in a moderately free of judgement manner. Of all of his books, this is the least specialized and most approachable by the general public.
With that last sentence, I mean that his other books delve into a specific field like Botany Of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Wow this book was so incredible that I would recommend it to anyone with even a cursory interest in plants, gardening, horticulture, paleo-studies, ecology, botany, etc. The four sections of this book each cover a basic human desire, a plant that embodies that desire and the journey humans and the selected plant have undergone that has so deeply influenced each other. Have you ever wanted a non-glorified and well researched history of the infamous Johnny Appleseed? Well Chapman having his heart broken by a 10-year old child bride led to amassing wealth by establishing apple orchards ahead of the frontier to make sure settlers had alcohol from day 1 makes up the first section of this book. Did you know that the apple was never eaten until prohibitionists cut down all the orchards they could find so food industry leaders launched a bounty program to find edible apples in Johnny’s lost orchards to rebrand the fruit for eating satisfying our desire for sweetness? Or how the greatest gardeners of the past 2 generations have been underground perfecting cannabis strains to satisfy our desire for intoxication. A simple flower facilitated the greatest economic boom and bust in history demonstrating the human desire for beauty. Lastly, the potato was brought from south america and grown in monocultures to disastrous results in Ireland demonstrating the desire for control. This book is just flat out fascinating and entertaining!
Another specialized book I would recommend to anyone who likes to cook their own meals is Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. This book is centered on fire, water, earth and air and how each is used in various cooking techniques to transform food. Pit barbeque and grilling emcompasses the fire section. Infact it was this early human innovation that may describe how humans broke away from our ancestors and evolved to have such massive brains that require so much energy. Braising and modern cooking techniques fulfill the water section. As an avid amateur baker and brewer, the fermentation section was enthralling. Diving into a journey to bake the perfect loaf was fun to follow. The eccentric world of “fermentees” was equally interesting as it traced the origin of fermented and pickled food to its modern practices. Did you know not a single person in recorded history has been made ill from living, sour and potent fermented vegetable that embody every “evil” that our health departments have waged war upon. Even the cheese making stories including a lonely nun with a famous cheese operation was captivating.
I’ve only read these three so far, but I have the rest of his work on my radar. Basically the books are easy to read, vastly informational and helped me face many of the concerns about our modern, unsustainable practices that I could not quite articulate on my own.