Wired

“And this ma’am, is Luwak. He’s sleeping now because they are nocturnal.”

“Is it because he’s up all night from the coffee?” I joked, and my friends laughed sarcastically.

We were in Ubud, Bali at a special Kopi Luwak agrotourism center, following a young man show us the different Balinese coffee plants through the enormous gardens. He had stopped to show us one of the famous Luwak animals sleeping in a wooden crate, and explain how Indonesia got its ‘world’s best coffee’. He told us that the furry little guy (an Asian civet) would go around selecting and eating only the very best coffee cherries. His poop would then later be collected and processed for the coffee beans, and then the beans would be sold or ground into coffee mixes. Since the civets only select the best fruits to eat, the resulting beans are usually full of flavor, thus making it the ‘best coffee in the world’.

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At the end of the tour, the young man brought us an entire tray of different teas and coffees to try. My friend even bought a cup of the Luwak coffee to try (it is also considered very expensive – here it was around $5 for the cup). I remember it tasting a bit bitter and strong, and that we didn’t really know what to think of it since we were definitely not coffee connoisseurs! After the sampling, I bought a little brown paper bag of the delicious vanilla coffee, and my friend got bags of mangosteen and lemon tea.

It was pretty cool to actually tour around an Indonesian coffee garden, and it was also pretty neat to read Thor Hansen’s  story of the coffee plant. While on the tour, I distinctly remember realizing that I knew very little about coffee, even though I drink it almost everyday from Tim Horton’s during the school semester. I found that Hanson answered all of my questions through a unique, interesting, and modern perspective of coffee and our global addiction to it.

Hanson T. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds. New York (NY): Basic Books. 277 p.

Coffee, or as Hanson so amicably calls it, ‘the cheeriest of beans’, originated in African trees, and was first used in drinks by the Arabic people of North Africa (Hanson 146). I especially loved how Hanson hooked me into the chapter by first describing how Gabriel-Mathieu de Clieu obtained a coffee plant and so tenderly took care of it in order to plant it in Martinique (in the Caribbean Islands) (Hanson 143). Hanson attributes de Clieu with bringing the coffee plant to the America’s, as de Clieu’s plant spread from Martinique, to Mexico, and even to Brazil. Hanson further explains how coffee began to dominate beer, starting its rise to the top around the seventeenth century in Europe. Hanson states that “per capita beer consumption in northern Europe ranged from 156 to 700 liters annually”, and to put this into perspective he writes that Germany today only drinks about 107 liters annually (Hanson 151). Its hard for me to imagine anything productive being done in Europe, and I don’t even want to imagine what their livers must have had to endure! Thus, Hanson perfectly describes how coffee became increasingly popular, as it ‘woke up’ these societies to enlightened thought, increased diligence and offered up a new kind of buzz in a way that beer could not. Even devout religious people could not deny coffee in that it was not clouding mind or judgement like the alcoholic drinks that were frowned upon by the Islamic and Christian faiths.

I especially loved this chapter for the way that Hanson wrote of the co-evolution between coffee and intellectual conversation. Hanson writes of famous coffeehouses and their extraordinary customers in beautiful detail that was such a pleasure to read. I couldn’t imagine the great Napoleon Bonaparte not being able to pay for his coffee at a small French Cafe! And I was astonished that “Voltaire reportedly drank fifty cups of coffee everyday; he spent so much time in Paris’ Cafe de Procope that his writing desk remains there” (Hanson 153). I found it extremely interesting that these ordinary coffeehouse attracted the most brilliant scholars and artists, and that they were even called “penny universities” since it was thought that you could get a decent education by just visiting these shops.

Hanson eloquently described the biological properties of these aromatic seeds (Hanson 148). It was interesting to note that they are natural insecticides (I wonder what mutations the civet must have adapted to withstand eating so much of the endocarp of coffee cherries), and how  they attract honeybees with caffeinated nectar (not unlike how coffee attracted us). I also didn’t know that most of the chemicals in coffee have not been well studied, and that “coffee drinkers enjoy a reduced risk of type II diabetes, [and] liver cancer” (Hanson 152).

I think this chapter was my favorite read so far, since Hanson did an amazing job recounting the tale of the coffee plant and how it became the world’s second most traded commodity. I am a cashier at Costco, so I especially know how important coffee is to people in today’s booming and bustling world.

I once did a school trip to Europe with my friends and dad, and I remember having a charming young bus driver, Jeseppe. I remember Jeseppe maneuvering around the little Italian, Swiss and French towns, singing Italian love songs to us, and most of all, drinking coffee from the shiny chrome espresso machine inside our bus, right next to his seat. In fact the machine was the first thing you saw when you got on the bus, and it had so many knobs and dials that I didn’t even know what it was at first. Each time we’d go on, Jeseppe would offer some to us in a little cups. If that’s not a true depiction of a man’s love of coffee, I don’t know what is.

 

 

 

 

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All American Apple

This week I went back to The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, and read his first chapter,  which was entirely devoted to apples.

Pollan M. 2001. The botany of desire. Toronto (ON): Random House of Canada Limited. 271 p.

So far, I’ve become accustomed to Pollan’s flavorful writing style and his use of people and characters to spark the reader’s attention through their stories. In this first chapter, Pollan re-acquaints us to a familiar childhood character, Johnny Appleseed. He sets the stage to “north of Wheeling, West Virginia”, and paints the image of “a skinny man of about thirty, who may or may not have been wearing a burlap coffee sack for a shirt and a tin pot for a hat” (Pollan 5). How’s that for an introduction to apples in America? Well I became immediately more interested as Pollan took me for a ride through Johnny Chapman’s journey in America and also (though more discreetly) the evolution of the relationship between apples and humans.

Pollan begins by describing Johnny Chapman as a a man who traveled the states of  Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana with large stores of apple seeds in the late 1700’s. Chapman would scout up and coming areas of land where he reasoned that settlements would eventually establish, and plant a nursery of apples so that in the near future he could sell apple trees to eager settlers for cheap.  He would then find a local boy to maintain his growing orchard, pack up his meager belongings, and move on to repeat the process. Rather than focusing on Chapman’s story for a mere introductory hook, Pollan carries it out throughout the chapter and details the life of a simple storybook character more than anyone I believe ever could. Pollan again draws on his remarkable gift of flipping perspective to allow us to picture Chapman’s innate wildness and natural tendencies (not just a happy-go-lucky man eating an apple). The descriptions of Johnny Chapman’s barefeet, scraggly beard and alleged child bride, all helped comprise a completely new image of Jonny Appleseed. Pollan enables us to see man’s coevolution with apples, as he states that Chapman “understood he was working for the apples as much as they were working for him” (Pollan 5). What’s more is that I had never known that the apples Johnny Chapman had helped spread across North America were primarily used for alcohol. This was kind of a game-changer for me, because from the storybooks I used to read, Johnny Appleseed is usually depicted eating the apples. Bringing in the resources for readily accessible alcohol is a pretty big deal, especially in the United States, don’t you think?

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Pollan then explains the origins of apples as first emerging from the mountainous region of Kazakhstan. The ancestor to the modern day apple is Malus sieversii, which Pollan describes as “the dominant species in the forest, growing to a height of sixty feet and throwing off each fall a cornucopia of odd, applelike fruits ranging in size from marbles to softballs, in color from yellow and green to red and purple” (Pollan 11). The apples from these trees were supposedly carried along by travelers of the silk route, all the way to China. The art of grafting the trees was then stumbled upon by the Chinese, and then imitated by the Greeks and Romans who later brought the apples to England. The first North American settlers had then attempted to grow their grafted apple trees in the foreign environment, to no avail.  Pollan then suggests that Chapman’s seeds, which harbored genetic diversity, were much better able to slowly promote new adaptations to the alien environment, and thus eventually created the most successful American apple varieties. Since Pollan speaks of the apples as immigrants adapting to a new land, I kind of thought about it in a funny way – it was like when my own parents immigrated to Canada. They came over but weren’t the most successful right away. They had to learn a new language, acclimatize to the weather (my mom had never seen snow before), and work very hard. And then they had me and my brother, and we absolutely thrive here. Us first-generation kids know the languages, customs, and weather, and feel like we could never be at home anywhere else in the world – just like a plant parents’ genes selecting for the best possible traits in a new habitat. I loved how Pollan put it, in that “in a remarkably short period of time the New World had its own apples, adapted to the soil and climate and day length of North America, apples that were as distinct from the old European stock as the Americans themselves” (Pollan 13).

Pollan slowly leads into why the apples have succeeded so greatly not only for alcohol, but as edible fruit – their sweetness. Although my genes are conditioned towards wanting more salty and spicy foods, I still share an immense sweet tooth with the rest of the world. Pollan explains the inexplicable  human preoccupation with sweetness, as before the introduction of the sugar cane, synthetic sweeteners, or honey in North America, apples “helped gratify” human desire of sweetness (Pollan 16). I found Pollan’s description of his son eating a cake for the first time very humorous and enlightening!

I loved how Pollan even further expanded our view of Johnny Chapman by entitling him the American Dionysus, and our view of the apple by reminding us that it is “the forbidden fruit”, but also a most “democratic fruit” as it contains the genetic variability to thrive in almost environment, and amongst almost any people (Pollan 48). I thought the chapter was skillfully written and articulated Pollan’s humour and poetic thoughtfulness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Corn Crazy

This week I read the first few chapters of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Pollan M. 2006. The omnivore’s dilemma. New York (NY): Penguin Group. 450 p.

Having read The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan a couple weeks ago, I was already familiar with his style of writing and expected the book to contain a more playful journey of wading through agricultural information. I feel as though Pollan did an excellent job explaining concepts pertaining to the themes of the book, however it was still difficult for me to read. The first six or so chapters of the book focus on corn, which (from the perspective of a twenty-one year old aspiring nurse) is very difficult to relate to in that much detail. I found that I was very slow to read it and that I became again and again lost in the history of politics and economics that Pollan writes of (which are very important topics, but difficult for a biology major to comprehend). Since I couldn’t quite wrap my head around some of the farming terminology and American history, I found that there was less for me to write about this week. Nonetheless, I did my best to summarize my understandings below.

I definitely did not appreciate or even comprehend the true importance of corn before I read this book (it was very shocking to find out that corn is grown on “125, 000 square miles of the American continent” (Pollan 65)). After I started to realize that the first third of the book was dedicated to the processes involving corn, it finally dawned on me how little I ever thought about this plant or how deeply it was engraved into my life (and consequently into my hair and nails as Carbon-13!).

I enjoyed how Pollan introduced the reader to George Naylor, the small town Iowa corn farmer. I found it more interesting to read the evolution of the American farm home through the Naylor family’s experience rather than just reading arbitrary information. It was very striking how many changes a typical farm home endured in the past century – from having a diverse variety of crops and livestock and employing many people to only growing one or two specific items and having no livestock at all. Pollan also notes the irony corn crops pushing out other crops, then livestock, and eventually even humans for their own ultimate success. I found that a recurring theme Pollan brings up, is the contribution to global warming and pollution that can be traced from growing, processing, and transporting a huge crop like corn. It was very shocking for me to read that “when you add together the natural gas in the fertilizer tot he fossil fuels it takes to make the pesticides, drive the tractors, and harvest, dry, and transport the corn, you find that every bushel of industrial corn requires the equivalent of between a quarter and a third of a gallon of oil to grow it” (Pollan 45). I remember first learning about the nitrogen cycle in Science 10, and after reading Pollan, I was again reminded of the devastating effects of nitrogen run-off.

Pollan also did a good job of explaining the economics of growing crops such as corn – how it is affecting the farmers and how it is being regulated through politics and government agendas. Again, hearing George Naylor’s perspective helped me to relate more to the issue.

Another theme Pollan touched on, was knowing the origins of food (especially from corn products). This is a topic I have discussed in a previous blog on The 100-Mile Diet, and I had commented that I did not even think about the origins of most of my food – Pollan reminded me of this again, except with all the products of a single plant. He couldn’t have put it better when he stated, “I should have known that tracing any single bushel of commodity corn is as impossible as tracing a bucket of water after it’s been poured into a river” (Pollan 63).

As a biology major, I found Pollan’s description of livestock treatment in modern America to be very interesting. Pollan definitely enfused the chapter with personality, as the reader comes to find that he had bought his own steer to better understand the process of corn as livestock feed. I did not know that cows were being fed corn against their evolutionary instints. Morevover, the diseases that cows can have from this process is astounding; they can’t live very long, they may get bloat, or acidosis, and liver damage. Not to mention the effects this has on humans, as Pollan writes that “a growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems with eating beef are really problems with corn-fed beef” (Pollan 75). The antibiotic resistance that is accumulating is a threat to the survival of the human population, yet we still gamble this survival for a tasty steak (which then leaves me to question, how different are we from the very animals we mercilessly slaughter?). I was particularly disturbed when Pollan described the undocumented amount of bacteria that resides in manure, and stated that “the speed at which these animals [cows] will be slaughtered and processed – four hundred an hour at the plant where 534 [Pollan’s steer] will go – means that sooner or later some of the manure caked on these hides gets into the meat we eat” (Pollan 82). I was also surprising to note that nearly a barrel of oil goes into feeding and maintaining one cow!!

It was also fascinating to read about Pollan’s visit to General Mills, and the origins of ‘supersizing’ at McDonald’s. I think it was important that Pollan noted that these more energy-dense foods (filled with fat and sugar) are becoming cheaper and that organic and healthier foods are more expensive. Combine that with the disappearing middle class in the United States, and it is easier to see why some families are left no choice but to eat unhealthy foods, which then leads to the diabetes epidemic and causes society to question where money should really be spent (perhaps to boost the middle class and make healthy foods more affordable which will eventually lower the costs of treating diabetes – obviously easier said than done).

Although this may have been a tough read for me, I am glad that I read it. It definitely opened up my eyes to the sheer amount of corn I eat, as well as its many implications in today’s world. Needless to say, I will for sure be cutting down the amount of meat I eat. My mom is a vegetarian and since she usually makes most of our meals, we don’t eat much meat. She always claimed it was because she helped raise two cows when she was a little girl, and was taught the importance of them (as they are regarded as God-like in India). From now on I’m just going to stick to the occasional butter chicken…