Michael Pollan's Nonfiction Picks
By Keira Butler
May 24, 2010
Mother Jones: Are there any under-the-radar books about nutrition and food politics you'd recommend to fans of your work?
Michael Pollan: There have been a handful of books on food politics that I consider landmarks: Food Politics by Marion Nestle; Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (though hardly under the radar); Joan Gussow's This Organic Life, the first and best book on eating locally; Raj Patel's Stuffed and Starved takes the conversation to the global level; as does The End of Food by Paul Roberts. There's a strong shelf that will get anybody up to speed. On nutrition, besides Nestle's What to Eat, be sure to read Gary Taube's Good Calories, Bad Calories, which effectively demolishes the lipid hypothesis that has ruled the whole food conversation for 40 years.
MJ: Which nonfiction book do you foist upon all of your friends and relatives? Why?
MP: Lately I'm pushing them to read Cornered by Barry C. Lynn, a really original book on how monopolization is eroding our political culture.
MJ: Which nonfiction book have you reread the most times? What's so good about it?
MP: I find I return to Wendell Berry's essays over and over, which can be read on so many levels. Thoreau's Walden continues to nourish and aggravate; The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, and the essays of George Orwell all get an annual workout.
MJ: Is there a nonfiction book that someone recommended to you when were a kid that has left a lasting impression? Who recommended it, and why was it so special?
MP: My parents gave me George Plimpton's Paper Lion when I was 13 or 14, and I think in retrospect it's shaped my journalism in many ways—but especially the humor he squeezes out of participation.
Published on Monday, May 9, 2005 by the Associated Press
Demand for Organic Foods Soaring
by Rick Callahan
Published by the Associated Press
May 9, 2005
Dairy cows munch lazily on a grassy hilltop overlooking Traders Point Creamery as 23-year-old Marc Murnane strides into the organic creamery's store in search of chocolate milk — lots of it.
In short order, he loads 12 one-quart bottles, at $3.50 each, into a box bound for Chicago, where his girlfriend's father is among the growing number of Americans who've developed a taste for organic foods.
"He just loves the chocolate milk — and it really is the best stuff I've ever had," Murnane says, describing the rich blend of sweet milk from grass-fed cows, organic sugar and cocoa.
The farm northwest of Indianapolis is part of a nationwide move to put organic foods in consumers' reach.
Nationwide, the market for organic foods has soared from $3.57 billion in 1997 to $10.38 billion in 2003, according to Organic Trade Association. The group predicts sales will reach $14.5 billion by the end of 2005 as Americans buy everything from radishes to beef grown without conventional pesticides and fertilizers, biotechnology, antibiotics or growth hormones.
Indiana was late to join the organic food movement, which arose in the 1960s in response to modern chemical farming, but the state is starting to make up lost ground, said Cissy Bowman, executive director of Indiana Certified Organic, LLC.
As the state's only government-approved organic certifier, she has given the stamp of approval to more than 50 Hoosier organic farms and expects that to double this year.
Herself an organic farmer, Bowman said the organic market has undergone incredible growth since she began raising organic vegetables 20 years ago on six acres near the Hendricks County town of Clayton.
"Any food you can think of, you can buy an organic version now. It's not just that bag of whole wheat flour on the store shelf anymore," she said.
Traders Point Creamery delivers to about 70 area stores, with weekly shipments to Chicago-area stores, but demand often outpaces supply, particularly during the winter and summer.
"The cows can't keep up. We sell pretty much everything we produce," said David Robb, the creamery's manager of business development.
Cathy Greene, an agricultural economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, said the retail market for organic foods continues to grow about 20 percent each year.
Most people buy organic out of health concerns, she said. Some want to support environmentally friendly farms, but for others, it's a quest for food with superior taste and nutrition.
"Whether the food tastes better or not is kind of subjective, but whether it's more nutritious is something researchers are just starting to study," Greene said.
According to the USDA, certified organic cropland in the United States grew nearly 75 percent between 1997 and 2001, the last year for which figures are available, and accounted for more than 2.3 million acres in 2001.
The USDA found an estimated 4,175 acres of certified organic cropland in Indiana in 2001, but Bowman said the 54 organic farms she's certified in the state account for only about 2,370 acres.
Barbara Haumann, a senior writer with the Organic Trade Association, said there is no clear gauge of the nation's organic agriculture industry. "The numbers are quite hazy," she said. "The government just needs to do some better tracking."
Although organic foods can cost two to three times more than their conventionally raised alternatives, Corinne Alexander, a Purdue University assistant professor of agricultural economics, said people, herself included, are willing to pay.
"I like the idea that right now the organic farmers are being rewarded with premium prices for their hard work. It's really backbreaking work," she said.
Traders Point Creamery's 140 acres of pastures are planted with a mix of grasses and meadow plants that make its milk superior to that produced by grain-fed cows, said Robb.
The pastures are enriched with natural compost and by tilling under cover crops. The nutrient-rich droppings from the 60 Brown Swiss dairy cows also help green the fields, he said.
The fields thrive, Robb said, because they work in concert with nature. "The soil is a really a living entity, and chemicals kill all the good things in the soil when what we really need to be doing is stimulating those," he said.
© 2005 The Associated Press
Winter tales for better growing Recommended books with information for the sustainable gardener
Deborah K. Rich, San Francisco Chronicle January 1, 2005
If you're like me, you've been raising a few of your own fruits and vegetables for several years now. Of course you're not using chemicals; when you want chemicals, you buy them at the supermarket. You've grown some good tomatoes, green beans and pumpkins, even a few cucumbers, cabbages and butternut squash. And you're pretty into this gardening thing, not only for the fruits of your labor, but for the enjoyment and appreciation you're finding in life writ large right in your backyard.
But if you're like me, your yields vary wildly. You enjoy what you harvest, but you dare not count your eggplants before you've got them sliced and soaking in salted water. You look at a lot of catalogs each year, but mostly grow whatever seedlings the nursery has in stock when you get there. You've planted sweet alyssum to attract beneficial hoverflies, but your techniques vary from year to year, depending upon what article you just read.
The one thing you know for certain is that farmers who can make a living growing vegetables organically must have their "compost" together.
If you, like me, want to take your food gardening to the next level -- to try to produce, say, all of your summer vegetables -- here's what I recommend you plant this winter: yourself, at the table or on a comfortable couch with a pen and a pad of paper close by.
You and I need to take a step back and do a little research. If we're going to grow fruits and vegetables without relying on manufactured chemicals to deliver nutrients to our plants and to rescue them from insects and disease, then we must learn how plants stay productive and healthy in the absence of chemical inputs. In other words, we need to understand the principles that underlie healthy, self-sustaining ecosystems and how to apply these principles to growing food.
This past summer, I asked authors, farmers and gardeners Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver and Toby Hemenway and plant breeder and philosopher Frank Morton for a sustainable-gardening reading list. These individuals have all taken vocal stands in favor of sustainable agriculture, and they practice what they preach. Plus, they know a good instructive read when they see one.
I have chosen five books from their generous recommendations (see the complete list in the accompanying column) as our required reading this winter. These five titles explain the natural systems at work in the garden and detail specific techniques for working within the systems to maximize fruit and vegetable production.
My alma mater had a wonderful month between the fall and spring terms called the "winterim." During the winterim, we studied only one topic, attending class for several hours each day, then reading furiously through the evenings. Most of us don't have the luxury of studying gardening full time, but we can have our own winterim of learning before it's time to decide whether we're growing our own or buying our seedlings this year.
The natural way
We'll start our reading with "Gardening with Nature: How to Grow Your Own Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers by Natural Methods," by Leonard Wickenden (Devin-Adair Co., 1954). Yes, 1954. Wickenden, a fellow of the American Institute of Chemists and a lifelong gardener, wrote during the post-World War II era, when the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers marked a farmer as progressive, as American and as committed to feeding the world. Wickenden recognized earlier than most the threat that synthetic farm chemicals posed to the environment and believed that chemicals were unnecessary and that they also diminished productivity in the long run.
Wickenden emphasizes fixing the cause of plant diseases rather than focusing attack on the disease itself or on its symptoms. He believed most plant diseases were brought on by poor soil health and that the key to maintaining soil health was incorporating large amounts of organic matter into the soil.
Wickenden recommends readers start with his five chapters that discuss soil, insects and nutrients, for background, and then pick and choose from his other chapter topics as needed. Wickenden covers insects commonly found in the garden and presents a detailed plan for a vegetable garden that will feed a family of four. He discusses how to attract birds, chicken husbandry and best practices for raising flowers, fruit vines and trees. Finally, he provides growing tips for 40 popular vegetables.
Wickenden writes with clarity and directness, explaining why the pH number, a measure of acidity, decreases as soil acidity increases, as easily as he does his technique of wrapping seedling stems in newspaper to deter cutworms. Always, he encourages the gardener to experiment and to test Wickenden's own conclusions.
About the only thing that is dated about Wickenden's book is his recommendation that we freeze surplus vegetables in wax boxes sealed with a hot iron.
Next we'll read "Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture," by Toby Hemenway (Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 2000). Writing nearly a half- century after Wickenden, Hemenway applies the knowledge we've gained about how ecosystems function to gardening.
In "Gaia's Garden," Hemenway endeavors to equip every gardener with the ecoliteracy necessary to imitate the natural systems that sustain meadows, forests and wetlands. Doing so, says Hemenway, will allow the gardener to suppress weeds, limit pest damage, reduce the impact of drought and eliminate runoff all without the use of chemicals, without depleting the soil and without working so hard.
Hemenway encourages us to see our garden as a whole system, to consider how the often segregated patches -- a bit of wildlife habitat here, a flower bed there, a raised vegetable bed off to the side -- can be integrated and how the functioning of one can complement the others.
Dividing the book into three parts, Hemenway first introduces the concept of the garden as an ecosystem, then focuses on the elements of the garden ecosystem separately: soil, water, plants and animals. Finally, Hemenway offers examples of how to assemble the pieces of the garden into a self- sustaining productive whole.
With suggestions for interplantings, plant guilds and multistoried gardens, Hemenway encourages us to become an integral part of the garden ecosystem. This book, alone, will have us filling a notepad full of ideas to implement in the spring.
We won't read "The Gardener's Guide to Common-Sense Pest Control," by William Olkowski, Sheila Daar and Helga Olkowski (Taunton Press, 1996), word for word right now, but knowing the wealth of information and solutions it offers will help to keep us from reaching for a quick fix when the rest of nature doesn't appear to be cooperating with our good intentions to garden sustainably.
The first chapters of the guide discuss how nature regulates pests, the concept of integrated pest management, beneficial insects and how to select control strategies. The rest of the book addresses specific pests grouped according to where we are most likely to encounter them: lawn, food and ornamental gardens, and shade trees. For each pest, the guide provides comprehensive background on an insect's life cycle, giving us the knowledge necessary to analyze our own situations and to decide when and what type of intervention might be necessary.
Looking up aphid, we read that aphids respond to nitrogen levels in plants. Plants have the highest nitrogen levels when they begin active growth, and the nitrogen concentrates in the parts growing most rapidly, such as the buds and tips of stems. This explains why aphids cluster in the hearts of my cabbage plants and is one more reason for maintaining nitrogen at levels just adequate for slow to moderate growth (through regular applications of compost) rather than periodically dousing plants with soluble nitrogen.
The guide encourages prevention as the first means of reducing pest problems and recommends chemicals only as a last resort for infestations that have gotten out of hand. Finally, the guide provides an excellent resource appendix and index.
Let's take a breather and enjoy "This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader" by Joan Dye Gussow (Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 2002). Gussow will help remind us why we're spending so much of our time reading about staggered plantings and insect life cycles.
Gussow's book snuck up on me the first time I read it. For the first several chapters, I wasn't sure why it had been recommended since Gussow begins the book by discussing her and her husband's decision to move into a smaller house. The book didn't seem to be serving up much more than an entertaining slice of life. But I'm glad I kept reading.
Against the backdrop of their home and garden restoration, Gussow addresses the hows and whys of producing food sustainably. As she ponders where to plant her paw-paw tree seedlings, Gussow discusses the wide variety of food that can be grown locally, even in New York state. In the chapter that includes her recipe for tomato glut sauce, Gussow remembers the ill-fated Flavr Savr tomato and considers the threats to biodiversity posed by other genetically modified foods. And in the chapter that begins with Gussow scattering her husband's ashes in the garden, she explains the importance of returning organic matter to the soil food web.
Sharing her recipes and strategies for producing the majority of the fruits and vegetables she eats, Gussow shows us how sustainable gardening can fit into, and complement, a modern life.
We'll wrap up our winterim of reading with "The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener" by Eliot Coleman (Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 1995). In this book, Coleman shares the philosophies, crop rotations and tillage systems he has honed over 30 years of gardening and supplying and managing farm stands and markets. Coleman provides the nitty-gritty on seed spacing, equipment sizing, extending the growing season and maintaining post-harvest quality. Though expecting saleable and edible results from his efforts, Coleman approaches raising food as a craftsman, seeking to garden and farm in a way that respects the land, the gardener and those who consume the fruits of his labor.
Coleman walks the reader step by step through evaluating garden sites, deciding how large a piece of ground to work, choosing what crops to grow and when, building soil fertility, managing weeds and limiting pest damage, harvesting, and marketing. He even offers advice on how to use library resources for further information.
Coleman conveys a vast amount of detailed information without ever insulting the intelligence of the reader. He speaks as if to a fellow home or market gardener, sharing what works for him and discussing what he knows and what he doesn't know.
"The New Organic Grower" will be the book you dog-ear and feather with yellow sticky pages, returning to it time and again to check Coleman's recommendations on which varieties to plant as seed and which to transplant and into what size bed.
For further reading
Asked for their book recommendations for sustainable gardens, Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver, Toby Hemenway and Frank Morton offered these suggestions:
"An Agricultural Testament," by Sir Albert Howard
"The Soil and Health," by Sir Albert Howard
"Gardening With Nature: How to Grow Your Own Vegetables, Fruits and Flowers by Natural Methods," by Leonard Wickenden
"The Contrary Farmer's Invitation to Gardening," by Gene Logsdon
"This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader, by Joan Dye Gussow
Emma Hardesty, Kingsolver's assistant
"Cornucopia," by Stephen Facciola
"Permaculture: A Designer's Manual," by Bill Mollison
"Start With the Soil," by Grace Gershuny
"Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability," by David Holmgren,
"Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture," by Toby Hemenway
"The Gardener's Guide to Common-Sense Pest Control," by William Olkowski, Sheila Daar and Helga Olkowski
"Fertile Soil," by Robert Parnes
"Cornucopia," by Stephen Facciola
"Knott's Handbook for Vegetable Growers," by James Knott, Donald Maynard and Oscar Lorenz
"The Hidden Connections," by Fritjof Capra
Deborah K. Rich is a Monterey writer and olive rancher. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.