Cordain, Loren. The Paleo Diet. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2002. ISBN 978-0-470-91302-4.
As the author of a diet book, I don't read many self-described “diet books”. First of all, I'm satisfied with the approach to weight management described in my own book; second, I don't need to lose weight; and third, I find most “diet books” built around gimmicks with little justification in biology and prone to prescribe regimes that few people are likely to stick with long enough to achieve their goal. What motivated me to read this book was a talk by Michael Rose at the First Personalized Life Extension Conference in which he mentioned the concept and this book not in conjunction with weight reduction but rather the extension of healthy lifespan in humans. Rose's argument, which is grounded in evolutionary biology and paleoanthropology, is somewhat subtle and well summarised in this article.

At the core of Rose's argument and that of the present book is the observation that while the human genome is barely different from that of human hunter-gatherers a million years ago, our present-day population has had at most 200 to 500 generations to adapt to the very different diet which emerged with the introduction of agriculture and animal husbandry. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is a relatively short time for adaptation and, here is the key thing (argued by Rose, but not in this book), even if modern humans had evolved adaptations to the agricultural diet (as in some cases they clearly have, lactose tolerance persisting into adulthood being one obvious example), those adaptations will not, from the simple mechanism of evolution, select out diseases caused by the new diet which only manifest themselves after the age of last reproduction in the population. So, if eating the agricultural diet (not to mention the horrors we've invented in the last century) were the cause of late-onset diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular problems, and type 2 diabetes, then evolution would have done nothing to select out the genes responsible for them, since these diseases strike most people after the age at which they've already passed on their genes to their children. Consequently, while it may be fine for young people to eat grain, dairy products, and other agricultural era innovations, folks over the age of forty may be asking for trouble by consuming foods which evolution hasn't had the chance to mold their genomes to tolerate. People whose ancestors shifted to the agricultural lifestyle much more recently, including many of African and aboriginal descent, have little or no adaptation to the agricultural diet, and may experience problems even earlier in life.

In this book, the author doesn't make these fine distinctions but rather argues that everybody can benefit from a diet resembling that which the vast majority of our ancestors—hunter-gatherers predating the advent of sedentary agriculture—ate, and to which evolution has molded our genome over that long expanse of time. This is not a “diet book” in the sense of a rigid plan for losing weight. Instead, it is a manual for adopting a lifestyle, based entirely upon non-exotic foods readily available at the supermarket, which approximates the mix of nutrients consumed by our distant ancestors. There are the usual meal plans and recipes, but the bulk of the book is a thorough survey, with extensive citations to the scientific literature, of what hunter-gatherers actually ate, the links scientists have found between the composition of the modern diet and the emergence of “diseases of civilisation” among populations that have transitioned to it in historical times, and the evidence for specific deleterious effects of major components of the modern diet such as grains and dairy products.

Not to over-simplify, but you can go a long way toward the ancestral diet simply by going to the store with an “anti-shopping list” of things not to buy, principally:

  • Grain, or anything derived from grains (bread, pasta, rice, corn)
  • Dairy products (milk, cheese, butter)
  • Fatty meats (bacon, marbled beef)
  • Starchy tuber crops (potatoes, sweet potatoes)
  • Salt or processed foods with added salt
  • Refined sugar or processed foods with added sugar
  • Oils with a high omega 6 to omega 3 ratio (safflower, peanut)

And basically, that's it! Apart from the list above you can buy whatever you want, eat it whenever you like in whatever quantity you wish, and the author asserts that if you're overweight you'll soon see your weight dropping toward your optimal weight, a variety of digestive and other problems will begin to clear up, you'll have more energy and a more consistent energy level throughout the day, and that you'll sleep better. Oh, and your chances of contracting cancer, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease will be dramatically reduced.

In practise, this means eating a lot of lean meat, seafood, fresh fruit and fresh vegetables, and nuts. As the author points out, even if you have a mound of cooked boneless chicken breasts, broccoli, and apples on the table before you, you're far less likely to pig out on them compared to, say, a pile of doughnuts, because the natural foods don't give you the immediate blood sugar hit the highly glycemic processed food does. And even if you do overindulge, the caloric density in the natural foods is so much lower your jaw will get tired chewing or your gut will bust before you can go way over your calorie requirements.

Now, if even if the science is sound (there are hundreds of citations of peer reviewed publications in the bibliography, but then nutritionists are forever publishing contradictory “studies” on any topic you can imagine, and in any case epidemiology cannot establish causation) and the benefits from adopting this diet are as immediate, dramatic, and important for long-term health, a lot of people are going to have trouble with what is recommended here. Food is a lot more to humans and other species (as anybody who's had a “picky eater” cat can testify) than just molecular fuel and construction material for our bodies. Our meals nourish the soul as well as the body, and among humans shared meals are a fundamental part of our social interaction which evolution has doubtless had time to write into our genes. If you go back and look at that list of things not to eat, you'll probably discover that just about any “comfort food” you cherish probably runs afoul of one or more of the forbidden ingredients. This means that contemplating the adoption of this diet as a permanent lifestyle change can look pretty grim, unless or until you find suitable replacements that thread among the constraints. The recipes presented here are interesting, but still come across to me (not having tried them) as pretty Spartan. And recall that even Spartans lived a pretty sybaritic lifestyle compared to your average hunter-gatherer band. But, hey, peach fuzz is entirely cool!

The view of the mechanics of weight loss and gain and the interaction between exercise and weight reduction presented here is essentially 100% compatible with my own in The Hacker's Diet.

This was intriguing enough that I decided to give it a try starting a couple of weeks ago. (I have been adhering, more or less, to the food selection guidelines, but not the detailed meal plans.) The results so far are intriguing but, at this early date, inconclusive. The most dramatic effect was an almost immediate (within the first three days) crash in my always-pesky high blood pressure. This may be due entirely to putting away the salt shaker (an implement of which I have been inordinately fond since childhood), but whatever the cause, it's taken about 20 points off the systolic and 10 off the diastolic, throughout the day. Second, I've seen a consistent downward bias in my weight. Now, as I said, I didn't try this diet to lose weight (although I could drop a few kilos and still be within the target band for my height and build, and wouldn't mind doing so). In any case, these are short-term results and may include transient adaptation effects. I haven't been hungry for a moment nor have I experienced any specific cravings (except the second-order kind for popcorn with a movie). It remains to be seen what will happen when I next attend a Swiss party and have to explain that I don't eat cheese.

This is a very interesting nutritional thesis, backed by a wealth of impressive research of which I was previously unaware. It flies in the face of much of the conventional wisdom on diet and nutrition, and yet viewed from the standpoint of evolution, it makes a lot of sense. You will find the case persuasively put here and perhaps be tempted to give it a try.

December 2010 Permalink

De Vany, Arthur. The New Evolution Diet. New York: Rodale Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-60529-183-3.
The author is an economist best known for his research into the economics of Hollywood films, and his demonstration that the Pareto distribution applies to the profitability of Hollywood productions, empirically falsifying many entertainment business nostrums about a correlation between production cost and “star power” of the cast and actual performance at the box office. When his son, and later his wife, developed diabetes and the medical consensus treatment seemed to send both into a downward spiral, his economist's sense for the behaviour of complex nonlinear systems with feedback and delays caused him to suspect that the regimen prescribed for diabetics was based on a simplistic view of the system aimed at treating the symptoms rather than the cause. This led him to an in depth investigation of human metabolism and nutrition, grounded in the evolutionary heritage of our species (this is fully documented here—indeed, almost half of the book is end notes and source references, which should not be neglected: there is much of interest there).

His conclusion was that our genes, which have scarcely changed in the last 40,000 years, were adapted to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that our hominid ancestors lived for millions of years before the advent of agriculture. Our present day diet and way of life could not be more at variance with our genetic programming, so it shouldn't be a surprise that we see a variety of syndromes, including obesity, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and late-onset diseases such as many forms of cancer which are extremely rare among populations whose diet and lifestyle remain closer to those of ancestral humans. Strong evidence for this hypothesis comes from nomadic aboriginal populations which, settled into villages and transitioned to the agricultural diet, promptly manifested diseases, categorised as “metabolic syndrome”, which were previously unknown among them.

This is very much the same conclusion as that of The Paleo Diet (December 2010), and I recommend you read both of these books as they complement one another. The present volume goes deeper into the biochemistry underlying its dietary recommendations, and explores what the hunter-gatherer lifestyle has to say about the exercise to which we are adapted. Our ancestors' lives were highly chaotic: they ate when they made a kill or found food to gather and fasted until the next bounty. They engaged in intense physical exertion during a hunt or battle, and then passively rested until the next time. Modern times have made us slaves to the clock: we do the same things at the same times on a regular schedule. Even those who incorporate strenuous exercise into their routine tend to do the same things at the same time on the same days. The author argues that this is not remotely what our heritage has evolved us for.

Once Pareto gets into your head, it's hard to get him out. Most approaches to diet, nutrition, and exercise (including my own) view the human body as a system near equilibrium. The author argues that one shouldn't look at the mean but rather the kurtosis of the distribution, as it's the extremes that matter—don't tediously “do cardio” like all of the treadmill trudgers at the gym, but rather push your car up a hill every now and then, or randomly raise your heart rate into the red zone.

This all makes perfect sense to me. I happened to finish this book almost precisely six months after adopting my own version of the paleo diet, not from a desire to lose weight (I'm entirely happy with my weight, which hasn't varied much in the last twenty years, thanks to the feedback mechanism of The Hacker's Diet) but due to the argument that it averts late-onset diseases and extends healthy lifespan. Well, it's too early to form any conclusions on either of these, and in any case you can draw any curve you like through a sample size of one, but after half a year on paleo I can report that my weight is stable, my blood pressure is right in the middle of the green zone (as opposed to low-yellow before), I have more energy, sleep better, and have seen essentially all of the aches and pains and other symptoms of low-level inflammation disappear. Will you have cravings for things you've forgone when you transition to paleo? Absolutely—in my experience it takes about three months for them to go away. When I stopped salting my food, everything tasted like reprocessed blaah for the first couple of weeks, but now I appreciate the flavours below the salt.

For the time being, I'm going to continue this paleo thing, not primarily due to the biochemical and epidemiological arguments here, but because I've been doing it for six months and I feel better than I have for years. I am a creature of habit, and I find it very difficult to introduce kurtosis into my lifestyle: when exogenous events do so, I deem it an “entropic storm”. When it's 15:00, I go for my one hour walk. When it's 18:00, I eat, etc. Maybe I should find some way to introduce randomness into my life….

An excellent Kindle edition is available, with the table of contents, notes, and index all properly linked to the text.

June 2011 Permalink

Grant, Rob. Fat. London: Gollancz, 2006. ISBN 978-0-575-07820-8.
Every now and then, you have a really bad day. If you're lucky, you actually experience such days less frequently than you have nightmares about them (mine almost always involve trade shows, which demonstrates how traumatic that particular form of torture can be). The only remedy is to pick up the work of a master who shows you that whatever's happened to you is nothing compared to how bad a day really can be—this is such a yarn. This farce is in the fine tradition of Evelyn Waugh and Tom Sharpe, and is set in a future in which the British nanny state finally decides to do something about the “epidemic of obesity” which is bankrupting the National Health Service by establishing Well Farms, modelled upon that earlier British innovation, the concentration camp.

The story involves several characters, all of whom experience their own really bad days and come to interact in unexpected ways (you really begin to wonder how the author is going to pull it all together as the pages dwindle, but he does, and satisfyingly). And yet, as is usually the case in the genre, everything ends well for everybody.

This is a thoroughly entertaining romp, but there's also a hard edge here. The author skewers a number of food fads and instances of bad science and propaganda in the field of diet and nutrition and even provides a list of resources for those interested in exploring the facts behind the nonsense spouted by the “studies”, “reports”, and “experts” quoted in the legacy media.

May 2009 Permalink

Kurlansky, Mark. Salt: A World History. New York: Penguin Books, 2002. ISBN 0-14-200161-9.
You may think this a dry topic, but the history of salt is a microcosm of the history of human civilisation. Carnivorous animals and human tribes of hunters get all the salt they need from the meat they eat. But as soon as humans adopted a sedentary agricultural lifestyle and domesticated animals, they and their livestock had an urgent need for salt—a cow requires ten times as much salt as a human. The collection and production of salt was a prerequisite for human settlements and, as an essential commodity required by every individual, the first to be taxed and regulated by that chronic affliction of civilisation, government. Salt taxes supported the Chinese empire for almost two millennia, the Viennese and Genoan trading empires and the Hanseatic League, precipitated the French Revolution and India's struggle for independence from the British empire. Salt was a strategic commodity in the Roman Empire: most Roman cities were built near saltworks, and the words “salary” and “soldier” are both derived from the Latin word for salt. This and much more is covered in this fascinating look at human civilisation through the crystals of a tasty and essential inorganic compound composed of two poisonous elements. Recipes for salty specialities of cultures around the world and across the centuries are included, along with recommendations for surviving that “surprisingly pleasant” Swedish speciality surströmming (p. 139): “The only remaining problem is how to get the smell out of the house…”.

February 2005 Permalink

Kurlansky, Mark. Cod. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. ISBN 978-0-14-027501-8.
There is nothing particularly glamourous about a codfish. It swims near the bottom of the ocean in cold continental shelf waters with its mouth open, swallowing whatever comes along, including smaller cod. While its white flesh is prized, the cod provides little sport for the angler: once hooked, it simply goes limp and must be hauled from the bottom to the boat. And its rather odd profusion of fins and blotchy colour lacks the elegance of marlin or swordfish or the menace of a shark. But the cod has, since the middle ages, played a part not only in the human diet but also in human history, being linked to the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic, the Basque nautical tradition, long-distance voyages in the age of exploration, commercial transatlantic commerce, the Caribbean slave trade, the U.S. war of independence, the expansion of territorial waters from three to twelve and now 200 miles, conservation and the emerging international governance of the law of the sea, and more.

This delightful piece of reportage brings all of this together, from the biology and ecology of the cod, to the history of its exploitation by fishermen over the centuries, the commerce in cod and the conflicts it engendered, the cultural significance of cod in various societies and the myriad ways they have found to use it, and the shameful overfishing which has depleted what was once thought to be an inexhaustible resource (and should give pause to any environmentalist who believes government regulation is the answer to stewardship). But cod wouldn't have made so much history if people didn't eat them, and the narrative is accompanied by dozens of recipes from around the world and across the centuries (one dates from 1393), including many for parts of the fish other than its esteemed white flesh. Our ancestors could afford to let nothing go to waste, and their cleverness in turning what many today would consider offal into delicacies still cherished by various cultures is admirable. Since codfish has traditionally been sold salted and dried (in which form it keeps almost indefinitely, even in tropical climates, if kept dry, and is almost 80% protein by weight—a key enabler of long ocean voyages before the advent of refrigeration), you'll also want to read the author's work on Salt (February 2005).

September 2008 Permalink

Lauer, Heather. Bacon: A Love Story. New York: William Morrow, 2009. ISBN 978-0-06-170428-4.
The author, who operates the Bacon Unwrapped Web site, just loves bacon. But who doesn't? I've often thought that a principal reason the Middle East produces so much more trouble than it consumes is that almost nobody there ever mellows out in that salty, fat-metabolising haze of having consumed a plate-full of The Best Meat Ever.

Bacon (and other salt-cured pork products) has been produced for millennia, and the process (which is easy do at home and explained here, if you're so inclined) is simple. And yet the result is so yummy that there are innumerable ways to use this meat in all kinds of meals. This book traces the history of bacon, its use in the cuisine of cultures around the world, and its recent breakout from breakfast food to a gourmet item in main courses and even dessert.

The author is an enthusiast, and her passion is echoed in the prose. But what would be amusing in an essay comes across as a bit too precious and tedious in a 200 page book—how many times do we need to be reminded that bacon is The Best Meat Ever? There are numerous recipes for baconlicious treats you might not have ever imagined. I'm looking forward to trying the macaroni and blue cheese with bacon from p. 153. I'm not so sure about the bacon peanut brittle or the bacon candy floss. Still, the concept of bacon as candy (after all, bacon has been called “meat candy”) has its appeal: one customer's reaction upon tasting a maple bacon lollipop was “Jesus got my letter!” For those who follow Moses, there's no longer a need to forgo the joys of bacon: thanks to the miracles of twenty-first century chemistry, 100% kosher Bacon Salt (in a rainbow of flavours) aims to accomplish its mission statement: “Everything should taste like bacon.” Try it on popcorn—trust me.

If you're looking for criticism of the irrational love of bacon, you've come to the wrong place. I don't eat a lot of bacon myself—when you only have about 2000 calories a day to work with, there's only a limited amount of porky ambrosia you can admit into your menu plan. This is a superb book which will motivate you to explore other ways to incorporate preserved pork bellies into your diet, and if that isn't happiness, what is? You will learn a great deal here about the history of pork products: now I finally understand the distinction between bacon, pancetta, and prosciutto.

Bacon lovers should be sure to bookmark The Bacon Show, a Web site which promises “One bacon recipe per day, every day, forever” and has been delivering just that for more than four years.

May 2009 Permalink

Lileks, James. The Gallery of Regrettable Food. New York: Crown Publishers, 2001. ISBN 0-609-60782-0.
The author is a syndicated columnist and pioneer blogger. Much of the source material for this book and a wealth of other works in progress are available on the author's Web site.

April 2004 Permalink

Lileks, James. Gastroanomalies. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007. ISBN 0-307-38307-5.
Should you find this delightful book under your tree this Christmas Day, let me offer you this simple plea. Do not curl up with it late at night after the festivities are over and you're winding down for the night. If you do:

  1. You will not get to sleep until you've finished it.
  2. Your hearty guffaws will keep everybody else awake as well.
  3. And finally, when you do drift off to sleep, visions of the culinary concoctions collected here may impede digestion of your holiday repast.

This sequel to The Gallery of Regrettable Food (April 2004) presents hundreds of examples of tasty treats from cookbooks and popular magazines from the 1930s through the 1960s. Perusal of these execrable entrées will make it immediately obvious why the advertising of the era featured so many patent remedies for each and every part of the alimentary canal. Most illustrations are in ghastly colour, with a few in merciful black and white. It wasn't just Americans who outdid themselves crafting dishes in the kitchen to do themselves in at the dinner table—a chapter is devoted to Australian delicacies, including some of the myriad ways to consume “baiycun”. There's something for everybody: mathematicians will savour the countably infinite beans-and-franks open-face sandwich (p. 95), goths will delight in discovering the dish Satan always brings to the pot luck (p. 21), political wonks need no longer wonder which appetiser won the personal endorsement of Earl Warren (p. 23), movie buffs will finally learn the favourite Bisquick recipes of Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, and Bette Davis (pp. 149–153), and all of the rest of us who've spent hours in the kitchen trying to replicate grandma's chicken feet soup will find the secret revealed here (p. 41). Revel in the rediscovery of aspic: the lost secret of turning unidentifiable food fragments into a gourmet treat by entombing them in jiggly meat-flavoured Jello-O. Bon appétit!

Many other vintage images of all kinds are available on the author's Web site.

December 2007 Permalink

McGovern, Patrick E. Uncorking the Past. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-520-25379-7.
While a variety of animals are attracted to and consume the alcohol in naturally fermented fruit, only humans have figured out how to promote the process, producing wine from fruit and beer from cereal crops. And they've been doing it since at least the Neolithic period: the author discovered convincing evidence of a fermented beverage in residues on pottery found at the Jiahu site in China, inhabited between 7000 and 5800 B.C.

Indeed, almost every human culture which had access to fruits or grains which could be turned into an alcoholic beverage did so, and made the production and consumption of spirits an important part of their economic and spiritual life. (One puzzle is why the North American Indians, who lived among an abundance of fermentable crops never did—there are theories that tobacco and hallucinogenic mushrooms supplanted alcohol for shamanistic purposes, but basically nobody really knows.)

The author is a pioneer in the field of biomolecular archæology and head of the eponymous laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archæology and Anthropology; in this book takes us on a tour around the world and across the centuries exploring, largely through his own research and that of associates, the history of fermented beverages in a variety of cultures and what we can learn from this evidence about how they lived, were organised, and interacted with other societies. Only in recent decades has biochemical and genetic analysis progressed to the point that it is possible not only to determine from some gunk found at the bottom of an ancient pot not only that it was some kind of beer or wine, but from what species of fruit and grain it was produced, how it was prepared and fermented, and what additives it may have contained and whence they originated. Calling on experts in related disciplines such as palynology (the study of pollen and spores, not of the Alaskan politician), the author is able to reconstruct the economics of the bustling wine trade across the Mediterranean (already inferred from shipwrecks carrying large numbers of casks of wine) and the diffusion of the ancestral cultivated grape around the world, displacing indigenous grapes which were less productive for winemaking.

While the classical period around the Mediterranean is pretty much soaked in wine, and it'd be difficult to imagine the Vikings and other North Europeans without their beer and grogs, much less was known about alcoholic beverages in China, South America, and Africa. Once again, the author is on their trail, and not only reports upon his original research, but also attempts, in conjunction with micro-brewers and winemakers, to reconstruct the ancestral beverages of yore.

The biochemical anthropology of booze is not exactly a crowded field, and in this account written by one of its leaders, you get the sense of having met just about all of the people pursuing it. A great deal remains to be learnt—parts of the book read almost like a list of potential Ph.D. projects for those wishing to follow in the author's footsteps. But that's the charm of opening a new window into the past: just as DNA and other biochemical analyses revolutionised the understanding of human remains in archæology, the arsenal of modern analytical tools allows reconstructing humanity's almost universal companion through the ages, fermented beverages, and through them, uncork the way in which those cultures developed and interacted.

A paperback edition will be published in December 2010.

October 2010 Permalink

Nugent, Ted and Shemane Nugent. Kill It and Grill It. Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0-89526-164-2.

June 2002 Permalink

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore's Dilemma. New York: Penguin Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-14-303858-0.
One of the delights of operating this site is the opportunity to interact with visitors, whom I am persuaded are among the most interesting and informed of any audience on the Web. The feedback messages and book recommendations they send are often thought-provoking and sometimes enlightening. I don't know who I have to thank for recommending this book, but I am very grateful they took the time to do so, as it is a thoroughly fascinating look at the modern food chain in the developed world, and exploration of alternatives to it.

The author begins with a look at the “industrial” food chain, which supplies the overwhelming majority of calories consumed on the planet today. Prior to the 20th century, agriculture was almost entirely powered by the Sun. It was sunlight that drove photosynthesis in plants, providing both plant crops and the feed for animals, including those used to pull ploughs and transport farm products to market. The invention of the Haber process in 1909 and its subsequent commercialisation on an industrial scale forever changed this. No longer were crop yields constrained by the amount of nitrogen which could be fixed from the air by bacteria symbiotic with the roots of legume crops, recycled onto fields in the manure and urine of animals, or harvested from the accumulated droppings birds in distant places, but rather able to be dramatically increased by the use of fertiliser whose origin traced back to the fossil fuel which provided the energy to create it. Further, fossil fuel insinuated itself into agriculture in other ways, with the tractor replacing the work of farm hands and draught animals; railroads, steam ships, trucks, and aircraft expanding the distance between production on a farm and consumption to the global scale; and innovations such as refrigeration increasing the time from harvest to use.

All of these factors so conspired to benefit the species Zea mays (which Americans call “corn” and everybody else calls “maize”) that one could craft a dark but plausible science fiction story in which that species of grass, highly modified by selective breeding by indigenous populations in the New World, was actually the dominant species on Earth, having first motivated its modification from the ancestral form to a food plant ideally suited to human consumption, then encouraged its human servants to spread it around the world, develop artificial nutrients and pesticides to allow it to be grown in a vast monoculture, eradicating competitors in its path, and becoming so central to modern human nutrition that trying to eliminate it (or allowing a natural threat to befall it) would condemn billions of humans to starvation. Once you start to think this way, you'll never regard that weedless field of towering corn stretching off to the horizon in precisely the same way….

As the author follows the industrial food chain from a farm in the corn belt to the “wet mill” in which commodity corn is broken down into its molecular constituents and then reassembled into the components of processed food, and to the feedlot, where corn products are used to “finish” meat animals which evolved on a different continent from Zea mays and consequently require food additives and constant medication simply to metabolise this foreign substance, it becomes clear that maize is not a food, but rather a feedstock (indeed, the maize you buy in the supermarket to eat yourself is not this industrial product, but rather “sweet corn” produced entirely separately), just as petroleum is used in the plastics industry. Or the food industry—when you take into account fertiliser, farm machinery, and transportation, more than one calorie of fossil fuel is consumed to produce a calorie of food energy in maize. If only we could make Twinkies directly from crude oil….

All of this (and many things I've elided here in the interest of brevity [Hah! you say]) may persuade you to “go organic” and pay a bit more for those funky foods with the labels showing verdant crops basking in the Sun, contented cows munching grass in expansive fields, and chickens being chickens, scratching for bugs at liberty. If you're already buying these “organic” products and verging on the sin of smugness for doing so, this is not your book—or maybe it is. The author digs into the “industrial organic” state of the art and discovers that while there are certainly benefits to products labelled “organic” (no artificial fertilisers or pesticides, for example, which certainly benefit the land if not the product you buy), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (the villain throughout) has so watered down the definition of “organic” that most products with that designation come from “organic” factory farms, feedlots, and mass poultry confinement facilities. As usual, when the government gets involved, the whole thing is pretty much an enormous scam, which is ultimately damaging to those who are actually trying to provide products with a sustainable solar-powered food chain which respects the land and the nature of the animals living on it.

In the second section of the book, the author explores this alternative by visiting Polyface Farms in Virginia, which practices “grass farming” and produces beef, pork, chickens and eggs, turkeys, rabbits, and forest products for its local market in Virginia. The Salatin family, who owns and operates the farm, views its pastures as a giant solar collector, turning incident sunlight along with water collected by the surrounding forest into calories which feed their animals. All of the animal by-products (even the viscera and blood of chickens slaughtered on site) are recycled into the land. The only outside inputs into the solar-powered cycle are purchased chicken feed, since grass, grubs, and bugs cannot supply adequate energy for the chickens. (OK, there are also inputs of fuel for farm machinery and electricity for refrigeration and processing, but since the pastures are never ploughed, these are minimal compared to a typical farm.)

Polyface performs not only intensive agriculture, but what Salatin calls “management intensive” farming—an information age strategy informed by the traditional ecological balance between grassland, ruminants, and birds. The benefit is not just to the environment, but also in the marketplace. A small holding with only about 100 acres under cultivation is able to support an extended family, produce a variety of products, and by their quality attract customers willing to drive as far as 150 miles each way to buy them at prices well above those at the local supermarket. Anybody who worries about a possible collapse of the industrial food chain and has provided for that contingency by acquiring a plot of farm land well away from population centres will find much to ponder here. Remember, it isn't just about providing for your family and others on the farm: if you're providing food for your community, they're far more likely to come to your defence when the starving urban hordes come your way to plunder.

Finally, the author seeks to shorten his personal food chain to the irreducible minimum by becoming a hunter-gatherer. Overcoming his blue state hoplophobia and handed down mycophobia, he sets out to hunt a feral pig in Sonoma County, California and gather wild mushrooms and herbs to accompany the meal. He even “harvests” cherries from a neighbour's tree overhanging a friend's property in Berkeley under the Roman doctrine of usufruct and makes bread leavened with yeast floating in the air around his house. In doing so, he discovers that there is something to what he had previously dismissed as purple prose in accounts of hunters, and that there is a special satisfaction and feeling of closing the circle in sharing a meal with friends in which every dish was directly obtained by them, individually or in collaboration.

This exploration of food: its origins, its meaning to us, and its place in our contemporary civilisation, makes clear the many stark paradoxes of our present situation. It is abundantly clear that the industrial food chain is harmful to the land, unsustainable due to dependence on finite resources, cruel to animals caught up in it, and unhealthy in many ways to those who consume its products. And yet abandoning it in favour of any of the alternatives presented here would result in a global famine which would make the Irish, Ukrainian, and Chinese famines of the past barely a blip on the curve. Further, billions of the Earth's inhabitants today can only dream of the abundance, variety, and affordability (in terms of hours worked to provide one's food needs) of the developed world diet. And yet at the same time, when one looks at the epidemic of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other metabolic disorders among corn-fed populations, you have to wonder whether Zea mays is already looking beyond us and plotting its next conquest.

April 2012 Permalink

Rorabaugh, W. J. The Alcoholic Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. ISBN 978-0-19-502990-1.
This book was recommended to me by Prof. Paul Rahe after I had commented during a discussion on Ricochet about drug (and other forms of) prohibition, using the commonplace libertarian argument that regardless of what one believes about the principle of self-ownership and the dangers to society if its members ingest certain substances, from a purely utilitarian standpoint, the evidence is that prohibition of anything simply makes the problem worse—in many cases not only increasing profits to traffickers in the banned substance, spawning crime among those who contend to provide it to those who seek it in the absence of an open market, promoting contempt for the law (the president of the United States, as of this writing, admitted in his autobiography to have used a substance whose possession, had he been apprehended, was a felony), and most of all that post-prohibition, use of the forbidden substance increases, and hence however satisfying prohibition may be to those who support, enact, and enforce it, it is ultimately counterproductive, as it increases the number of people who taste the forbidden fruit.

I read every book my readers recommend, albeit not immediately, and so I put this book on my queue, and have now digested it. This is a fascinating view of a very different America: a newly independent nation in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, still mostly a coastal nation with a vast wilderness to the West, but beginning to expand over the mountains into the fertile land beyond. The one thing all European visitors to America remarked upon was that people in this brave new republic, from strait-laced New Englanders, to Virginia patricians, to plantation barons of the South, to buckskin pioneers and homesteaders across the Appalachians, drank a lot, reaching a peak around 1830 of five gallons (19 litres) of hard spirits (in excess of 45% alcohol) per capita per annum—and that “per capita” includes children and babies in a rapidly growing population, so the adults, and particularly the men, disproportionately contributed to this aggregate.

As the author teases out of the sketchy data of the period, there were a number of social, cultural, and economic reasons for this. Prior to the revolution, America was a rum drinking nation, but after the break with Britain whiskey made from maize (corn, in the American vernacular) became the beverage of choice. As Americans migrated and settled the West, maize was their crop of choice, but before the era of canals and railroads, shipping their crop to the markets of the East cost more than its value. Distilling into a much-sought beverage, however, made the arduous trek to market profitable, and justified the round trip. In the rugged western frontier, drinking water was not to be trusted, and a sip of contaminated water could condemn one to a debilitating and possibly fatal bout of dysentery or cholera. None of these bugs could survive in whiskey, and hence it was seen as the healthy beverage. Finally, whiskey provides 83 calories per fluid ounce, and is thus a compact way to store and transmit food value without need for refrigeration.

Some things never change. European visitors to America remarked upon the phenomenon of “rapid eating” or, as we now call it, “fast food”. With the fare at most taverns outside the cities limited to fried corn cakes, salt pork, and whiskey, there was precious little need to linger over one's meal, and hence it was in-and-out, centuries before the burger. But then, things change. Starting around 1830, alcohol consumption in the United States began to plummet, and temperance societies began to spring up across the land. From a peak of about 5 gallons per capita, distilled spirits consumption fell to between 1 and 2 gallons and has remained more or less constant ever since.

But what is interesting is that the widespread turn away from hard liquor was not in any way produced by top-down or coercive prohibition. Instead, it was a bottom-up social movement largely coupled with the second great awakening. While this movement certainly did result in some forms of restrictions on the production and sale of alcohol, much more effective were its opprobrium against public drunkenness and those who enabled it.

This book is based on a Ph.D. thesis, and in places shows it. There is a painful attempt, based on laughably incomplete data, to quantify alcohol consumption during the early 19th century. This, I assume, is because at the epoch “social scientists” repeated the mantra “numbers are good”. This is all nonsense; ignore it. Far more credible are the reports of contemporary observers quoted in the text.

As to Prof. Rahe's assertion that prohibition reduces the consumption of a substance, I don't think this book advances that case. The collapse in the consumption of strong drink in the 1830s was a societal and moral revolution, and any restrictions on the availability of alcohol were the result of that change, not its cause. That said, I do not dispute that prohibition did reduce the reported level of alcohol consumption, but at the cost of horrific criminality and disdain for the rule of law and, after repeal, a return to the status quo ante.

If you're interested in prohibition in all of its manifestations, I recommend this book, even though it has little to do with prohibition. It is an object lesson in how a free society self-corrects from excess and re-orients itself toward behaviour which benefits its citizens.

November 2012 Permalink

Russell, Sharman Apt. Hunger: An Unnatural History. New York: Basic Books, 2005. ISBN 978-0-465-07165-4.
As the author begins this volume, “Hunger is a country we enter every day…”. Our bodies (and especially our hypertrophied brains) require a constant supply of energy, and have only a limited and relatively inefficient means to store excesses and release it upon demand, and consequently we have evolved to have a strong and immediate sense for inadequate nutrition, which in the normal course of things causes us to find something to eat. When we do not eat, regardless of the cause, we experience hunger, which is one of the strongest of somatic sensations. Whether hunger is caused by famine, fasting from ritual or in search of transcendence, forgoing food in favour of others, a deliberate hunger strike with the goal of effecting social or political change, deprivation at the hands of a coercive regime, or self-induced by a dietary regime aimed at improving one's health or appearance, it has the same grip upon the gut and the brain. As I wrote in The Hacker's Diet:

Hunger is a command, not a request. Hunger is looking at your dog curled up sleeping on the rug and thinking, “I wonder how much meat there is beneath all that fur?”

Here, the author explores hunger both at the level of biochemistry (where you may be amazed how much has been learned in the past few decades as to how the body regulates appetite and the fall-back from glucose-based metabolism from food to ketone body energy produced from stored fat, and how the ratio of energy from consumption of muscle mass differs between lean and obese individuals and varies over time) and the historical and social context of hunger. We encounter mystics and saints who fast to discover a higher wisdom or their inner essence; political activists (including Gandhi) willing to starve themselves to the point of death to shame their oppressors into capitulation; peoples whose circumstances have created a perverse (to us, the well-fed) culture built around hunger as the usual state of affairs; volunteers who participated in projects to explore the process of starvation and means to rescue those near death from its consequences; doctors in the Warsaw ghetto who documented the effects of starvation in patients they lacked the resources to save; and the millions of victims of famine in the last two centuries.

In discussing famine, the author appears uncomfortable with the fact, reluctantly alluded to, that famine in the modern era is almost never the result of a shortage of food, but rather the consequence of coercive government either constraining the supply of food or blocking its delivery to those in need. Even in the great Irish famine of the 1840s, Ireland continued to export food even as its population starved. (The author argues that even had the exports been halted, the food would have been inadequate to feed the Irish, but even so, they could have saved some, and this is before considering potential food shipments from the rest of the “Union” to a starving Ireland. [Pardon me if this gets me going—ancestors….]) Certainly today it is beyond dispute that the world produces far more food (at least as measured by calories and principal nutrients) than is needed to feed its population. Consequently, whenever there is a famine, the cause is not a shortage of food but rather an interruption in its delivery to those who need it. While aid programs can help to alleviate crises, and “re-feeding” therapy can rescue those on the brink of death by hunger, the problem will persist until the dysfunctional governments that starve their people and loot aid intended for them are eliminated. Given how those who've starved in recent decades have usually been disempowered minorities, perhaps it would be more effective in the long term to arm them than to feed them.

You will not find such gnarly sentiments in this book, which is very much aligned with the NGO view that famine due to evil coercive dictatorships is just one of those things that happens, like hurricanes. That said, I cannot recommend this book too highly. The biochemical view of hunger and energy storage and release in times of feast and famine alone is worth the price of admission, and the exploration of hunger in religion, politics, and even entertainment puts it over the top. If you're dieting, this may not be the book to read, but on the other hand, maybe it's just the thing.

The author is the daughter of Milburn G. “Mel” Apt, the first human to fly faster than Mach 3, who died when his X-2 research plane crashed after its record-setting flight.

February 2012 Permalink

Scully, Matthew. Dominion. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002. ISBN 0-312-26147-0.

February 2003 Permalink

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Tucson, AZ: See Sharp Press, [1905] 2003. ISBN 1-884365-30-2.
A century ago, in 1905, the socialist weekly The Appeal to Reason began to run Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle in serial form. The editors of the paper had commissioned the work, giving the author $500 to investigate the Chicago meat packing industry and conditions of its immigrant workers. After lengthy negotiations, Macmillan rejected the novel, and Sinclair took the book to Doubleday, which published it in 1906. The book became an immediate bestseller, has remained in print ever since, spurred the passage of the federal Pure Food and Drug Act in the very year of its publication, and launched Sinclair's career as the foremost American muckraker. The book edition published in 1906 was cut substantially from the original serial in The Appeal to Reason, which remained out of print until 1988 and the 2003 publication of this slightly different version based upon a subsequent serialisation in another socialist periodical.

Five chapters and about one third of the text of the original edition presented here were cut in the 1906 Doubleday version, which is considered the canonical text. This volume contains an introduction written by a professor of American Literature at that august institution of higher learning, the Pittsburg State University of Pittsburg, Kansas, which inarticulately thrashes about trying to gin up a conspiracy theory behind the elisions and changes in the book edition. The only problem with this theory is, as is so often the case with postmodern analyses by Literature professors (even those who are not “anti-corporate, feminist” novelists), the facts. It's hard to make a case for “censorship”, when the changes to the text were made by the author himself, who insisted over the rest of his long and hugely successful career that the changes were not significant to the message of the book. Given that The Appeal to Reason, which had funded the project, stopped running the novel two thirds of the way through due to reader complaints demanding news instead of fiction, one could argue persuasively that cutting one third was responding to reader feedback from an audience highly receptive to the subject matter. Besides, what does it mean to “censor” a work of fiction, anyway?

One often encounters mentions of The Jungle which suggest those making them aren't aware it's a novel as opposed to factual reportage, which probably indicates the writer hasn't read the book, or only encountered excerpts years ago in some college course. While there's no doubt the horrors Sinclair describes are genuine, he uses the story of the protagonist, Jurgis Rudkos, as a Pilgrim's Progress to illustrate them, often with implausible coincidences and other story devices to tell the tale. Chapters 32 through the conclusion are rather jarring. What was up until that point a gritty tale of life on the streets and in the stockyards of Chicago suddenly mutates into a thinly disguised socialist polemic written in highfalutin English which would almost certainly go right past an uneducated immigrant just a few years off the boat; it reminded me of nothing so much as John Galt's speech near the end of Atlas Shrugged. It does, however, provide insight into the utopian socialism of the early 1900s which, notwithstanding many present-day treatments, was directed as much against government corruption as the depredations of big business.

April 2005 Permalink