Is the 100-mile diet the secret to happiness?

Cover image taken in Bamfield, British Columbia (summer of 2015)

Smith A, MacKinnon JB. 2007. The 100-Mile Diet. Toronto: Vintage Canada. p 65 – 266.

Once again I am reminded of how simple, but delicious the food from the 100-mile diet can be. Gooseberry oysters (p 64), braised dandelion greens with morels (p 106), poached salmon with white cream sauce (p 128), pumpkin soup (p 149) and maple walnut crepes (p 192). Should I go on?

The food may be simple, but from personal experience I know the challenge that the 100-mile diet presents certainly is not easy to accomplish. Finding or sourcing local food can be very complex depending on where you live and the time of year. For Kamloops, British Columbia in the winter and early spring, the local produce consists mainly of root vegetables (potatoes, carrots, and beets) and a squash. The local stew I chose to make consisted of all these ingredients.

For Alisa and James, this was not only a challenge for their diet and for their resourcefulness, but also for their 14-year relationship. I liked Alisa’s writing much more because she talks about her relationship with James on a more personal level. Alisa shares her growing relationship issues with James and admits that they have “both fell back into the rut” (p 153). Her year with James had become strained and the couple fought often. At one point Alisa even thought they were “on the brink of a breakup” (p 168).

My sympathy for James increased when he went to his mothers house in Kamloops and Alisa “couldn’t seem to decide whether she would miss [him] or not” (p 173). Maybe it’s because he is finally expressing his feelings, but I think I’m finally starting to like James because I can relate to him on many levels. I understand what it’s like to be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t know what they want and what effect that can have on your feelings and actions. Furthermore, I too do not have fond memories of my adolescence spent in Kamloops (p 174). This place is a trap and I cannot wait to escape.

My favorite part of their year is when the couple finally manages to find a wheat farmer (p 184). Could you go 7 months without bread? I certainly could not. You can feel their excitement as their challenge turned into a mission to get the flour. Their conversation with each other was comical as they talked about sending in the team (p 189) and with subject lines like “the eagle has landed” (p 190). Mission success, they got the flour. It makes sense that a sourdough bread recipe introduced this chapter.

I was impressed to hear that Alisa “craved 100-mile meals” (p 201) because the food made her feel alive and most important, happy. After this realization, Alisa also realized how happy she was with James. She decided to make him an apology soup of kelp and salmon, very similar to soup I made many times this summer. Oddly enough the soup I made was made and sourced in the same location that Alisa sourced her kelp from, Bamfield British Columbia. This was another part I enjoyed reading because it brought back fond memories of my summer of intertidal research, where I learned about the flora and fauna of the intertidal community, including the kelp. In fact, I lived with 4 kelp and seaweed biologists over my 4 months spent in Bamfield. I also enjoyed reading about their memories in Bamfield at the end of the book (p 256). This beautiful place would be the perfect location to practice the 100-mile diet due to its great diversity of local natural food sources (e.g. salmon, intertidal invertebrates, seaweeds, kelps, berries, etc.). The only thing that may impede the challenge at this location may be the fact that it is located right on the ocean on the West coast of Vancouver Island. Bamfield will always hold a special spot in my heart. The following slideshow of personal pictures only illustrates some of the beautiful wildlife that Bamfield has to offer.

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At the end of their year on the 100-mile diet, I am surprised at how much Alisa and James have learned and how resourceful they have become. They can now make “sauerkraut, pickles, crackers, jelly” (p 215), as well as preserve food in multiple ways (e.g. canning tomatoes, freezing corn, or smoking salmon). Their whole lifestyle has changed to revolve around this diet and by the end of it their “diet no longer felt ‘different’” (p 219) and it became their “new normal” (p 219). After a year of living like this, I would probably feel weird to change back to my old lifestyle.

In my mind, the most important result of their 100-mile diet was how the couple learned to appreciate and be “awestruck by living things” (p 224). Appreciating the living things in the world around us is the only way the increasing human population is going to continue to exist into the distant future. The 100-mile diet may seem impossible at fist glance, but with willingness and perseverance it can be accomplished.

Imagine how much the world would change if everyone lived by the rules of the 100-mile diet (included in the special features at the back of the book). People may just become more interconnected with the world around them.

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What type of meat do you eat? Depressed, tailless bacon machines?

Cover image retrieved from URL: http://www.vionfood.de/en/company/sustainability/animal-welfare/vion-happy-pigs/

Pollan M. 2006. The Omnivores Dilemma. The Penguin Press, New York (NY). p 186-273.

Would you rather eat pastured food or industrial food? This is a loaded question because it requires you to consider if you would rather eat:

  • Cows fed on their naturally evolved diet of grass or those who are force fed corn and antibiotics?
  • Chickens who spend their life outside on the grass or those that are kept in cages in their own filth?
  • A happy pig with its tail or a depressed, tailless bacon machine?
  • An animal that gets to fulfill its natural desires or one that is treated like a commodity?
  • “Clean meat” (p 242) or factory meat?

Of course many people would choose pastured food with happy and healthy animals, but the truth is that the majority of the meat we eat is industrial meat. Sounds appetizing right?

Pollan does an excellent job of describing the pasture and grass farming process from his week on Polyface farm. Everything on the farm is interconnected from the grass, the animals, the slaughter, the market, and the meal.

We start with the grass because “the well-being of the farm depends more than anything else on the well-being of its grass” (p 187). This makes sense because grass, a primary producer, captures energy from the sun and converts it into a usable form for the rest of the farm. Grass is a key part that powers the entire food chain (p 188). Daily work on Polyface farm revolves around maintaining the health of its grass, which requires a wealth of knowledge about the grass itself and of the local environmental conditions. Intensive management and monitoring of grass health and growth is also required and animals are moved to fresh grass daily to give the grazed grass a chance to recover. The best thing about Polyface farm is that when the pasture (grass) is healthy, the animals are also happy and healthy because they live off of the “salad bar” (p 186) of grass instead of corn and a mixture of antibiotics and vitamins that is designed by the “current state of knowledge that animal science permits” (p 196).

Moving on to the animals, literally. Every animal on the farm is portable and is moved frequently if not daily. The success of the farm depends first on the grass, but second on the mobility of its animals. There is movable electric fencing for the cows, a portable veal calf barn, a portable chicken coop for laying hens, and even a portable shade mobile to protect the animals from the intense afternoon sun (p 206). This requires intensive work because the farm is an “ecological system”(p 213) where everything is connected; therefore you cannot move one thing without changing everything else. As a result the animals on Polyface farm are happy and healthy compared to the industrial food animals. They live outside on the grass, feeding on their naturally evolved diets and experiencing their “innate distinctive desires” (p 215). These animals are treated like animals and can naturally work together to keep the farm healthy.

Even slaughtering the chickens is done on the farm and their discarded parts are used as compost to fuel the grass in the following years. The other animals would also be slaughtered on the farm is regulations permitted. Polyface believes is slaughtering their own animals for “economical, ecological, political, ethical, and even spiritual” (p 227) reasons. We are exposed to the chicken slaughtering process in great detail, until the chickens change “from looking like dead animals to looking like food” (p 233). People often do not consider this process because they are disconnected from it to the point that a dead chicken in the grocery store looks like food instead of what it really is. Maybe if more of this process was done on smaller scale farms instead of behind closed factory doors more people would be more connected to their food. They may even care about the welfare of the animals they are eating.

Polyface farm sells to a small, but sustainable market of personal relationships and a small number of stores. Some people travel large distances in order to buy meat from Polyface because it is fresh and “clean meat” (p 242), from “happy animals” (p 242), and they can trust the farmer more than conventional stores. They have put a lot of time and effort into where they buy their food unlike many people. I agree that it is odd that most people put more thought into what they wear that day, or what house they will buy than where their food and nourishment comes from. Better yet, how their food was treated before it became food. I have done a lot of research into animal welfare, animal testing, pesticide use, and sustainable practices and it has changed what I eat and even what I wear in many ways. I wont drink many teas for the pesticides, use makeup products for animal testing, and barely eat meat because of the industrial food process and its effects on the animals and the environment.

Pollan finishes his week with a final meal on the farm. Polyface farm believes in the welfare and health of its animals and the environment and this belief results in better tasting and more nutritious food. “It only makes evolutionary sense that pastured meats, the nutritional profile of which closely resembles that of wild game, would be better for us” (p 267) than industrial meats whose diet revolves around corn.

I found the life of a grass farmer intriguing and laughed at Pollan’s frequent mention of intense work without any caffeine or alcohol. After learning the many benefits of pasture farming for the environments, I wondered why anyone would decide to eat an industrial cow over a pastured one? Simple, people do not know or understand the difference.

Not just your typical weed

Pollan, M. 2001. The Botany of Desire. Random House. p. 113-179

Pollan provided an interesting and humorous account on the history and evolution of marijuana and how it has been altered by human interaction and desire. The human desire discussed in this chapter is intoxication. Both human and animals use psychoactive plants to achieve this desire, but how? The truth is, these plants are toxic, “[t]here it is, right in the middle of the word intoxication, hidden in plain sight: toxic” (P 114).

So if these plants are toxic to our bodies, how have we learned about their effects in the first place? Furthermore, how have we learned to use and cultivate them over time? Pollan suggests that humans are expert observers, allowing them to learn from the actions and mistakes of other animals (P 116). Humans are not alone in the desire for intoxication and we use this to our advantage. For example, “cattle will develop a taste for locoweed that can prove fatal; big horned sheep will grind their teeth to useless nubs scrapping hallucinogenic lichen off of ledge rock” (P 116). People are also highly influenced by the decisions and actions of other people. Personally, I can’t imagine seeing an animal tripping out after eating a psychoactive plant and thinking, “I want to try that”, but I would more likely try something after someone had suggested it.

I found it very interesting to learn the roles that psychoactive plants have played in human history. Witched used these plants in their spells, potions and for their special broomsticks (P 119). I have gained a whole new perspective on the phrase “I am going to hop on my broomstick and fly”, commonly said in my house. Shamans and other sacred and religious figures also use psychoactive plants in ceremonies, for medicinal purposes, and to connect with the gods or the other realm.

One of the best parts of this chapter is Pollan’s funny story about trying to grow marijuana, his “jolly green giants” (P 122), in his garden in the 80’s. I found his story funny and captivating because Pollan shares his every thought and feeling with us. You cannot help but feel bad for him when he faces the police chief, but also cannot help but laugh at his reactions. Growing marijuana was illegal in the United States in the 80’s and was only legally grown in Mexico. Since that time, Peoples view and use of the plant have changed. Marijuana is grown throughout the United States and the recreational use of marijuana has is legal now in some states (e.g. Washington and Colorado). Recreational use of marijuana may also be decriminalized throughout Canada, depending on the Prime Minister’s final decision. Marijuana is still used for medicinal purposes, but it is now used recreationally throughout the world.

Of course we couldn’t talk about marijuana and not talk about how humans have cultivated and changed it over time. New strains of marijuana are constantly being produced for differing effects. Overall, marijuana has been changed to produce more THC (the active psychoactive ingredient). It can be said that marijuana is vastly more potent in today’s society than when Pollan was growing in his backyard in the 80’s.

This was one of my favorite chapters in Pollan’s book because it was humorous and captivating. The history of marijuana and how its use has changed over time was very interesting. Pollan was able to keep me interested by revealing his personal experiences with the plant, many of which I can relate to.

In conclusion, I want to talk briefly on the topic of intoxication and addiction. The feeling of being intoxicated (whether it be from drugs or alcohol) tricks your brain into feeling good. Once you’ve had a taste of this good feeling, you can become physically and mentally addicted. Addiction is a problem that many people suffer with in the world. Addiction can take over a person’s life, harming that person and everyone else around them. Eventually addiction can take your life. Although I fully understand the desire of intoxication and feeling good, I have observed the effects of addiction first hand in many people in my life. Please be careful about your own personal desires because addiction is not something I would wish on anyone.

Plants are protective mothers too!

Hanson, T. 2015. The Triumph of Seeds. New York (NY): Basic Books. p. 128-160.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to come between a mother and her child. There are many stories about hikers coming across giant grizzly bears without happy endings. I never thought about how a plant can protect its offspring in the same way. More specifically, I never considered the protection provided to the pepper plant and coffee plant growing my house.

Like most people, I enjoy adding a little extra spice to my food and probably could not survive without a cup of coffee in the morning. There is an inside joke with my lab mates that I live for drinking coffee and have adapted to have a cup permanently attached to my hand (early morning field days can be rough). Who knew that the things I love most about these plants (e.g. spice and caffeine) were actually evolved to protect them? I love these plants so much that I even decided to grow them!

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Pepper plants!
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Coffee plant

Spices (including pepper) have fueled greed and change within the world, leading to exploration and the European colonies many of us occupy today. “For centuries the lust for spices shaped history” (p. 134). The economics behind spices took over the world and over 2000 cultivars have been developed from the Capsicum chili pepper (p 133). I know that the world’s economy is driven by food and the control of resources, but I had never thought about what causes my food to taste the way it does.

Chilli peppers are spicy because that’s how they protect their young. Spiciness has evolved through a coevolutionary relationship and “’it all comes down to seed production’” (p 136). Capsaicin is an alkaloid that gives the pepper its spicy flavor. This alkaloid also protects the plants from fungal pathogens and can alter a bird’s digestive system, aiding in dispersal and survival. It also acts as a deterrent for herbivores.

When eaten by mammals, capsaicin tricks your brain into thinking your mouth is on fire! Who would enjoy that? As it turns out, many people enjoy the burning sensation caused by chili peppers, myself included.

The coffee bean is protected in a similar way. I really enjoyed reading about the coffee plants history and how the effects of caffeine have changes the world. Learning about all the famous historians that gathered in coffee houses was fascinating. Voltaire drank 50 cups of coffee a day (p 152)! As I enjoy my daily cup of coffee (or 5), I never questioned why coffee had caffeine in the fist place.

Coffee is a smart plant and has equipped its seed with a good defense system. Caffeine acts as a natural insecticide to protect the seed and growing plant. It also leaches out of the seed to prevent the germination of all other plants around the seed, effectively killing off the competition. The coffee seed is well defended to survive to the next generation.

Caffeine also provides the plant with an addictive agent for pollinators. As it turns out, bees are just as addicted to caffeine as I am! There is small a concentration of caffeine in flower nectar to give the bees a taste, but not a lethal dose. This is really cool. Just as popular coffee chains like Starbucks and Tim Horton’s have discovered, the best way to increase your fitness (make money) is to have a line up of caffeine-addicted bees (or students) at your door.

It’s truly fascinating how a plant protects its seeds, just as a lioness or mother grizzly protects their cubs. I am glad that the human population has been able to take advantage of these protections to change the world. I enjoy my coffee far too much to imagine a world without it.