The Omnivore’s Dilemma changed how I think about food.
Until reading the now classic 2006 tome by Michael Pollan, I never noticed the extreme lack of diversity in the modern North American diet due to its evolution since World War II. Events have since conspired to show me the extent that corn, dairy and wheat join salt and sugar to form a significant part of a Canadian diet too. Often we think we are eating one thing and it turns out that we are actually eating something else.
The industrialization of our food system has separated us from natural systems while hurting our health, our planet and our soil. Despite that understanding, reversing the habit has been an ongoing struggle. As Pollan points out in his conclusion, everything in our culture encourages us to rely on the convenient, unemotional and often unrecognizable food-like products offered in bulk by giant industrial companies.
For countless generations eating was something that took place in the steadying context of a family and a culture, where the full consciousness of what was involved did not need to be rehearsed at every meal because it was stored away, like the good silver, in a set of rituals and habits, manners and recipes. I wonder if it isn’t because so much of that context has been lost that I felt the need, this one time, to start again from scratch.” (p 411)
For Pollan, starting again from scratch meant travelling across America to discover the basic ingredients within four meals: a McDonald’ meal eaten in a fast car, a Whole Foods organic dinner, a Polyface Farm meal, and a foraged meal. Pollan takes readers along with him, detailing every element in each meal from start to finish. He brings us with him into industrial food operations, to small and large farms, and into the forest in search of mushrooms and big game to hunt.
In between the descriptions of places and people, Pollan carefully outlines every element within every meal. Often, many of these elements turn out to have the same source.
In his description of his McDonald’s meal, for instance, he described how three people chose 45 different products almost totally made of corn.
It would not be impossible to calculate exactly how much corn Judith, Isaac, and I consumed in our McDonald’s meal. I figure my 4-ounce burger, for instance, represents nearly 2 pounds of corn (based on a cow’s feed conversion rate of 7 pounds for every 1 pound of gain, half of which is edible meat). The nuggets are a little harder to translate into corn, since there’s no telling how much actual chicken goes into a nugget; but if 6 nuggets contain a quarter pound of meat, that would have taken a chicken half a pound of feed corn to grow. A 32-ounce soda contains 86 grams of high-fructose corn syrup (as does a double-thick shake), which can be refined from a third of a pound of corn; so our 3 drinks used another pound. Subtotal: 6 pounds of corn.” (p115)
The Omnivore’s Dilemma also contains a great deal of information about how many societal norms and regulations have radically transformed when it comes to food. Often these changes were due to marketing by various members of the agricultural industry.
Back in the fifties, when the USDA routinely compared the nutritional quality of produce from region to region, it found striking differences: carrots grown in the deep soils of Michigan, for example, commonly had more vitamins than carrots grown in the thin, sandy soils of Florida,” wrote Pollan, on page 178. “Naturally this information discomfited the carrot growers of Florida, which probably explains why the USDA no longer conducts this sort of research. Nowadays U.S. agricultural policy, like the Declaration of Independence, is founded on the principle that all carrots are created equal, even though there’s good reason to believe this isn’t really true.”
In other places, Pollan speculates about the extent that changes to our food system might be creating problems with our health.
One of the most important yet unnoticed changes to the human diet in modern times has been in the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6, the other essential fatty acid in our food. Omega-6 is produced in the seeds of plants; omega-3 in the leaves. As the name indicates, both kinds of fat are essential, but problems arise when they fall out of balance. (In fact, there’s research to suggest that the ratio of these fats in our diet may be more important than the amounts.) Too high a radio of omega-6 to omega-3 can contribute to heart disease, probably because omega-6 helps blood clot, while omega-3 helps it flow. (Omega-6 is an inflammatory; omega-3 an anti-inflammatory.) As our diet—and the diet of the animals we eat—shifted from one based on green plants to one based on grain (from grass to corn), the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 has gone from roughly one to one (in the diet of hunter-gatherers) to more than ten to one.” (p268)
Despite multiple examples of dense information, the overall impression a reader has of Omnivore’s Dilemma is an exploration of America through its food and communities. Pollan aptly outlines his deep concern about deep problems in the food system while demonstrating how caring individuals can change how things are done.
Pollan has nicely captured the hurtful and healing attributes of America’s food system. Omnivore’s Dilemma remains a treasure and a great source of hope.
Reading it may force you to change the way you eat, the way you shop and the way you see your local community as it did for me.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
By Michael Pollan
What do the former Canadian Wheat Board, twist ties and the International Monetary Fund have in common?
They’re all topics in three of my favourite business stories by excellent writers. Jake MacDonald’s “Why so many farmers miss the Wheat Board,” Ambrose Evans-Pritchard’s “International Monetary Fund Overview,” and Paul Lukas’ “Twist-Ties vs. Plastic Clips: Tiny Titans Battle for the Bakery Aisle” find entertaining ways to present company facts while asking important questions about a particular company, industry and economy.
Despite using completely different structures, the following three business stories are similar in that all of them make readers understand complicated insider business issues that normally seem opaque.
Jake MacDonald’s narrative feature outlining the demise of Canada’s wheat board begins in 1996 and continues until the summer of 2014. The freelancer’s opus appeared on November 27, 2014 in the Globe and Mail.
Slow-moving, yet compelling, the story’s narrative style makes it difficult to find a crucial section, but here are two paragraphs, just to give you a sense of how it reads.
The old multigenerational family farm is gradually being replaced by the vast acreage managed by the partnership, the corporation or the absentee owner. Harvesting machinery keeps getting bigger, more efficient and more expensive. Basic equipment for a small farm—trucks, tractor, swather, combine and so on—might cost well over $1 million. A couple of generations ago, a good-sized farm was a square mile (640 acres). Now, 2,000 acres is considered small. Rising costs keep pushing in from one end of the bench and farmers keep dropping off at the other. Is that such a bad thing? Farming, after all, has been in a state of constant revolution since the first nomadic hunter poked holes in the ground with a stick and scattered seeds of einkorn grass. What’s wrong with corporations taking over?”
Well, for one thing, they’re not as good at it,” says Byskal. “The small family farmer is often the best farmer. He’s been on the same land all his life, and he’s got a feel for the soil. He lets the land tell him what crops to grow, and the crops change from year to year. The corporate guy doesn’t have that same rapport with nature. He’s got a very businesslike approach. And that’s not always the best for the land, in the long run.”
Read the entire story for yourself.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard’s summary of a paper published by the International Monetary Fund in The Telegraph on January 2, 2014 is a great example of a journalist’s capacity to make difficult economic thought clear for anyone.
Written with a traditional news style structure, the initial paragraph says everything detailed in the rest of the piece:
Much of the Western world will require defaults, a savings tax and higher inflation to clear the way for recovery as debt levels reach a 200-year high, according to a new report by the International Monetary Fund.
Read the rest of this non-fiction story for yourself.
Read more stories from the same author.
It’s well-worth reading Paul Lukas’ “Twist-Ties vs. Plastic Clips: Tiny Titans Battle for the Bakery Aisle,” which was published in Bloomberg Business Week on March 13, 2013.
This story highlights the battle for market share between Kwik Lok and Burford for the type of fastener used on bread, bagels and other consumer goods. Its genius is an easy-reading style that communicates industry information without making it seem boring.
The author uses the feature structure. His nutgraph is:
This was the latest move in a business war that’s been under way for more than half a century now. It’s a battle fought by the makers of inconspicuous little products that cost a fraction of a penny to produce—the ones that everyone knows and nobody thinks about, but which represent more than an estimated $10 million in annual sales. Insiders describe the turf as the bakery bag closure and reclosure market; this is the battle of the plastic clip vs. the twist-tie.
Read this non-fiction brilliance for yourself.
Read more about the author on his website, which is itself one of my favourite-ever profiles.
Note: If you’re wondering what I mean by narrative, traditional news and feature style, or if you want to read more tips about writing non-fiction, sign up for my notable nonfiction list below.
Shortly after moving into a 4 ½ apartment in Villeray, my husband and I got our first shared garden plot. We sought out some assistance about what we should plant in the 20 x 10-foot space and found “The Organic Gardener” by Bob Flowerdew. The book was two years old when we bought in in 1995.
It’s still my favourite gardening book.
Flowerdew gardens in the United Kingdom, so the seasons and the growing schedule doesn’t match Montreal. Still, his experience and confidence about gardening as a way to improve society crosses geographic boundaries.
A healthy soil is the key to organic gardening,” he writes. “Not only does it provide plants with the food they need to live, it also confers health and vitality, making them much more able to withstand outbreaks of diseases.”
He then explains that the best way to create good soil is to “add as much organic matter to the soil as you can get.”
More than thirty years later, and that advice continues to hold true.
Most of organic gardening centres around improving soil through green manures, mulches, and composting. Flowerdew doesn’t focus on permaculture, but he does explain how to design a garden with the ecosystem and human requirements in mind.
There’s a whole chapter on beneficial insects and wildlife and lots about choosing the correct plant for any location.
He goes into types of plants, sowing and growing, plant species and many types of food that can be grown in any garden.
This isn’t a basic guidebook, although that’s its primary role. Organic Garden is extremely well-written and Flowerdew’s slightly persnickety personality shines through. It’s evident that he really cares about food and has thought out his presentation in detail. For example, he explains why nasturtium leaves, celery and marigolds are in the chapter about herbs.
I define an herb, whether it is eaten raw or used in cooking, as one that is added to dishes rather than served as a portion on its own. Thus some minor crops are included here rather than in the section on vegetables.”
To finish off the book, Flowerdew provides a monthly list of chores that can be combined slightly for a Canadian climate.
Unlike many garden books, Flowerdew’s includes a full index and chapter outline.
Recently, I examined all my garden books to see which one I would recommend most. Flowerdew’s Organic Gardening still wins handsdown. Flowerdew has updated his work considerably in the last twenty years of course. If you want a compendium of his latest thinking, consider purchasing his Organic Gardening bible (2005) or his guide to Going Organic (2008). Links to the first are available above through the Amazon and the Abe Books links. The Indigo link goes to the Going Organic book.
You can also just read his blog or join me as one of his 3,050 Twitter followers. Don’t expect him to care about you though. He only follows 35 people.
The Organic Gardener, London: Reed International Books Limited, 1993, ISBN 060057461X.
Do you have a word nerd for a mother? If so, consider getting her another writing book from the following list.
Very few people in the world understand how wonderful it is for word nerds (like me) to pick up The Chicago Manual of Style and read a few pages for fun. I’m not talking about those moments when grabbing it quickly confirms a particular grammar point, although that’s useful too.
I’m speaking about those lazy days when anything is possible and yet somehow the whole day passes by because I chose to sit and read The Chicago Manual of Style for a few minutes. Recently I was reading the section about citing sources, for example and that revealed potential sources for research not previously considered. On page 748, it says:
Command papers are so called because they originate outside Parliament and are ostensibly presented to Parliament “by command of Her [His] Majesty.” The different abbreviations for “command” indicate the series and must not be altered. No s is added to the plural [Cmnd. 3834, 3835].
That made me curious. Turns out that Command Paper 3834 is a book called “Review Body on Armed Forces Pay: 1998, 27th Report by Great Britain, Gordon Hourston (Paperback, 1998).” This exercise made me realize that researching under the term “command papers” in the UK National Archives might lead to detailed policy analyses that are unavailable elsewhere. Awesome lesson!
While the Chicago Manual of Style contains depth beyond its key strength, most writing references are less diverse. Each one meets a precise purpose for a particular situation.
As with many works of notable nonfiction, that purpose depends on whether you’re looking for story, structure or style advice.
I have selections of books to help inspire me about all three challenges, yet there are still a few highly recommended books on my wish list. I’ve listed all of these below to give you an idea about which books cover which topics best. Books with reviews or affiliations links on this blog are hyperlinked to those resources.
Brown, Rita Mae. Starting From Scratch. A Different Kind of Writers’ Manual. New York: Speakeasy, 1988. ISBN 0-533-34630-X.
Cheney, Theodore A. Rees Writing Creative Nonfiction. Berkeley: Tenspeed Press, 1991. ISBN 0-89815-411-1.
DeBartolo Carmack, Sharon. You Can Write Your Family History. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2003.
Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. New edition. Shambhala, 2005.
King, Stephen. On Writing. A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Simon & Shuster Inc., 2000. ISBN 0-671-02425-6.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.
Nieman Foundation. Telling True Stories. Edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call. New York: Penguin Group, 2007. ISBN 978-0-452-28755-6.
Pen Canada. Writing Away. Edited by Constance Rooke. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1994. ISBN 0-7710-6956-1.
Best American Essays 2000. Edited by Alan Lightman and Robert Atwan. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. ISBN 0-618-035580-x.
Bishop, Leonard. Dare to be a Great Writer. Cinncinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1992. ISBN 0-89879-464-1.
Kuriloff, Peshe C. Rethinking Writing. New York: St. Martin’s Press Inc., 1989. ISBN 0-312-00274-2.
Larsen, Michael. How to Write a Book Proposal, Writer’s Digest Books; 4 edition (April 18 2011), ISBN: 158297702X.
Law Hatcher, Patricia. Producing a Quality Family History. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1996.
Moffett, James. Points of Departure. An Anthology of Nonfiction. New York: New American Library, 1985. ISBN 9780451627285.
Ross, Raymond S. Essentials of Speech Communication. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1984. ISBN 0-13-289173-5.
Sands, Katharine. Making the Perfect Pitch; How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye.
Strathcona County Board of Education Communications Handbook. Edited by Paula S. Goepfert. Scarborough: Nelson Canada, 1982. ISBN 0-17-6015 07-8.
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 1998. ISBN 0-941188-70-1.
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction. New York: Harper and Row, 1976. ISBN 0-06-272027-9.
Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, edited by Christopher W. French et al. Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1986. ISBN 0201100916.
Board for Certification of Genealogists Genealogy Standards. Edited by Thomas W. Jones. Washington: Turner Publishing Company, 2014. ISBN 978-1-630-26018-7.
Canadian Press Stylebook. Edited by Bob Taylor. Toronto: The Canadian Press, 1986, ISBN 0-920009-01-8.
Canadian Style. Edited by Malcolm Williams and Vitalijs Bucens. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1997. ISBN 978-1-55002-882-9.
Carroll, David L. A Manual of Writer’s Tricks. New York: Paragon House, 1990. ISBN 1-55778-314-4.
Casagrande, June. Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies. A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
Coles Handbook of English Grammar and Composition. Toronto: Coles Publishing Company Limited, 1980.
Gordon, Karen Elizabeth. The Deluxe Transitive Vampire. The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager and the Doomed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.
Hale, Constance. Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. New York: Broadway Books, 1999.
Hart, Jack. Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction Paperback, University Of Chicago Press; Reprint edition (Oct. 12 2012), ISBN 0226318168.
Kleinschmit, Nathalie. Borderless English. Manitoba: Global’ease, 2008. ISBN 978-0-9783825-06.
Mahan, Margaret D. F. The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition. The University of Chicago Press, 2003, ISBN 0-226-10403-6.
Merriman, Brenda Dougall. Genealogical Standards of Evidence: A Guide for Family Historians. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2010.
Shown Mills, Elizabeth. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Revised edition. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009.
Strunk Jr., William and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 1999.
Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books, 2003. ISBN 1861976127.
Venolia, Jan. Write Right. A Canadian Desk-Drawer Digest of Punctuation, Grammar and Style. North Vancouver: Self-Counsel Press, 1983. ISBN 088908-554-4.
Weber Shaw, Fran. 30 Ways to Help You Write. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1980, ISBN 0-553-24073-0.
If you’re new to writing, or if you’ve never used books to inspire you to improve you skill, you might consider judging the “sound” of these books to select those that might appeal to you.
When I say sound, I’m referring to how we hear books in our head as we read them. Readers are used to judging poetry by sound, which encompasses mood, rhythm and tone, but they often forget that other books have the same qualities.
Authors change the sound of a book by playing around with how they present their work. Narrative voice, word play and book chapter and sentence structure encompass the mood of a work, whether argumentative, playful, intense, or light. The layout of a written text captures rhythm and reflects whether an author wants readers to quickly skip over sentences or pause and meander through them slowly. Prose style captures the tone of a work. Long words, sentences and paragraphs encourage deep thought while short precise sentences present a conclusion as though already formed in a reader’s mind. Is a work divided into small bite-sized chunks that encourage a reader to read sections separately whenever encouragement is needed or do sentences run together so that it’s difficult to put a book down? Do chapters end on cliff hangers that keep readers engrossed or do they end at clear conclusions that allow readers to stop and think for a while?
Think about sound when judging whether a book will inspire you to keep learning. Each person has a different style of learning and might benefit from a book that takes that style into account.
As an intense responsibility-driven person, for instance, my top three writing references are: Telling True Stories for story, Points of Departure for structure and the Chicago Manual of Style. I like how each of these guides is divided into sections so that I can refer to specifics quickly. Despite that overall ease of use, each miniscule section of each of these books is full of detailed content presented in a comprehensive fashion that encourages me to think deeply about the points they make.
As a Canadian, I also reference the Canadian Press Stylebook frequently. Rules in Canada sometimes match American rules, while at other times we use British rules. The Canadian Press Stylebook, which was first published in 1940, helps me keep the exceptions to Chicago straight.
Anyone who wants to write well will want to refer to the three North American standards: On Writing by Stephen King, On Writing Well by William Zinsser and The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. Each of these is well-divided, detailed and mildly entertaining. Together, they form an ideal writing course.
People who want to study writing deeply will want to pick up Writing Creative Nonfiction for story, The Writers Journey by Christopher Vogler for structure and Genealogy Standards for style. All of these books assume a well-grounded understanding of the basics and encourage writers to improve their craft at an intermediate or advanced level.
People who prefer entertainment in their reference books would probably enjoy Starting from Scratch by Rita Mae Brown, Dare to be a Great Writer by Leonard Bishop and Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. All of these books are tons of fun to read, and their authors don’t take themselves too seriously.
Obsessive writers like me own all thirteen of the above books, plus a great many more. We are the word nerds.
My friend Elizabeth Johnston has been podcasting at “Own Your Creativity” for more than a year now! Tune in for a great listen.
Johnston interviews creators she admires about how they define creativity, how they fit art into their lives, struggles they’ve had in connection to their art, and typical habits that inspire their creativity. Every conversation has been completely different from the others.
My favourite episode so far is her first interview with Bill O’Hanlon, a mental health professional whose book “Do One Thing Different” got him on Oprah. O’Hanlon has a calming, yet inspiring way of presenting creativity. To hear their conversation, visit the show episode.
Johnston’s interviews with Bruce Langford and Mony Dojeiji were also inspiring and surprising. Langford’s comments about his dog will make you laugh.
Most of the discussions in Own Your Creativity focus on strategies guests use to make sure that their artistic endeavours fit into their busy lives. They also discuss how they overcame addictions, fears and worries to transform themselves into creative people. As guest Shari D Teigman says “the falling apart is where you find your real passion.”
Johnston works hard to make sure that every podcast episode lasts only 30 minutes, despite the deep concepts she and her guests confront.
This has got to be a challenge given that most of her guests have multiple types of activities in addition to their main creative outlet. Creators are actors, authors, broadcasters, dancers, musicians, poets, novelists or several things at once. Some of them are also coaches, community workers, editors, parents and publishers, so the conversations touch many interests.
Listening to “Own Your Creativity” is like sitting in on a telephone conversation in which two creators explore the deepest meanings of their lives. It’s clear that the creators and host are both coming up with their answers as the conversations take place.
For instance, at one point Carmine Starnino says:
There is something to being young and discovering poetry and feeling excited by it that becomes a powerful motivator to getting poems written. That slows down as you get older, I feel. You’re not as needy to get people to pay attention to you.”
This thought seems to occur to him as a feeling that he’s working out as he speaks. Perhaps Starnino will develop the idea into a future essay, but it’s rewarding to hear him working out the idea as it occurs to him.
This is just one example in which the audience gets to hear creators thinking about the process of what they do rather than the results of their creative work. I suspect that many of the intervies will spark more creative work on behalf of both the guests and Johnston herself.
Thanks Elizabeth for a stimulating podcast series.
To learn more about Elizabeth Johnston, visit her website.