W is for Wonder

Lanterns at a Shinto shrine

I have to say I’m a little surprised that my post from yesterday is one of my more popular! I felt like I was cheating a little by talking about myself. Thanks everyone, for stopping by.

Over the past few days I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s book, Cooked, which I very much enjoyed. His attitude towards food is not new to me, but I particularly liked the way he combined an attention to the wonder of cooking with the science behind the processes. The book is divided into four parts, one for each of the classic elements — fire, water, air, and earth — and each of which focusses on a certain type of cooking. The first, cooking over the fire, is centred on traditional Southern US barbecue; the second, dishes in pots from many cultures (and particularly braising); the third, bread; and the fourth, fermentation — including vegetable ferments such as kimchi or sauerkraut, cheese, and the king of them all, alcohol. There is an argument that human beings developed agriculture in order to ensure a ready (and better) supply of beer … there are worse ones.

(Incidentally, over the winter I read a delightful book looking at the botany and history of plants used to create alcohol — not all of them, but the major ones — The Drunken Botanist, by Amy Stewart; it has recipes and some gardening notes. I’d recommend it too.)


Wonder. And yet reason, too — that’s what I liked about Cooked. I liked that I learned about how lactofermentation works, about the chemical reactions involved in caramelization, about what exactly is going on inside a slow roast. It fit in very well with the soil science I have been picking up over the past few months, too, in reading about permaculture and related topics. The need to balance fungi and bacteria in a garden — more fungi is better for woody plants, more bacteria for annuals — is similar to what is going on inside a sourdough culture or a cheese, where the bacteria and the yeasts are competing and succeeding and working together with each other. In each case, supporting and encouraging the beneficial organisms allows them to outcompete the pernicious. Have symbiotic mycorrhizae in the soil and you are less likely to have problems with the plants they are associated with.


Indeed, of course, some plants need that mycorrhizae. I was looking at a nursery that specialises in hardy fruit and nut trees (from north of Montreal, so quite hardy!), and they mentioned that they sell their stone pines with soil around the root, instead of bare-root like the rest. This is because the trees require their symbiotes in order to grow. This is the same reason why lady’s slipper orchids are very hard to transplant or grow from seed, because they need theirs. And it’s the same thing that happens in making wine or cheese, where one strand of yeast gives you champagne, and another vinegar, and a third Camembert.

Isn’t this amazing? The subtitle of my blog is “with Rooms for Reason and Wonder,” which is trying to reach out to my strong belief that they go together, that the fantastic and the rational are ultimately both pointers of the truth. I’m afraid I can’t now find the reference; the line is something adapted from a poem I read in a book (itself on grape growing and farming, wonder and reason — A Fool and Forty Acres, by Geoff Heinricks) by Ontario poet Al Purdy. I’ll keep looking; I’ve been meaning to read the book over again.Jellyfish


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