The great Johnny Appleseed, philanthropic spreader of fruit, was nothing more than an enterprising booze purveyor. Or so contends Michael Pollan in his 2001 book, The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World. When researching the apple, Pollan discovered that our modern, sweet fruit-producing apple trees don't grow naturally from seeds but rather must be grafted from existing trees. In reality, Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman) was a renegade vegetarian who planted bitter cider orchards throughout the American West so pilgrims could hit the sauce once they reached their bleak new homes.
This is one of many stories in Botany of Desire that chronicles the reciprocal relationship between plants and humans. Pollan became fascinated by human desires and how they are evidenced by the foods we've chosen to cultivate—apples represent our desire for sweetness, tulips beauty, marijuana intoxication and potatoes control.
''We automatically think of domestication as something we do to other species, but it makes just as much sense to think of it as something certain plants and animals have done to us,'' Pollan writes.
Though Botany of Desire is Pollan's third book, it was the first to popularize his distinct, pop-science writing style. A contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a journalism professor at University of California in Berkeley, Pollan will make a sold-out appearance at the Egyptian Theatre on Wednesday, Nov. 12, as a part of The Cabin's Readings and Conversations series. Pollan pens engaging social science that explores contemporary food phenomena utilizing a variety of interesting case studies. His fourth book, 2006's The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, examines meals eaten from four different food production systems in the United States—industrial, large-scale organic, local and hunter-gatherer—in order to address the pressing question: What should we eat?
Pollan first treks out to a cornfield in Iowa and a bovine feedlot in Kansas to explore the fast food industry's unnerving dependence on corn. From corn-fed animals to vegetables coated in waxy corn-based preservatives to drinks packed with high-fructose corn syrup, corn has inseminated itself into almost every aspect of the industrial diet. Pollan then takes a trip to the feel-good aisles of Whole Foods to explore the changing nature of the term "organic" and a jaunt to a completely local, polycultural organic farm in Virginia for a meal much closer to the land. For his final meal, Pollan hunts wild boar and forages for mushrooms and berries. These four journeys are packed with interesting facts—ranging from how corn has sex to how Monsanto drastically changed the food system—and explore, in detail, what we put into our mouths.
In Pollan's most recent book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, he tackles the industrial food system once again, but this time with a focus on the American proclivity to marry science and nutrition under the term "nutritionism." By over-processing foods, isolating certain "healthy" elements and reintroducing them into new foods (think: vitamin-infused water or omega-3 yogurt), our diets have strayed from what our great-grandmothers would have considered food. Paradoxically, we are now "both overfed and undernourished." Pollan's solution to this problem? "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." And also, "Pay more, eat less." Though this might seem like an impossible feat for a busy household, Pollan provides enough convincing research to make shoppers think twice before putting even healthy-sounding processed foods in their carts.
Though lectures in both Boise and Ketchum are sold out, there's still hope for the Pollan fan sans ticket. Grab a seat and a locally made cocktail at the Red Feather Lounge and hope Pollan's posse saunters in. Or drink a couple of said cocktails, wait for an attractive foodie to saddle up next to you, and regale them with your knowledge of the real Johnny Appleseed.
Wed., Nov. 12, 7:30 p.m., SOLD OUT, The Egyptian Theatre, 700 W Main St. For more information, visit thecabinidaho.org. Thurs., Nov. 13, 7 p.m., SOLD OUT. Church of the Big Wood 100 Saddle Rd., Ketchum. For more information, visit sunvalleycenter.org.