Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Pollan wrong again - but still brilliant

As I have said before, Michael Pollan is one of my heroes.  Through his books The Botany of Desire, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and In Defense of Food he has done as much as anyone to re-connect people to their own personal food chains - and he has done so in an incredibly compelling and entertaining way.  He should be Secretary of Agriculture.

But he keeps getting oaks wrong.

Last year, when re-reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, I posted about how Pollan wrote that oaks had "refused the domestic bargain."  His point was that acorns haven't done anything to make themselves palatable to humans, who therefore have done nothing to help oaks expand their dominion - in the way that apples, corn or potatoes have struck the (perhaps Faustian) bargain of domestication with humankind.

I'm re-reading The Botany of Desire (which was the first in Pollan's plant/food books), and last night I came across this: "We give ourselves altogether too much credit in our dealings with other species.  Even the power over nature that domestication supposedly represents is overstated.  It takes two to perform thta particular dance, after all, and plenty of plants and animals have elected to sit it out.  Try as they might, people have never been able to domesticate the oak tree, whose highly nutritious acorns remain far too bitter for humans to eat.  Evidently the oak has such a satisfactory arrangement with the squirrel - which obligingly forgets where it has buried every fourth acorn or so (admittedly, the estimate is Beatrix Potter's)- that the tree has never needed to enter into any kind of formal arrangement with us.  The apple has been far more eager to do business with humans."

I get his overarching point (the guy is such a brilliant thinker and writer it would be hard not too).  The section of the book on apples is specifically about sweetness, and how the apple's sweetness enticed people to spread it from the Khazak mountains were it is thought to have originated.

Acorns are not sweet.  But they are a much more complete food source than are apples, and have sustained humankind for much longer.

Acorns are not too bitter for humans to eat.  Many are edible right off the tree.  Others require a minimal amount of leaching (boiling) - a lot less work than what is required to preserve apples in the form of sauce, jam or hard cider (my favorite form of apple).

"Try as they might...???"  People have put almost zero effort into "domesticating" the oak tree.  In part that's because it provided so for us so wonderfully for so long without "improvement."  In part that's because we forgot about oaks when we came under the thrall of corn, wheat, and rice.  Were we to devote 1/1,000,000th of the effort into to domesticating oaks that humankind put into domesticating the sorry, virtually inedible plants that become corn and potatoes, oaks could easily be our primary food source.


In the co-evolutionary give-and-take of domesticating a crop, the oak has more than held up its end of the bargain.  It's time for us to hold up ours.

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