Books and Interesting Information: More on Michael Pollan’s COOKED

Books and Interesting Information:  January 22, 2015

More on Michael Pollan’s COOKED



I think the most exciting part of this book for me was the section on fermentation, called “Earth.”  Fermentation undergirds so much of what we eat.  Here are a few foods that are fermented:  sourdough bread, beer/wine and other bubbly drinks, cheeses, fermented meats (like salami, for instance), all the lacto-fermented foods (like sauerkraut) and on and on.  Sandor Katz has a great list that is much, much longer than I am recalling here.

As an aside, the breakdown of Pollan’s organizational schema here is that sourdough bread falls under the “Air” section, not the “Earth” section, but it’s still a ferment…

The most exciting section of “Earth” for me was when Pollan writes about the excitement scientists who are studying the microbiome of the human body have at their recent discoveries.  Here’s how Pollan puts it:

The scientists working today on “microbial ecology” are as excited as any I’ve ever interviewed, convinced, as one of them put it, that they “stand on the verge of a paradigm shift in our understanding of health as well as our relationship to other species.”  And fermentation–as it unfolds both inside and outside the body–is at the heart of this new understanding (322)

Here’s the shift:

In the decades since Louis Pasteur founded microbiology, medical research has focused mainly on bacteria’s role in causing disease.  The bacteria that reside in and on our bodies were generally regarded as either harmless “commensals”–freeloaders, basically–or pathogens to be defended against.  Scientists tended to study these bugs one at a time, rather than as communities.  This was partly a deeply ingrained habit of reductive science, and partly a function of the available tools (322)

It is still astonishing to me how destructive this artifact of modernity–this focusing on parts rather than wholes–has been.  The hubris involved in acting without fully understanding how the whole functions, how the parts relate to each other as well as to the whole, blows my mind.  How can you know how something works if you can’t even see all its parts?  Pollan continues:

Scientists naturally focused their attention on the bacteria they could see, which meant the handful of individual bugs that could be cultured in a petri dish.  There, they found some good guys and some bad guys.  But the general stance toward the bacteria we had discovered all around us was shaped by metaphors of war, and in that war, antibiotics became the weapons of choice (322-323).

And, I want to add, pesticides, herbicides, and anything that kills what got deemed as an enemy by THE MARKET, which has happily sold us its products for years and years now without any regard to unintended consequences of NOT FULLY UNDERSTANDING THE FUNCTIONING OF THE WHOLE.  (Yes, I’m yelling because the consequences to humans, to our babies, to our earth are…nothing short of dire.)

Pollan continues:

But it turns out that the overwhelming majority of bacteria residing in the gut simply refuse to grow on a petri dish–a phenomenon now known among researchers as “the great plate anomalluy.”  Without realizing it, they were practicing what is sometimes called parking-lot science–named for the human tendency to search for lost keys under the streetlights not because that’s where we lost them but because that is where we can best see.  The petri dish was a streetlight.  But when, in the early 2000s, researchers developed genetic “batch” sequencing techniques allowing them to catalog all the DNA in a sample of soil, say, or seawater or feces, science suddenly acquired a broad and powerful beam of light that could illuminate the entire parking lot.  When it did, we discovered hundreds of new species in the human gukt doing all sorts of unexpected things (323).

We are, it seems, a kind of superorganism.  And our health depends on the health of the microbial species within us.

To their surprise, microbiologists discovered that none of every ten cells in our bodies belong not to us, but to these microbial species (most of them residents of our gut), and that 99 percent of the DNA we’re carrying around belongs to those microbes.  Some scientists, trained in evolutionary biology, began looking at the human individual in a humbling new light:  as a kind of superorganism, a community of several hundred coevolved and interdependent species.  War metaphors no longer made much sense.  So the microbiologists began borrowing new metaphors from the ecologists (323).

The survival of these microbes depends on our health, writes Pollan, “so they do all sorts of things to keep their host–us–alive and well.”  We can no longer think of ourselves as individuals, but as part of a community.  Look at the word microbiome itself:  micro  bio  me.  Kill the microbes, kill yourself.

These guys are really smart, as Pollan notes:

One theory is that, because microbes can evolve so much more rapidly than the “higher animals” they can respond with much greater speed and agility to changes int eh environment–to threats as well as opportunities.  Exquisitely reactive and fungible, bacteria can swap genes and pieces of DNA among themselves, picking t hem up and dropping them almost as if they were tools.  This capability is especially handy when a new toxin or food source appears in the environment.  The microbiota can swiftly find precisely the right gene needed to fight it–or eat it (325-326).

Feed your gut microbiome properly.  Lacto-fermented foods are a good start to restoring gut health.  There are recipes on this blog, and this food is easy to make and delicious.