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Interesting Information/Books: Commercial Bread Yeast: A Monoculture

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Interesting Information/Books:  February 23, 2015

Commercial Bread Yeast:  A Monoculture

Michael Pollan, in COOKED…



…explains that “commercial yeast is a purified monoculture of S. cerevisiae, raised on a diet of molasses, then washed, dried, and powdered.  Like any monoculture, it does one thing predictably and well:  Feed it enough sugars and it will promptly cough up large quantities of carbon dioxide” (218-219).

Commercial yeast is an INDUSTRIAL product and bears no resemblance to traditional sourdough cultures.

So, what’s wrong with that?

Nutritionally, commercial yeast is very limiting.  Combine it with white flour, which is mostly just dead starches, and you’re eating something that fills you up, but provides very little in the way of nutrition.

Whole grains are much more biologically active and complex–think living cells–and much harder to control in an industrial setting (220-221).

A sourdough culture is a whole ecosystem, containing “at least twenty types of yeast and fifty different bacteria” (221).

Basically, baking with whole grains and a sourdough culture is all about “managing fermentation”–which can be tricky depending on the weather, the temperature, the strength and point of development of the sourdough culture, and when and how one feeds the sourdough culture.  It’s a process that can only be done by a dedicated, skilled baker.  The communities that are created in the traditional bread processes cannot be reduced to the “efficiency” that occurs in a factory.

Traditional whole grain sourdough bread can supply a lot of nutrition.  It’s too bad that there is so little of it available to most of us today.  It’s too bad that we’ve lost the taste of it in favor of the “white felt” we have instead.

Seek it out.  Bake it yourself.  Find substitutes for the factory bread as it’s not doing you any good at all.

Written by louisaenright

February 23, 2015 at 2:06 pm

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

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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.

Written by louisaenright

February 22, 2015 at 12:03 pm

Books, Documentaries, Reviews AND Interesting Information: No Time To Cook

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Books, Documentaries, Reviews AND Interesting Information:  July 11, 2014

No Time To Cook


I’m so enjoying this summer.

In the mornings, I’m getting up early, feeding and releasing the chickens from their coop, feeding the dogs, making a big cup of tea, and sitting on my back deck with a book for at least an hour before really starting my day.

At night, before bed, I read fiction.  In these early morning hours, I am reading mostly nonfiction.  My current book is Michael Pollen’s Cooked, which I’m really enjoying in all kinds of ways.  I love the way Pollen THINKS about his subjects as it’s thinking that is informed by a lot of research of all kinds–to include spending time cooking.


I’ve waded through the “fire” section–which is all about roasting meat over coals and all the implications of this very male form of cooking.  Think pit barbecue.

I’ve almost finished “water”–which involves stewing, souping, braising–or cooking in a pot with aromatics and liquids.  This “water” section also takes on the fact that we say we have no TIME to cook any more.  If buying food saves us thirty minutes a day, what are we doing with that time?

But wait!  Does buying food really save us thirty minutes?  Does going to a restaurant?

Americans work longer than any other industrial nation, writes Pollen.  Since 1967, we’ve added 167 hours, or the equivalent of a month’s full-time labor, to our work year.  With two parents involved, the amount is more like 400 hours.  Why?

This probably owes to the fact that, historically, the priority of the American labor movement has been to fight for money, whereas the European labor movement has fought harder for time–a shorter workweek, longer vacations.  Not surprisingly, in those countries where people still take home cooking seriously, as they do in much of Europe, they also have more time to devote to it (183).

And these people who cook are thinner, Pollen points out in a number of places in the book:  “the more time a nation devotes to food preparation at home, the lower its rate obesity” (191, 192).

So, we spend more time working.  We spend more time on the car.  We spend more time shopping.  We spend more time in front of screens (35 hours a week on average watching tv), surfing the Web (13 hours), and playing games on our smart phones.

Folks, WE HAVE TIME TO COOK good food.  It’s always already about the choices we are making, isn’t it?

We’re also doing a lot of what is called “secondary eating”–or eating while doing something else:  watching tv, driving, getting dressed, and so on.  We now spend 78 minutes a day in secondary eating and drinking (190).

Pollen and his family try an experiment:  Microwave Night.

He and his son go to the grocery store to pick out a dish for each person–three dishes (the third for his wife) and a dessert.  The total cost was $27.  (Pollen notes that he could have bought grass fed beef and veggies for a stew that would feed the family for two nights for the same amount of money.)  Their first obstacle is to buy food that has recognizable ingredients and isn’t full of hydrolyzed vegetable protein (soy).  Their second is realizing that some of their foods have packages that announce that they need to be cooked in the oven for best results and will take up to 45 minutes.

To make a longer story short, it takes an hour to microwave all the food–and at no time can they sit down together at the table as someone is always checking on the dishes in the microwave or their food isn’t ready yet, or is, but is getting cold.  Dinner time was a disaster in terms of family time.  The food also all tasted “remarkably similar”–no matter how exotically different–and much like what airline food used to taste like.

The next night, they ate a stew, visited over the table, and were relaxed and energized.  The stew had been in the refrigerator since Sunday–when it had been cooked for the week–a practice Pollen has worked into his schedule.

By the time the sweet smells of allspice, juniper, and clove began to fill the house, Isaac and Judith had gravitated to the kitchen; I never had to call them to dinner.  I brought the pot out to the table, and began serving everyone from it (200).

For the first time all day, it felt like we were all on the same page, and though it would be overstating things to credit that feeling entirely to the delicious braise, it would also be wrong to think that eating the same thing from the same pot, this weeknight communion of the casserole, had nothing to do with it, either (201)

So, I’m looking forward to the Air and Earth sections of Cooked.

And I remain certain that I will continue to “occupy my kitchen”–as I have all of my adult life.

Books, Documentaries, Reviews: Michael Pollan: COOKED

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Books, Documentaries, Reviews:  April 26, 2014


Michael Pollan


Friend Gina Caceci brought me Michael Pollan’s Cooked a bit ago…


I’m only into the beginning pages, but am looking forward to reading more.

Pollan begins with describing what he calls the “cooking paradox”:

How is it that at the precise historical moment when Americans were abandoning the kitchen, handing over the preparation of most of our meals to the food industry, we began spending so much of our time thinking about food and watching other people cook it on television?  The less cooking were doing in our own lives, it seemed, the more that food and its vicarious preparation transfixed us (3).

Pollan goes on to note that “the amount of time spent preparing meals in American households has fallen by half since the mid-sixties, when I was watching my mom fix dinner, to a scant twenty-seven minutes a day” (3).


Cooking, Pollan notes, is magic:  “Even the most ordinary dish follows a satisfying arc of transformation, magically becoming something more than the sum of its ordinary parts.  And in almost every dish, you can find, besides the culinary ingredients, the ingredients of a story:  a beginning, a middle, and an end” (4).

And here’s a bit of philosophy that might explain the “cooking paradox”:

So maybe the reason we like to watch cooking on television and read about cooking in books is that there are things about cooking we really miss.  We might not feel we have the time or energy (or the knowledge) to do it ourselves every day, but we’re not prepared to see it disappear from our lives altogether.  If cooking is, as the anthropologists tell us, a defining human activity–the act with which culture begins, according to Claude Lévi-Strauss–then maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that watching its processes unfold would strike deep emotional chords (5).

Other anthropologists “have begun to take quite literally the idea that the invention of cooking might hold the evolutionary key to our humaness” (6).

A few years ago, a Harvard anthropologist and primatologist named Richard Wrangham published a fascinating book called Catching Fire, in which he argued that it was the discovery of cooking by our early ancestors–and not tool making or meat eating or language–that set us apart from the apes and made us human.  According to the “cooking hypothesis,” the advent of cooked food altered the course of human evolution.  By providing our forebears with a more energy-dense and easy-to-digest diet, it allowed our brains to grow bigger (brains being notorious energy guzzlers) and our guts to shrink.  It seems that raw food takes much more time and energy to chew and digest, which is why other primates our size carry around substantially larger digestive tracts and spend many more of their waking hours chewing–as much as six hours a day.

Cooking, in effect, took part of the work of chewing and digestion and performed it for us outside of the body, using outside sources of energy.  Also, since cooking detoxifies many potential sources of food, the new technology cracked open a treasure trove of calories unavailable to other animals.  Freed from the necessity of spending our days gathering large quantities of raw food and then chewing (and chewing) it, humans could now devote their time, and their metabolic resources, to other purposes, like creating a culture (6).

So, “if cooking is as central to human identity, biology, and culture as Wrangham suggests, it stands to reason that the decline of cooking in our time would have serious consequences for modern life, and so it has” (7).

I will leave you with this quote–which contains much “food for thought”:

The shared meal is no small thing.  It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization:  sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending.  What have been called the “cultural contradictions of capitalism”–its tendency to undermine the stabilizing social forms it depends on–are on vivid display today at the modern American dinner table, along with all the brightly colored packages that the food industry has managed to plant there (8).





Written by louisaenright

April 26, 2014 at 6:49 pm

Turkey Tracks: New Books on Food Issues

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Turkey Tracks:  January 2, 2013

New Books on Food Issues


I’ve been waiting for this one to be published:


Denise Minger is the fiery and very funny young woman who took on T. Colin Campbell of The China Study fame and showed that he is so blinded by his vegan belief system that he is not “seeing” what his data is really telling him about meat protein.

T. Colin Campbell, you might recall, is the bona fide scientist who thinks that meat causes cancer.  Only his data does not support that conclusion.  And, you might also recall from earlier posts on this blog that one of the main critiques of The China Study is that the Chinese doctors did not come to the same conclusions that Campbell did about meat.  Indeed, in the very middle of the film (I will not call it a documentary as it is really an emotional and unscientific appeal to a belief system), the Chinese doctor filmed says that “meat and vegetables” support health.

The takaway here, as Minger notes early on in the book, is that we have to consider WHO is telling us what to eat and to consider their agendas a part of our vetting process.  Sometimes “experts” are not so expert.

Minger, as a teenager, spent a year being a raw food believer and learned the bitter lesson that one’s body needs nutrient dense food.  In that year, as she recounts in her book, she got 16 cavities and her dentist said he had never seen a mouth so badly hurt in one so young.  So, it will be interesting to see how she positions herself around “what to eat.”

She is very clear that there is no “one size fits all” diet that is magic.  We each have to know our bodies and figure out what gives us good health.  Still, she does list some foods that cause a lot of people trouble, and grains are in that mix.  But I will do a more formal review of this book when I finish it.

Michael Pollen’s book Cooked was the gift of Gina Caceci, who knows me well.


Apparently Pollen spends some time writing about Sandor Ellis Katz’s lacto-fermented foods (Wild Fermentation).  And, with Katz, of course.  (I have several blog posts on lacto-fermenting foods and on Katz.)  Recently I read a Dr. Joseph Mercola post that said the lacto-fermented foods have the power to detox the body.  I don’t doubt it.

Thanks you, Gina!