09 July 2006

True Sake cont'd

So today at Gilles' screening we tasted the Tokubetsu
Junmai Senchu Hassaku from Tsukasabotan, recommended as a favorite by Kumiko at True Sake. It was very good, less dry than the Hakkaisan or the Otokoyama but with a wonderful, full taste.

According to http://www.eat-japan.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=294&Itemid=116, this sake is named after samurai Sakamoto Ryouma's Eight-point Point for returning power to the emporer during the early Meiji period. Tsukasa botan apparently translates as "Chief Peony", I'll have to refer you to eat-japan for an explanation of that one.

08 July 2006

Botany of Desire

The best thing about Michael Pollan's 2001 book The Botany of Desire is the author's own desire -- he's an avid gardener, and his love of growing things both intersects the narrative at many points and informs the rest of it. It's like listening to a friend describe a favorite band's concert -- whatever lacks the plot may have, the enthusiasm of the teller makes up for them.

Not that there isn't some genuinely interesting plot material in Botany. The book tells the story of the relationship between us humans and four particular plants -- the Apple, the Tulip, Marijuana and the Potato. While I thought it failed at the promise of the subtitle (A Plant's Eye View of the World), the story about Johnny Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) alone was worth the read.

Surprisingly, Johhny Appleseed's historical figure is somewhat aligned with the myth we all learned in school. While he wasn't quite as selfless as a schoolbook said (the real Johnny Chapman planted trees in order to have apple trees for sale to later settlers when they arrived), he was indeed a frontier raconteur, eccentric as all get out (he preferred sleeping outdoors to indoors, even in winter), and that rarest of items, a frontier vegetarian who considered shoeing a horse to be cruelty.

The best part of the apple story though, is the reason why those pioneers longed to buy Chapman's apple trees and found their orchards: the primary use of apples grown in America before WWI was to make hard cider.

Johnny Appleseed was bringing the gift of alcohol to the frontier. The identification of the apple with notions of health and wholesomeness turns out to be a modern invention, part of a PR campaign dreamed up by the apple industry in the early 1900s to reposition a fruit that the [prohibitionists] has declared war on.

There's a nugget like that at the heart of each of the four sections of the book. The "breaks" in tulips that made them exquisitely valuable in the Dutch Tulipmania of the seventeenth centry was because of a infectious virus; in eliminating the virus, we have also eliminated the beautiful breaks. Marijuana, of course, had many uses throughout history, but indiscriminate drug enforcement in the U.S. has squashed the non-drug uses and perversely created super-plants capable of producing THC in previously unknown concentrations under artificial indoor cultivation. The potato section is mostly a rumination on the dangers of monocultures, which devastated Ireland in the potato blight of 1845-1848, and how genetically modified potato strains may either be the savior from or contributor to that fate -- if only we knew which.

The fact that there really is something at the heart of the story of these four plants drives the book but Pollan's enthusiasm for the tending of the earth is what makes it readable along the way. To that point, a little bit of gardening interest of your own is probably critical for this book to be worth reading; I'll certainly be giving it to my gardening friends!