James Michener Anticipates Me

In James Michener’s Poland (1983), a Polish peasant in a concentration camp tries to survive by thinking about food (p. 532 of the paperback):

He then transferred his imagination to a supper served at the wedding of a well-to-do farmer, where huge platters of sauerkraut, sausage, boiled pork and pickles had been provided, one to each of six tables, and he had helped himself piggishly, moving from one to the other so as not to reveal his gluttony.  He recalled this particular feast for two reasons: as a peasant, he knew that the acid bite of the pickled kraut was good for him, all peasants knew that and it was one reason why they survived so long; and he could see in the rich fat of the meats the strength that came from them.

Later he thinks about animal fat:

He imagined himself luxuriating with platters of butter, or grease, or pork drippings, or oil that rich people bought from Spain, or the golden globules at the edge of a roast, or plain lard.

According to Wikipedia, Poland was based on “extensive study of Poland’s history and culture.” Thanks to Nadav Manham.

9 Replies to “James Michener Anticipates Me”

  1. Imaginary gluttony? Interesting.

    If I imagine that I’m eating lots of fattening foods, would I get fat(ter)?

    And would the reverse be true: If I imagine I’m on a very low calorie diet, would I lose weight?


    If placebos work maybe 30 percent of the time, that would mean that a placebo diet just might be the world’s most successful diet.

  2. Jim, I think you are missing the point.

    The key element here is that “Poland” mentions the “acid bite” of pickled kraut is healthy and that animal fat will give them strength.

    I doubt the imaginings will change your biochemistry too much. It’s just interesting to hear that pickled/kimchi flavors were known to be healthy to the Polish.

    What else do these folks know about health from food that we don’t?

  3. Great find with those quotes! I keep re-reading them. I’m about to eat fatty ham with home-made pickles and mustard.

    They remind me of a quote I like that was referenced as an old Dutch proverb: “Eat butter first, and eat it last, and live till a hundred years be past.”

    Also, L Keith’s The Vegetarian Myth (I think it was that book) has a reference to concentration camp survivors eating the fats first from the foods offered to them when they were freed. So that backs up the novel there too.

  4. He imagined himself luxuriating with platters of butter, or grease, or pork drippings, or oil that rich people bought from Spain, or the golden globules at the edge of a roast, or plain lard.

    This could also be taken from some turn-of-the-century Hungarian short stories. I think it was Zsigmond Moricz (or Mikszath?) who wrote of a Hungarian peasant invited to a wedding feast for the local noble’s daughter’s wedding. The peasant doesn’t eat for a few days in preparation for the feast and dreams of fat/lard/butter. Ironically and tragically, the peasant dies of over-eating as his body is not used to such rich food.

    (BTW Moricz’s point was the exploitation of the peasants by the nobility.)

  5. BTW this is off-topic for this post – but completely keeping with one of the themes of this blog.

    Seth, I think we’d all like your thoughts on this:


    “Why are modern scientists so dull?

    Why are modern scientists so dull? How science selects for perseverance and sociability at the expense of intelligence and creativity

    Medical Hypotheses. Volume 72, Issue 3, Pages 237-243

    Bruce G. Charlton



    Question: why are so many leading modern scientists so dull and lacking in scientific ambition? Answer: because the science selection process ruthlessly weeds-out interesting and imaginative people. At each level in education, training and career progression there is a tendency to exclude smart and creative people by preferring Conscientious and Agreeable people. The progressive lengthening of scientific training and the reduced independence of career scientists have tended to deter vocational ‘revolutionary’ scientists in favour of industrious and socially adept individuals better suited to incremental ‘normal’ science. High general intelligence (IQ) is required for revolutionary science. But educational attainment depends on a combination of intelligence and the personality trait of Conscientiousness; and these attributes do not correlate closely. Therefore elite scientific institutions seeking potential revolutionary scientists need to use IQ tests as well as examination results to pick-out high IQ ‘under-achievers’. As well as high IQ, revolutionary science requires high creativity. Creativity is probably associated with moderately high levels of Eysenck’s personality trait of ‘Psychoticism’. Psychoticism combines qualities such as selfishness, independence from group norms, impulsivity and sensation-seeking; with a style of cognition that involves fluent, associative and rapid production of many ideas. But modern science selects for high Conscientiousness and high Agreeableness; therefore it enforces low Psychoticism and low creativity. Yet my counter-proposal to select elite revolutionary scientists on the basis of high IQ and moderately high Psychoticism may sound like a recipe for disaster, since resembles a formula for choosing gifted charlatans and confidence tricksters. A further vital ingredient is therefore necessary: devotion to the transcendental value of Truth. Elite revolutionary science should therefore be a place that welcomes brilliant, impulsive, inspired, antisocial oddballs – so long as they are also dedicated truth-seekers.”

  6. Patrick, Thanks for your comment. The description of the ideal science student at the end of the abstract reminds me of the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game crowd I used to hang out with, except that they were a bit too drawn towards anachronistic fantasy rather than the what-could-possibly-be-in-the-future science fiction type (like Asimov). Methinks we should raid some dungeons to scout talent.

  7. Thanks, Patrik. I can’t get that link, being in China. I tend to blame our educational system, not the career selection process, for turning out boring people. But I agree there is selection for Agreeableness. As for crummy modern science, I tend to blame status seeking and careerism by scientists. As there was more status to be had (e.g., more money), the field attracted more people who cared a lot about status and more of their time was spent trying to increase their status. How status seeking fits with personality dimensions I don’t know, but it certainly correlates with being boring. As for biology/health in particular, the field has been taken over by a delusion (control of health by genes) which has brought progress to a halt. Perhaps lack of progress has also increased status-seeking and careerism. Lack of something interesting to say would make anyone boring.

  8. @Seth and Aaron

    I hold a master’s degree in economics from a University of California. I found that the ideal graduate econ student is one who is:

    -Way over-qualified mathematically, so much that it is a handicap IMHO (Levitt of Freakonomics fame has also talked about this.)

    -Willing to spend inordinate amount of time running regressions without actually asking themselves about the underlying logic (or lack of) the relationships

    -Doesn’t rock the boat and ask questions that have no answers

    -Lacks creativity


    I am painting with a very broad brush, but in my mind, that these people are akin to human computing machines, not actual “thinkers”. Give them input, they will process, and spit out.

    But having the ability to think/decide what the input should be, how and if it should be processed, and what the output might look like was not a desired trait.

  9. Hey Seth,

    I’m curious – do you get regular blood tests (e.g. renal, liver, lipd, urate) or blood pressure tests? I think it would be interesting to see if there’s any relationship between your diet and those sort of results because “cholesterol lowering diets” for example, often advise cutting out animal fat completely and only eating specific types of lean white meat such as chicken and fish.

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