Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a book about food. That might sound simple, but when I say “about food” I mean about all aspects of food: production, consumption, evolution, emotion, health, community, enviroment, and philosophy. What Pollan set out to do was to describe the creation of 4 different meals. This would take him to restaurants, grocery stores, feedlots, farms, and hidden mushroom gathering sites in the Sierra Nevada, all the while discussing the importance of the food gathering activity in social, economic, political, and environmental terms. His four meals all centered around different aspects of American food culture, and can be thought of as:
- Industrial – A fast food dinner bought in a drive through and eaten while cruising in a car.
- Industrial Organic – Organic food bought at a local Whole Paycheck and cooked at home, with ingredients from all over the world, but each grown “organically.”
- Local – After a week’s stay at a farm in Virginia, Pollan cooked another meal using only local ingredients (things grown and produced within a defined geographic area).
- Hunted and Gathered – A meal, once again cooked by Pollan, with food he hunted and gathered within a days drive of his home in Berkeley, California.
If you don’t want to read the whole post, in short, it is an excellent book, is now in paperback, and will be thought provoking to anyone who eats food on a regular basis.
Before I go on much further, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I am a vegetarian. I have been for about 13 years now, and started reading the book with more than a decade’s worth of thought on food (specifically meat and meat production) swirling in my head. Just so you don’t think I am a completely unreliable food critic, however, I must also admit that I am a vegetarian who thinks many other vegetarians are incredibly annoying (almost as bad as the people who try to convince me to eat meat or otherwise say idiotic and derogatory things about veggos.) I believe there are a lot of excellent reasons to be a vegetarian, and I get annoyed by people who make up completely new (and usually groundless and/or non-sensical) reasons. For example, claims that meat is inherently unhealthy or that humans cannot properly digest meat really burn me up. Add that to how inundated vegetarian grocery stores and magazines are with all kinds of shark-cartilage-plant-extract-dietary-supplement-snake-oil-nonsense and you can see why anyone might get a little ticked off. Why make up B.S? Why not just stick to the obvious and well proven facts? Why not have an intelligent discussion about the pros and cons of all aspects of food production and consumption? A-Ha! You thought I was digressing, but I just brought us right back to Dilemma.
The first meal Pollan describes is the ultimate in modern industrial fast food. To see where the food comes from, Pollan visits a feedlot where a calf he “bought” is spending it’s last days getting fattened up on corn and antibiotics. He also visits some large scale industrial farms in the lower midwest. A large part of the first part of the book deals with the central role that corn plays in our modern industrial food production. Corn, or some corn byproduct, has worked it’s way into almost every processed food item that we eat, including most of the beef sold in the US. This last fact is no small feat, especially considering that cows don’t naturally eat corn, and in fact cannot digest corn well without help. Corn has the advantage of getting cows fat quickly and adding “marbling” to the beef, but only with the help of drugs and vets. Most feedlot stays are relatively short, so the goal seems to be to pump them full of anything that can get them to the slaughterhouse fat. ****This by the way has stuck in my head. You always hear about “corn-fed” beef like it is some mark of authenticity. Cows don’t eat corn! They eat grass! Corn-fed beef is a relatively new invention that requires a veterinary staff armed with drugs to implement. Why did that surprise me?****As one could expect, there aren’t many positive sides to the industrial meal, the production and consumption of the food is filled with huge wastes of money and energy, disgraceful animal living conditions, exploitation of labor, absurd government subsidy structures, and consumers inhaling unhealthy food with little connection at all to it’s source.
The first part of the book was really not clicking with me. These were arguments I have read and heard many times, and were some of the reasons I swore off meat in the first place. I am beyond the time in my life where I want to read affirmations of my own thoughts, and put the book down for a while. Fortunately I picked it up again, because the stories surrounding the last three meals are fascinating. One aspect of the first section I do want to mention though is his discussion of “reductionist nutrition.” Basically, the idea that we know all of the essential fundamentals we need to eat, and if we synthetically fortify foods with these basic building blocks then we will have healthy diets. This is a dangerous way to think, every year there are new things we never knew we couldn’t live without, lycopene, antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, the list goes on. The antithesis to reductionist nutrition is eating a variety of fresh foods, what we have evolved eating. I think this discussion especially struck a chord with me because I was also reading (at the time) Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s amazing The Worst Journey in the World, a chronicle of Robert Falcon Scott’s fatal attempt to reach the south pole. This relates because Cherry-Garrard spends a lot of time on the various diets they experimented with for polar travel, all different combinations of fat, sugar, and protein. This was well before people knew about the importance of vitamins, let alone omega-3 fatty acids. Anyone who thinks they’ve nailed down what a healthy diet needs (in a reductionist sense) should read these accounts and gain some perspective. These explorers, at the time, were on the cutting edge of understanding what a body needs to survive, and they were missing huge parts (with deadly consequences.) Back to the book…
The second meal, industrial organic, deals a great deal with the arguments for and against organic food. For example, is it better to eat a “conventional” apple from a farm down the road, or an organic one flown in from New Zealand? And just what is “organic,” or “free range” anyhow? This section of the book really made me scratch my head. I don’t want to just repeat his points, but man, “organic” farms sure can look a lot like conventional farms….
The third meal was the most interesting to read about. Pollan spent a week working on Polyface Farm, a self contained grass farm run by a man named Joe Salatin that raises cows, chickens, pigs, turkeys, rabbits….and I think that is it….. The idea is that instead of importing nutrients in the form of chemical fertilizers (or corn grown with said petrochemicals), Salatin uses a very well planned and intricate system of animal rotation to raise everything using only his own forest and pasture land. This system fascinated me; allegedly grass grows better if it is nibbled on (but not overgrazed), and with this system Salatin (and his father) have turned an overgrazed wasteland of a farm into a very efficient and productive plot of pasture and forest. Salatin’s system is absolutely fascinating, and I’d recommend the book just based on this section alone. It has even made me hunt down a local grass farmer who I know by my eggs from (saturday farmers market). I think what got me thinking the most in this section was the interplay of meat, vegetarianism, organic, and local food. My default preference has always been organic vegetarian, but is that always the “best choice.” All organic produce requires animal derived fertilizer, and after the industrial organic section I am now putting more favor on local food. Anyways, those are my dilemnas, the point is that the workings of Polyface Farms and the whole grass farmer idea has made me think more about food and farming than anything I’ve read in the past decade. No, it hasn’t converted me, I’m just saying, it’s worth the read.
The final meal was about as close as one could come to the who hunter-gatherer model. Pollan hunted mushrooms, wild pigs, and random greens and fruits to make a dinner focused on things that he “found” himself. I wasn’t expecting much from this meal, but once again Pollan does an excellent job of integrating so many aspects of the experience, hunting, foraging, etc., that you get sucked in.
What I ended up really liking about this book was Pollan’s sense of even-handedness. When he talks about killing animals, either in a slaughterhouse, on Salatin’s farm (he participated in the processing of the chickens), or in the forest of northern California, he uses intelligence without sounding removed, and emotion without sounding sappy. That is a tough balance to strike, and it is easy to slip down either side (either to reaffirm your choice to not eat meat or convince yourself it is OK to). He even nailed on the head one of the hardest parts of being a vegetarian, that is feeling like an inconvenience when friends invite you for meals, feeling like a constant problem, or just a rude and unappreciative guest. When he discussed organic versus local there wasn’t always a clear winner, there are pros and cons. In the end, the book isn’t so much about what you should do, but more about how you should think about food. I think it has something to offer everyone, and I can’t recommend it enough. As a warning, the first part where he keeps talking about corn, that can get a little repetitive, but power on through and trust me it is worth it.
Pollan is an excellent writer, and I just want to end this with a few quotes. First, some of his thoughts on the meals he hunted and foraged:
Perhaps the perfect meal is one that’s been fully paid for, that leaves no debt outstanding. This is almost impossible ever to do, which is why I said there was nothing very realistic or applicable about this meal. But as a sometimes thing, as a kind of ritual, a meal that is eaten in full consciousness of what it took to make it is worth preparing every now and again, if only as a way to remind us of the true costs of the things we take for granted. The reason I didn’t open a can of stock was because stock doesn’t come from a can; it comes from the bones of animals. As the yeast that leavens our bread comes not from a packet but from the air we breathe. The meal was more ritual than realistic because it dwelled on such things, reminding us how very much nature offers to the omnivore, the forests as much as the fields, the oceans as the meadows. If I had to give this dinner a name, it would have to be the Omnivore’s Thanksgiving. (pp. 409-410)
And finally to wrap things up
This is not the way I want to eat every day. I like to be able to open a can of stock and I like to talk about politics, or the movies, at the dinner table sometimes instead of food. But imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a manner of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost. We could then talk about some other things at dinner. For we would no longer need any reminding that however we chose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world. (pg. 411)