Friday, March 6, 2009

The Omnivor's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan (2006)[*****]. I've read a number of books about food and agriculture, and have reviewed a few of them here (Gene Logsdon's essays, Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), but this is the best in the genre that I've read by far. Pollan combines a ton of compelling information (some of it worthy of a Stephen King horror story) with really nice personal narrative and interesting, well-drawn characters. Four meals give the book its structure. The first, in the section entitled "Industrial: Corn," is a fast food meal from McDonalds, eaten in the car at 60 miles per hour. In this section, Pollan looks at the way that corn has quite literally taken over our food chain and our bodies. Because of the way that corn photosynthesizes carbon in the atmosphere differently than most other plants, it is possible to trace the carbon in our bodies back to corn, no matter how its been processed in between (through a cow, for example, or as xanthan gum, and most of the rest of the items in the second half of the list of ingredients in processed food). The average North American is now apparently one quarter corn -- more than people, such as Mexicans, who have a traditional corn-based diet. The ubiquity of corn is the direct result of two connected forces: first, the Nixon administration's desire to keep both farmers and housewives happy, and the desire of industrial capitalism for ever-expanding food markets, despite the fact that we can only consume so many calories each day. Earl Butz, Nixon's agriculture secretary, launched a cheap-food policy by pushing farmers into producing rivers of corn, so much corn that the bottom fell out of the market (corn fetches less at market than it costs to produce). That problem was solved with subsidies to farmers, and the rest of us are kept happy with cheap food, a good deal of which starts as corn. The problems with the subsequent industrialization of agriculture and food are legion: monoculture is ecologically devastating; much of the resulting industrial food-like substances -- convenience food! super sized food! lunchables and uncrustables and big gulps! -- lack nutritional value, are making us fat, and can barely be called food at all; animals become viewed merely as protein production units, and thus lead short, miserably tortured lives so that we can have bland, cheap, and morally indefensible meat, eggs and dairy; and the whole catastrophe is premised on cheap, plentiful, toxic petroleum -- to put some semblance of fertility back in the soil, to kill the pests and weeds, to move the industrial food around. Pretty grim stuff. The second two meals, set in the middle section entitled "Pastoral: Grass," are "organic," but that's about all they have in common. The first, purchased at Whole Foods, is mostly "industrial organic," a movement whose ecological and nutritional benefits Pollan weighs and finds at best a marginal improvement over conventional industrial food. The second is a meal produced almost entirely at Polyface Farm, an ingenious 550 acre farm -- 100 acres of grass, 450 of forest -- where the cantankerous, Christian libertarian farmer produces an unbelievable amount of "happy meat" with almost no inputs (fertilizer, pesticides, feed, etc) and absolutely no waste. (My dad is the socialist atheist version of this farmer, so I sort of feel like I know him. He reminds me also of the contrary, cranky Gene Logsdon.) The final meal, in the section entitled "Personal: The Forrest" features wild boar hunted by Pollan himself, foraged wild mushrooms, and even bread risen with wild yeast. When I first started reading this section I thought it was overkill (pun not originally intended, but there it is!), and wondered if the book wouldn't be better and tighter without another 100 pages. As it turns out, this was perhaps the most fascinating section of the book, with a masterful argument against the animal liberation movement and in favor of eating meat; as well as thoughtful, funny, and compelling reflections on ourselves as predators that called to mind how much I loved Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer and made me understand the appeal of hunting as sport for the first time. All in all, this is a compelling and entertaining read, and if nothing else, will make you think hard about the food you eat. I highly recommend it.

1 comment:

Patrick said...

You're the second person to recommend this book, and it sounds like it would be a timely thing for me to read. I loved Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (and Prodigal Summer etc). It's been fascinating living here in Harlem for ten years and seeing the amount of available (and good quality) produce rise, I fear due mostly to gentrification. When I was counting my pennies I realized how tempting it was to fill up on cheap, fatty, over-processed foods. I'll have to pick this book up.