I have been making my way through The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan, for six weeks now. I finally finished it yesterday. Which is good, because it’s due back at the library.
It is books like this that make me wish I could still ride the bus to and from work. I suppose I could try books on CD, but I’m a “visual” learner — frankly, my attention wanders during a two-minute NPR story. I’m not sure I would make it through an audio chapter. It’s probably akin to reading the same sentence ten times in a row.
Back on point:
How many times a day do you think or hear, “What’s for dinner”? As a mom, and the primary shopper and meal-preparer in my house, the answer for me is A LOT.
Michael Pollan set out to answer that question by examining from where our food comes. Over three sections, he surveys the way we get our food in this country, from factory farming, organic farming, and hunting and gathering (yes, there are people who still fall into this category). For more of an overview, see this review from the Washington Post.
This is my first time reading Pollan, but it will not be the last. My inability to actually sit down for an extended period and read this book is directly inverse to my desire to do the same. His writing is compelling, accessible, and honest. He takes a hard look at the way we eat as a culture, a species, and as individuals.
The first section, “Industrial: Corn”, makes me very glad to be a vegetarian. To sum up: If we are what we eat, then we are corn. And maybe some petroleum.
The second section, “Pastoral: Grass”, examines the movement of organic food; plus Pollan spends time on a small farm. The first part of the second section exposes organic industrial farming, and briefly made me consider giving up food altogether.
Then I got hungry.
The second part of the second section made me want to get a few chickens and maybe a goat.
The third section, “Personal: The Forest”, about his experience hunting and gathering, was my favorite. Probably because it’s much more removed from what I could ever see myself doing to get a meal. (Well, maybe I’d gather mushrooms.) It’s very entertaining to be taken along on Pollan’s experience and read his writerly reflections. I especially enjoyed reading about how he decided to cook and serve his foraged meal, and his thoughts about it.
One aspect about Omnivore’s Dilemma that I especially like is its lack of assertion. Pollan doesn’t declare of any one process: This is how one should eat! He recognizes the pitfalls in our American society that have led to the CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation), McDonald’s Happy Meals, and high fructose corn syrup, as well as the industrial organic complex. He condemns neither General Mills nor Whole Foods. Nor does he exhort us all to return to our hunter-gatherer roots.
The book is written in such a way to make you think about the way you eat, and to make you decide how you are going to eat. As for myself, I will continue to buy organic from my grocery store, but I think I will try harder to find local meat for DearDR. I will strive harder to go to the local farmers market regularly, or join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). In time — like, 10 years — I want to get into the Slow Foods movement, too. (As a mom of toddlers, I’m aware that right now there is no space for Slow Food when it’s time for dinner.)
I especially appreciate the work he did deciding whether or not to be a vegetarian. Although he ultimately decides to remain omnivorous, he consciously chooses it, after reading such vegetarian advocates as Peter Singer and John Berger. In every section he is respectful, thoughtful, and honest. He buys a steer in the first part, and meets the animal at its CAFO before it is slaughtered. He works at a grass farm. He goes out into the woods to shoot a feral pig. Over and over Pollan literally looks his dinner in the eye.
His book asks us to do the same: “…[I]magine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter 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… [W]e 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.”
How do you eat? Where does your food come from? And what are you reading right now?