June 23, 2007

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

Genre: Nonfiction
Author:Michael Pollan

One of the ironies of the era in which we live is that many Americans have pantries overflowing with food and yet are more detached from the origins of that food than ever before. We’re often quite ignorant of the many steps of production that our food endures as it travels from the fields to our kitchen. And as recent news stories involving pet food and toothpaste have shown, sometimes knowing where food has come from and what’s been done to it while it was there can be a matter of life and death: the ultimate dilemma.

Michael Pollan dives mouth first into issues of food in America in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. He starts with a foray into the world of Industrial Agriculture, focusing specifically on a single crop: corn. He then moves on to the organic movement, exploring Big Organic as well as a sustainably run farm in Virginia, PolyFace Farm. The last third of the book explores the world of the present day hunter-gatherers and provides the author's favorite meal of the four he partakes in. Each third of the book ends with a meal, and each meal is representative of the type of food that Pollan has been discussing in that section. As faithfully as possible, Pollan has tried to trace the food from beginning to end, hitting upon relevant topics along the way, and ending with the meal itself -- his final thoughts on the process by which it came about, how it was eaten, and how it tasted.

(You may wonder, if there's three meals for three sections, why it's called a Natural History of Four Meals. Pollan does manage to fit an additional meal into the organic section of the book. But it doesn't get a chapter of it's own, nor complete a section of the book in the way that the other meals do. Still, it's a meal that helps to make a point, in this case a point about Big Organic.)

Industrial Agriculture: Corn

One of the hallmarks of Industrial Agriculture is monoculture, hence Pollan's decision to focus on only the one crop, corn. But through corn, he was able to delve into numerous related topics such as food subsidies, factory farmed animals, processed foods, food safety, obesity, and finally, how the meal (made predominantly with corn) tasted. Though I've read many articles about obesity in America and the problems of processed food, I've never understood farm subsidies very well. But Pollan not only explained how they worked, and why they were instituted, but he walks through the process step by step, describing the affects of subsidies upon the farmer, the purchasers (like Cargill or ADM), the food, and the consumers. It's an eye-opening read. In fact, even when Pollan hit upon topics that I was already familiar with, I found his his step-by-step, beginning-to-end descriptions of the how, what and why of things to be quite enlightening.

According to Pollan, the descendants of the Maya occasionally refer to themselves as "the corn people" or as "corn walking," not because they are trying to identify with the corn in some metaphysical way, but because they eat so much of the stuff that they're literally corn made flesh. Today, thanks to carbon 13, scientists can actually determine the percentage of corn that a person consumes. Pollan spoke with a Berkeley biologist, Todd Dawson, who said, “When you look at the isotope ratios, we North Americans look like corn chips with legs.” In fact, the average American eats more corn than the average Mexican. Granted, the standard Americano doesn’t wrap most of what he eats in corn tortillas, yet his food is still replete with corn. The meal that Pollan concludes the Industrial Agriculture section with includes McDonald’s chicken McNuggets. A chicken nugget, he says, "piles corn upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn, ... [since that is what the chicken was fed], but so do most of the nugget's other constituents, including the modified corn starch that glues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter that coats it, and the corn oil in which it gets fried. Much less obviously, the leavenings and lecithin, the mono-, di-, and triglycerides, the attractive golden coloring, even the citric acid that keeps the nugget 'fresh' can all be derived from corn."

Pastoral Agriculture: Grass

While corn provided an avenue through which to explore Industrial Agriculture, grass provides the means of exploring issues of sustainability, locality and the organic food movement. Factory farmed animals are stuffed full of corn (among other things that you really don't want to know about), but the movement in alternative farming circles is to allow animals to feed upon grass (which is actually the food stuff that works best in their system). So the central organizing theme of this section is grass - the pastoral.

This doesn't mean that meat with an organic label has been grass fed. And that, right there, is indicative of a widening crack that is growing along the veneer of the organic movement. Pollan takes a trip through Whole Foods exploring the world of organic food. As he does throughout the book, he then aims at getting to the heart of the matter by going to the farms where this food comes from. He meets "Rosie," the free-range chicken from Petaluma Poultry, and discovers that her world isn't that much different from her kosher and Asian cousins that reside on the same farm (except that she has a small grassy area that she can walk out onto (if she can find the doors, which might not be open), she gets cut up differently than her Asian cousin upon death, and there is no rabbi present when said death occurs. Other than that, Rosie's life is just as cramped and her food the same as all the other chickens.). He also visits Earthbound Farm (think packaged, pre-washed salads). He finds that large scale organic looks much different than the quaint, family-owned farm that often comes to mind when considering the organic movement. In the end, Big Organic leaves Pollan more than a little disappointed. Even the meal was a let down.

But in studying the world of organic agriculture, Pollan stumbles across Polyface Farm in Virginia. He visits Polyface for a week, helping out on the farm and seeing every part of this sustainable bit of agriculture. From grass to bugs to chicken and cows and pigs, Pollan records and explains the process of growth, of life, and of death. He describes a process that adds more to the earth than it takes away. And he describes animals that, though they're still eaten in the end, are allowed to live a happy, healthy life and are treated with respect from birth to death. And to wrap it all up, Pollan found that the meal he served from this world of local and sustainable farming was not only more nutritious than a comparable industrially raised meal, but it was far more flavorful as well.

Personal Agriculture: Forest

The last third of Pollan's book addresses the lifestyle and cuisine of modern day hunter gatherers. He went hunting for boar, picked morels that were shooting up after a forest fire, gathered wild yeast from the air and picked bing cherries from his sister's neighbor's cherry tree. He also harvested salt that turned out to be inedible due to it's toxic flavor. And he hunted for abilone, which he claimed was not only the hardest foraging he did, but the most dangerous as well. (And then he wasn't able to serve the abalone at his grand finale meal because he discovered that abalone had to be eaten fresh and the meal was still several weeks off at the time.)

This section of the book included a rather drawn out (in my opinion) meander through the morality of killing animals for their meat. If you look at the picture of Michael Pollan on the back cover, you'd think of him as the kind of guy that would swat at a fly and then feel guilty about it later. So before killing the boar, he spent a fair bit of time agonizing about it. Though this wasn't my favorite part of the book (get on with it already!), I have to admit that the guy did his best to be thorough by covering not only the hunt, but possible opposition to it as well.

In the end, Pollan admits that though hunting and gathering isn't the most practical way to put food on the table every day, it was definitely the means that he enjoyed most. He found that in hunting and foraging, there was quite a bit of fellowship, not only between humans and nature, but between people as well. In the end, not only did he find that his meal was excellent, but surrounding his table were also all of the people who helped to make that meal a reality. Of all the meals Pollan writes of in his book, this one seems the most to be a gift: a gift from nature and a gift from other people.

This is a well written book, and though the ethics of meat killing made me yawn a bit, the rest was definitely a real page turner. We've already made a few changes to where we get our food from, and we've absolutely forbidden my mother from taking the kids to Micky D's any more to partake of their chicken Mcnuggets (which we had previously assumed were one of their healthier kids meals. That's before we knew TBHQ (an antioxidant made from petroleum) was sprayed on them.).

I highly recommend reading The Omnivore's Dilemma. If you are interested in issues of nutrition, the environment, food politics, or food safety, then you'll appreciate this book. Heck, if you like eating, you might very well enjoy this book, since it is, after all, all about food.