The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History in Four Meals
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History in Four Meals is a book I’d heard a lot about, but didn’t really know what, exactly, it was. Then I read a long article in the NY Times Magazine by the author Michael Pollan in which he made an inordinate amount of sense about the kind of food we should be eating. (In a nutshell, we should be eating FOOD, not processed things our grandparents wouldn’t recognize.)
This book is a much lengthier and interesting exploration of the state of food in America. Pollan starts by talking about the crisis the country currently faces, as evidenced by the “fact” that many Americans now view bread as something sinful, courtesy of the Atkins diet. Immediately, I was hooked, as I’ve never found anything that bans bread and oranges, but encourages the eating of bacon, to be anything but nonsense. But the book is much more than this – indeed, Pollan explores the mass production of food and the role that corn plays in it. Yes, corn. Pollan estimates that the average American meal is more than half comprised of corn – our pigs, cows and chickens all feed off it, despite the fact that it’s not naturally part of all of their diets. It shows up in our fertilizer, which goes into vegetable production. Ethanol has been mandated as an additive to our gas, despite the fact that there are other ways to create cleaner fuels. Corn syrup has replaced sugar in numerous products – and all of this is government subsidized, because it now costs more to grow corn than the market price.
Pollan breaks down what organic food means now that it’s become a big business, and spends quality time on farms that are doing things in a way that is self-sustaining. Notably, Polyface Farms, run by a man named Joel Salatin, has found a way to bring back the nature into farm production. Cows roam along the land, rotating where they eat the grass so that regrowth can occur, aided by moving chickens over the land the cows have recently grazed upon. Fertilizer and such is created similarly, by bringing pigs in to help root through the compost and manure to help aerate things. If that sounds a bit gross, compare that with Pollan’s tour of the mass manufacturers. If you read this book, it will be hard to forget the image of the cows most of us eat standing ankle deep in feces, shot up with antibiotics and hormones to stave off the infection they are at risk for.
But even for folks who buy organic meats and milks, we impact this in other ways I hadn’t thought of. We are now a culture, Pollan points out, that wants asparagus in the winter – so we import it from Chile. The fossil fuels alone in doing that, and the required things that have to go into that production, are totally out of whack with the way we really should want our food produced. From an economic perspective, it’s the kind of globalization that most folks are happy about. But it helps sustain an industry that doesn’t support local farms, where the food is not only…well, food, but tastier and healthier.
The book ends with Pollan creating his own meal – hunting for wild pig, picking chantrelle and morel mushrooms from around the Bay Area on special mushroom hunts, and creating a dessert from fruit found on local trees.
It’s hard to imagine completely changing my lifestyle as a result of this book, but this book serves as a capstone to a theme that grows more prevalent every day – we are totally disconnected from the food we eat, not just in geography but in even the way we describe it. We never talk about having pig for dinner – it’s pork. It’s not a cowburger, it’s (somehow) a hamburger – chicken escapes this errant nomenclature, probably because they seem to have little in the way of intelligence. Pollan takes the logical step many might expect – he gives up meat…but only to see if he can justify eating meat. I’m not sure how vegetarians react to this, but to me he makes a perfect case for being an omnivore, eating everything.
One thing I admit I never thought of is his stating that, were humans not eating pigs or chickens, those species probably would have been hunted to near extinction by larger animals.
But however it may appear to those of us living at such a remove from the natural world, predation is not a matter of morality or of politics; it, too, is a matter of symbiosis. Brutal as the wolf may be to the individual deer, the herd depends on him for its well-being. Without predators to cull the herd deer overrun their habitat and starve – all suffer, and not only the deer but the plants they browse and every other species that depends on those plants. In a sense, the “good life” for deer, and even their creaturely character, which has been forged in the crucible of predation, depends on the existence of the wolf. In a similar way chickens depend for their well-being on the existence of their human predators. Not the individual chicken, perhaps, but Chicken – the species. The surest way to achieve the extinction of the species would be to grant chickens a right to life.
Of course, Pollan goes much deeper – for a book just over 400 pages, it’s dense enough that it took me much longer than it normally would, because there’s a lot here. That being said, I never once got bored with the material and truly loved it. I recommend it to everybody, regardless of what your diet is – it’s information that impacts all of us. I’ll think about it over my pork chop – er, pig chop (?) – tonight at dinner.