I finished reading Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. What a good page-turner of a book it was! And sometimes it was a stomach churner too. But I found it always to be thoughtful.
The book is about the omnivore’s dilemma: what’s for dinner? (or breakfast or lunch). As omnivores, humans can eat just about anything which makes figuring out what to eat more difficult than you may realize. For thousands of years humans have, through various religions and cultures, placed rules around what’s good to eat, thereby limiting choices and making eating a little easier. But these days our dilemma has become less, “gee is this dead deer I found while hiking through the woods still edible?” and more “McDonald’s or organic chicken from Whole Foods or a salad from the farmer’s market?” Pollan gamely wades through all the choices to reveal to us the reality behind what’s on the plate (or in the paper bag).
Industrial agriculture, of which a McDonald’s meal is a prime example, is bad news. Industrial agriculture isn’t just McDonald’s. It is also pretty much what is on the shelves at the Piggly Wiggly, Cub, and Albertson’s. But those who think they are opting out by shopping at Whole Foods might be surprised to find out industrial organic isn’t much better. Sure no pesticides or hormones have been added to the food, soil and water, but that’s about all that can be said for it. Industrial organic is still large-scale factory farming.
Pollan discovers that the less processed your food and the more local its origins, the better. Grass farming, an intensive farming method of raising livestock by caring for the land and the grass upon which the animals feed, treats the whole farm as one biological system and if done right, actually improves the land. Grass farming is necessarily a small-scale operation and there aren’t very many of these kinds of farms in existence.
Of course the best kind of meal is one that is completely hunted and gathered. Pollan goes wild pig hunting and mushroom hunting. Between the pig and the mushrooms and the various other aspects of the meal, it took him several months to put it together. He realizes how impractical and impossible eating like this would be on a regular basis.
The book isn’t just about what kind of food is better for the environment. It is also an investigation into why we eat the way we do. Pollan finds that a Candaian historian named Harvey Levenstein, who has studied the American “foodways,” nicely sums up the American view of food:
taste is not a true guide to what should be eaten; that one should not simply eat what one enjoys; that the important components of food cannot be seen or tasted, but are discernible only in scientific laboratories; and that experimental science has produced rules of nutrition that will prevent illness and encourage longevity.
And so we are subject to food fads, high protein, low carb, low fat, oatmeal, omega-3. Such eating will continue until we start paying attention to the food itself. That is precisely what Pollan wants us to do. He is not trying to change the way anyone eats, though after reading the book I don’t know how someone couldn’t change their eating habits. He is trying to get us to pay attention, be aware, know what we are eating, how it was made and where it came from.
This book is excellent reading for anyone who cares about food. If you have read Fast Food Nation or watched Super-Size Me and found yourself concerned about fast food, this book is a good next step. But be warned, you might not eat the same way again. And you might find yourself adding books to your TBR list for further reading.