Friday, March 30, 2012

Review: Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

A Natural History of Four Meals
Author: Michael Pollan
Publisher-Format: Penguin (2007), Paperback, 464 pages
Subject: Sources of human food
Genre: science reporting
Source: my own shelves

This one has been sitting on my shelf for more than two years.  It's actually on loan from my daughter who thought I would enjoy reading it.  I'm not sure if "enjoy" is exactly the correct word, but I certainly learned a lot, and came away from the read with an entirely new perspective on food and eating.

I had been a bit concerned that this was going to turn out to be another one of those proselytizing, preachy, "my way or the highway" diatribes on how we can only eat nuts and seeds if we're going to save ourselves and the earth.  Instead, I found myself immersed in a well-researched, objective, candid, and non-judgmental explanation of many aspects of eating and food production.

Pollan maintains that as omnivores we can eat just about anything - animal or vegetable - and thus are faced with ethical and physical dilemmas about what we should be eating, how we should be acquiring that food, and how we should be sharing that nourishment with our fellow humans.

To illustrate our dilemmas, he traces four different "meals": the industrial, large organic, local farmed, and hunted/foraged wild meal.  He looks at huge agribusinesses dealing in millions of acres of corn and the US dependence on grain fed vs grass fed beef with all the ethical and health issues involved - chemical fertilizers, anti-biotic fed cattle, inhumane treatment of animals, opportunities for contamination and the spread of disease, all in the service of the mightiest crop of the US - CORN.  He not only researches but personally visits and experiences all aspects of the meal and how it finally gets to McDonald's where he takes his family to partake of chicken nuggets (are they really chicken?), fries, drinks full of corn syrup, etc.  No where does he say we shouldn't be eating any of this, instead he goes to great lengths to provide the reader with the information that is buried in the "nutrition" and "ingredient" labels, so that when we choose to eat this meal, we can understand exactly what we ARE and ARE NOT eating.

Next he takes a look at so-called "Organic" meals and traces the components of a meal purchased at Whole Foods, only to find himself on a huge industrialized "organic" farm in California.  Absent the chemical fertilizers and pesticides, there doesn't seem to be much difference in the way the food is produced, picked by low paid migrant workers, and then shipped around the world (can you say carbon footprint???).

His third meal, one that I might label the localvore meal - naturally grown food, free range chickens and grass fed cattle, slaughtered and sold within 100 miles of the farm.  When asked about his farm, the farmer replied that he actually was a Grass Farmer, and that the other crops and animals were all an outcome of growing good grass. To me, this was the most fascinating section of the book.  I certainly have a much greater respect for the small farmer less than a mile down the road from me.  Again Pollan dives into his research, working on the farm for a week, participating in haying, egg gathering, chicken killing, baling, cattle moving, etc.  His ability to portray the hard physical labor at the same time he gives us the joy of seeing farming as it was practiced by our ancestors, was especially enjoyable.  One set of figures he gave just blew me away.  In one season, this 100 acre grass farm, surrounded by 450 acres of woods, and run almost entirely by the family produced:

30,000 DOZEN eggs
12,000 broilers
800 stewing chickens
50 beeves (representing 25,000 pounds of beef)
250 hogs (50,000 pounds of pork)
800 turkeys
500 rabbits

AMAZING!  (at least to me).

Finally, in his attempt to investigate the complete history of human food and eating, he sets out to prepare a meal that is one he hunts and forages for himself.  Never having been a hunter, or much of an outdoorsman, he finds himself at a distinct disadvantage, and so enlists the help of an elderly Sicilian as a mentor.  This part of the story is amusing as well as enlightening as he sets out to shoot some kind of game in the forest.  Due to the time of year, his "catch" ends up being a wild boar.  After the old man insists that Pollan must participate in the "dressing" of the  pig and guides him through all the gory steps, our author vows that he will never again be able to eat pork.  However, he eventually changes his mind when the old man takes his portion and turns it into prosciutto, sausage, and several cuts for roasting. Pollan rounds out his roasted pork meal with a salad of fresh picked dandelion and other salad greens, fava beans, egg fettuccine with mushrooms, fresh cherry tart, and even goes so far as to try to harvest his own sea salt from under the San Mateo Bridge near San Francisco where he was living.  He is nothing if not thorough.

Finally, I want to comment on an attitude that bubbles in the background.  Everywhere Pollan went, when he interviewed anyone not involved in agribusiness, he heard again and again the theme of eating what our ancestors ate, looking at how other countries view eating as a communal activity to bring people together, NOT as something to squeeze in between soccer games, business meetings, or spa appointments, and ultimately facing the choices of what to eat based on the seasons, the location, and the hard work of local farmers.

NOTE: when we discussed this in our library book club last week, one of our participants had checked the Young Reader's edition of the book out of the library.  As we passed it around, we decided that it was probably an excellent choice for those who want the story without quite as much scientific detail.  There are charts, illustrations, and a much more open-spaced presentation.  I think with either version, you can't go wrong.  If you read only one book about food, this is the one I'd recommend to start with.


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