Thursday, January 19, 2017

What I've Been Reading: "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan

After years of hearing real foodies revere Michael Pollan’s name, I finally decided to pick up one of his books. I had resisted for a long time; maybe it’s the hipster in me that doesn’t want to jump on popular bandwagons, or maybe it’s the fact that so many real foodies use CAPITAL LETTERS in conjunction with discussing Pollan’s books, during which they warn me about all those ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS that Michael Pollan says are so bad for you and by the way the “cellulose” in parmesan is actually SAWDUST AND I AM USING ALL CAPITAL LETTERS TO TRY TO SCARE YOU INTO THINKING THAT THIS IS THE WORST THING EVER.

So I must admit, I expected Michael Pollan to be a bit like the capital-letter-using bloggers: inflammatory, overly nostalgic, and not particularly scientific. I was wrong.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals is one of the most fascinating and challenging books I’ve ever read. Pollan’s writing is vivid, thoroughly researched, full of breadth and depth, and quite entertaining. Also, he doesn’t use caps lock at all.

The phrase “the omnivore’s dilemma” refers to a struggle unique to animals that can eat a wide variety of foods: on one hand, they are resilient and can survive in many different situations. On the other, they have to expend an enormous amount of brain space to figure out what to eat and whether or not it will poison them. Pollan argues that throughout most of history, humans have had established cultures of food to help them avoid the omnivore’s dilemma. But with the modern-day jumble of new foods and food substances and a lack of food culture (especially in the US), the omnivore’s dilemma is back, stronger than ever.

So, how do we decide what to eat? The book sets out to answer the question by delving into the structure of three distinct food systems: conventional processed food, organic and alternative food, and wild foods. 

The first several chapters are about corn, the basis of all modern convenience food. It discusses such questions as, “Why on earth do we grow so much corn? Why is corn in absolutely everything? Why can conventional farmers only make money by growing increasingly large amounts of corn?” It shows the how and why of industrial agriculture in a vivid way. 

This section— discussing food politics, government policy, and animal cruelty, can be hard to read at times because it’s exposing a part of the food chain that I have been consciously ignoring for many years. I can’t look at a McDonald’s hamburger the same way again. I don’t see a cheap beef patty, I see a water-guzzling cow raised in California during a water crisis, shipped to a feedlot where it’s fed an unnatural diet simply because there’s a surplus of corn, slaughtered with a ramrod in its forehead and pulverized by machines that are impossible to keep clean. It’s difficult to keep looking at these threads that wind through so many deeply broken systems— much less understand what my place is in reforming them— but if I want what’s on my plate to align with my values, I can’t look away.

The second section is structured around Pollan’s experience volunteering for a week at Polyface Farms, run by local-foods farmer Joel Salatin. Pollan describes the science of rotated grazing, symbiotic pasturing, and local food systems, as well as narrating the experience of slaughtering/butchering chickens. He also discusses the recent wave of industrial organic agriculture— an oxymoron at heart— and its complexities, vs. a local, small-scale system. He doesn’t present easy answers, encouraging the readers to ask questions of their own.

The third section talks about his adventures in trying to make a meal entirely from food that he hunted, gathered, or grew himself. His description of hunting wild pig, searching for mushrooms, and trying (unsuccessfully) to distill salt are all fascinating. He discusses humans’ original diet, the paleolithic origins of most of our food cravings for sugar and fat. (And no, he doesn’t advocate the paleo diet— he wisely points out that there is no way to sustain a population of any size on hunting and gathering.)

Although the dust jacket would lead you to believe that he finishes the book with clear answers about how and what we should eat, that’s not the case. He presents evidence and editorial, tells stories and discusses his own struggles, but he ultimately shows that the omnivore’s dilemma is just that— a dilemma. But for anyone trying to work through this tangle of questions for themselves, Pollan’s book is a great place to start.

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