02 December 2007

The Omnivore's Dilemma - Michael Pollan


As we near the end of 2007, I will be soon blogging about my favorite book of the year. This entry makes 51, and it is likely that I will read a few more. I doubt, at this point, that any other book will be so informative and well written as Pollan's. Quite simply, it is fabulous. That may be a bit theatrical of a word, but it is hands down one of the most informative and entertaining books of the year. If you don't find yourself questioning the food in your pantry or at the grocery store after reading this book, then you are either illiterate or some form of rhesus monkey.

To start, the outline. Pollan starts with an interesting if not seemingly simplistic question: What should we have for dinner? From there, he goes on to investigate 3 basic streams of the food industry in America: 1) The industrial; 2) the Pastoral and 3) the Personal. In the industrial, his scathing review of agribusiness in America is nothing short of stunning. As we are each and everyone of us actors in the industrial eating chain, for the most part we stumble around blindly on stage, trying to find our cue from the media and science, all the while not realizing that a strong influence of government legislations is actually dictating what is on the supper table. Needless to say, you will most likely question your next meal.

In the pastoral eating habits, Pollan explores the $11 billion industry of organic food. Here he also discusses the "new" return to local eating, and what is now known as alternative eating - of course, it hardly seems alternative to allow cows to eat grass and chickens to free range. Yet, it is hard to ignore Pollan's persuasive writing; don't get me wrong, he is not writing to influence others. Pollan is an investigative journalist and writes to educate his readers - what we decide to do wit this information is up to us.

Finally, there is personal, where he tells of his adventures as a hunter-gatherer. In each section he ends with a meal, prepared from that particular slice of the food industry. In the first section , he follows the path of the ubiquitous corn all the way to a McDonald's meal. In the second section, he has meal at home from the chicken and eggs he buys at Virginia's Polyface farms. And in the final section, he tops all the meals with his so-called perfect meal, in which everything is made by him, hunted or foraged by him, and is entirely sustainable (so to speak).

It is perhaps revealing of my own knowledge to say that I found his thoughts and attitudes entirely in-line with my own. It is all too obvious that Americans (and Canadians) have an eating crisis. The answer to the simple question to what is for dinner has become an exercise in futility and environmentally bankrupt practices. The simple fact is that our eating patterns are eating away at the earth (to make it tangible, so to speak). And to be honest, most people are completely naive on this topic. They listen to whole food advocates, or to vegetarians and think they are shamans from inane universe. To say that a cow should be allowed to eat grass and live a happy life, all the while to supply milk to humans, has become an "alternative" view. Where did we go wrong? Well, actually, Pollan has the answer, but I won't ruin it for you.

Pollan reminds us that food essentially has one purpose: to supply humans with the energy they need to live. Of course, it is not so simple - eating has taken on environmental, political and personal ramifications. So every hamburger we ingest is not simply an injection of protein, fat and carbohydrates. It is also the conversion of petrochemical energy from the industrial food process that reared the cattle. It is further the ethics of eating animals. And finally, it is the environmental practices that brought that hamburger to the table. The pleasure of what we are eating is transmitted via the taste buds that are emitted from biting into the hamburger, but it is further affected by the more intellectual question of what affects does our diet choices force upon our environment (both physical and psychological).

In the end, this book is a book about the pleasures of eating, the kinds of pleasure that are only deepened by knowing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Okay. I think I'm ready to read it. I must say I'm a little worried since 'when you know better, you do better' (Oprah) and I'll have to start thinking MORE about what I (and in return, Eric, oh...and the baby) am choosing to eat. Ignorance truly is bliss.
I'm surprised Eric said he'd like to read it also....we'll see if it changes any of his eating habits. Afterall, this is the man that watched 'Supersize Me' and went to McDonalds right after.
Should be interesting.