Monday, August 23, 2010

What's For Dinner

Book 42: The Omnivore's Dilemma
Michael Pollan

I first saw Michael Pollan on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and was intrigued then about his work.  I finally picked up a copy of The Omnivore's Dilemma, well, the audiobook, and I'm glad I did.

In Dilemma, Pollan traces four meals from start to finish, and what comprises these meals. I found it fascinating.  I read Fast Food Nation years ago, so not everything was a surprise.  Still, I didn't realize that corn is the foundation of so many of our meals.  Corn's in everything. Including the meat that we eat. Meat that comes from cows that have not evolved to eat corn.  And because we're feeding livestock a diet they weren't meant to eat, and we need them bigger, stronger, faster now, and in less space, we're feeding them all kinds of antibiotics. And what they eat, we eat. Common sense, yes, but I didn't realize how much of our food supply is tainted this way.

It was Pollan's exploration of the Organic industry that was the most eye-opening to me, and frankly, evoked the most disappointment as I learned more about it.  If you're like me, when you read "organic, free-range" on the label of chicken at the grocery, you picture happy little chickens clucking around outside in a pen, living their happy little chicken lives.  Except that isn't really the case, at least not at some of the larger organic farms. Yes, the option for free range exists, but not the chicken's whole life and by the time they are deemed old enough to take advantage of it, they rarely do.  I've been a proponent of Organic eating when possible for a while now, but I couldn't help but feel a bit like I've been a victim of bait and switch on this one. Still, I think it is healthier overall, and more humane to eat Organic rather than out of our traditional food industry.

Pollan's exploration of local, sustainable food changed my consumption habits.  I'm convinced now, that short of vegetarianism, locally produced and sustainable food is the most ethical food choice for both animals and the land that supports them.  Pollan explains here how true transparency is a part of most of the local food efforts. These farmers want their customers to feel perfectly comfortable coming out to the farm and understanding precisely where their food comes from.  At the same time, these farmers tend to practice sustainable growth for their land.  After listening to this part of the book, I made the personal commitment to by local and sustainable whenever I can.  Yes, it is more expensive at first, but is it really? Unlike some of the industrial food supply, local and sustainable farms are not subsidized. So we may pay more at the register. But it's a wash, I think, when you consider that our taxes are funding the industrial supply.  At the same time, I feel like I'll know more about what I am eating- or rather, what I'm not eating: pesticides, antibiotics, and grains these animals have not evolved to eat.  It's tough.  I found California peaches at the grocery store closest to me.  I live in the Peach State. Which is not California.  You'd think local peaches would be all over the place, but no.  So, now I'm reading labels and signs much more closely and buying local when I can.  I also learned at Whole Foods this week that they now  label their meats on a sustainability scale.  I felt like I had a much better idea of the life the chicken and bison I bought on Saturday had led.

The most tedious part of Pollan's exploration, to me, was the recounting of putting together a meal he completely procured himself.   Perhaps it does say something about me as a person that I don't think I could actually hunt and kill my own meat, and that instead I prefer to not think about the act of killing the food I consume. I suppose I have to rectify that discrepancy myself, but I know that I would not make a good hunter.  That being said, the research and dedication Pollan gave to putting together this meal was quite interesting to listen to. Although I did think his part about the morel mushrooms went on for a bit too long. Still, the meal was meaningful to him, and I suppose that is why he did it.  And I learned something, so I know that it can't be all bad. Maybe if I were more passionate about mushrooms myself.

It's rare to read (or listen to) a book that makes you stop and think about your actions, your place as a consumer, like The Omnivore's Dilemma does. Pollan doesn't come in preaching, although I sensed some contempt for industrial food practices.  I came to the conclusion to seek out local and sustainable food on my own after hearing what Pollan had to say.  And I realize this doesn't address the issue of global food production, where the industrial food process could prove beneficial.  But I'm grateful that I know now what I do.  If you're at all interested in where the food you eat comes from, how it lives before it becomes your meal, and even perhaps, how it comes to be your meal, I highly recommend The Omnivore's Dilemma.


  1. Nice review. I'll probably read it too.

  2. I think that one of the few good things about living in a third world country is that we produce most of the food we eat, and it is much healthier than of an average American diet (even for carnivores). Just don't ever watch Earthlings :)