Monday, February 16, 2009

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Like the proud lion, I step into my savannah, the cool air of the dusk wafting beneath my mane. I search diligently through the harsh terrain for that perfect prey, the one that I will rend from its bones and satisfy that deep primordial urge to consume. There, out of the corner of my predatorial eye, I see it. I circle, searching for the supreme angle to pounce. I leap, and crash on...a gigantic ear of corn? I peak up, startled, suddenly all I can see is gigantic stalks of corn rising up staight and uniform. I am surrounded. The golden ears loom over me, falling from their husks and burying me in a pile of yellow kernels.

The harsh reality of my supermarket experience sets in. I may never have to forage or kill for my meal; searching through the aisle of the local megamart is our modern equivalent of the hunt. However, after reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, I can never see the things I eat in the same way again.

How much thought do you give to your meal? It's certainly a question too often avoided by the hungry masses. Why do we eat the things we eat, and should we be paying more attention to its impact? Those are the types of questions that Michael Pollan brings to the forefront in Omnivore's Dilemma. Having societally evolved to the point where food is over plentiful, we need to shift the emphasis from quantity to quality. We are literally what we eat; therefore, we owe our bodies due care in deciding how we refuel.

A good friend introduced me to Pollan's writing in an editorial addressed to the President Elect last October in the New York Times. It's a rather lengthy read, but it summarizes many of the relevant points of Omnivore's Dilemma. Having been introduced to this fascinating examination of the agricultural-industrial complex in America, I bought the book. As you may have heard me espouse before, since everyone eats, I believe food should be everyone's priority in life. Given its prominence, food has too often fallen to the wayside of people's complex modern lives. When convenience has triumphed over taste and nutrition, there needs to be a counter force to fight the indolence we have fallen into.

Whether trolling through the forests of Northern California hunting wild boar or visiting a corn farmer in Iowa, Pollan never ceases to bring the focus back to what's on everyone's mind--what's on our plates. Reading the irresponsible business practices and unsanitary conditions of Fast Food Nation had no where near the profound effect on my eating habits as Omnivore's Dilemma. The author's tone is never condescending; it appeals to a rational mind much more than the emotional one. Even the chapter on vegetarianism even gave me second thoughts about my carnivorous habits (albeit a momentary thought). Ultimately, if humankind has evolved beyond the point of subsistence eating, then we should also be smart enough to make healthy, sustainable choices with our food.

Pollan takes the reader through an exploration of food through three parts, each centering on a different aspect of the modern plate. The first detailed the rise of corn as a commodity and its importance in the agricultural world. The revelations in this part are what inspired my hallucinations of violent corn burial. While corn has done a great deal to advance American society, its detriments are too numerous now to be ignored. As much as Pollan vilifies malicious maize, we couldn't have progressed to the current level of overabundance without it. Just be forewarned, after reading this section, you'll be constantly scanning ingredient labels for high fructose corn syrup and other corn derivatives.

On the other side of the big agricultural complex, the second part is focused on the small farm. More precisely, the small sustainable grass farm, which relies on solar energy and not fossil fuels. It isn't organic, and Pollan explains why that may be a good thing to boast. By following the "grass farmer," the reader gets a sense that all is not lost. If only the rest of the nation could follow suit; there is another way to eat better.

Lastly, the author pursues his own meal in through hunting and foraging. "The Ethics on Eating Animals" chapter is profound and thought-provoking. Anything that can make me reconsider meat is certainly formidable. I won't go through all the arguments, but basically if you eat meat, you must accept a certain degree of "specism". The idea that we can eat at the expense of suffering animals isn't the most appealing, but it's important for the conscience of the meat eater. Just as in The Shameless Carnivore, eat meat if you want, but please eat responsibility by trying to prevent as much suffering as you can.

There are far too many concepts in this book to bring to full attention in a short blog entry. I can only advise you, as serious foodies, and even as conscionable human beings, give Ominvore's Dilemma a read. At the very least, read Pollan's editorial in the NY Times. You might not like what you see, but it's the hard truths that are most difficult to swallow.



H. C. said...

I liked this way more than the other Pollan books I've read because it's less preachy and more an exposition of his own food journeys. And this book is non-stop amazement, from the convoluted, back-assed way we are subsidizing the big farms and their crops to essentially rape the planet to the intricate measures a practically-independent farm takes to ensure sustainability, to him hunting and foraging his own meal.

Oh yea, I also want some of those Polyface farm eggs and chicken! Next time I'm in D.C./VA, perhaps...

Aaron said...

HC: Ah the eggs sounds so good. I was hoping the other books would be just as good. I don't know if I'm looking for an exposition if I read the other books. I'll keep that in mind.

Anonymous said...

I started reading this book several months ago but I'm having a hard time finishing it - each chapter brings more horrors. I'm still enjoying my chicken mcnuggets though!

Aaron said...

The first section of the book is truly disturbing, but keep reading. The rest of the book gives you hope for agricultural and culinary redemption!