Monday, February 8, 2010
The Omnivore's Dilemma
This is a transformative book. I long ago stopped buying meat at Safeway or Giant and now I know why. So much of what Michael Pollan has chronicled in this book has filtered down into the general consciousness. This book and his subsequent works have been bestsellers and his ideas were a big part of the documentary Food Inc.
It's not just that Pollan does some great reporting -- visiting the cattle feed lots and corn fields of modern industrial agriculture, reading a massive amount of literature on food production, and doing a George Plimpton by going to Joel Salatin's Polyface farm and hunting wild pig with a Sicilian emigre -- but he relentlessly analyzes, reasons, reflects. And he does so in a lucid, intelligent prose that is laced with rich humor.
In the key chapter that explains the title of the book, Pollan describes how eating many kinds of food as do omnivores like rats and human increases brain capacity because of the choices that must be made. He contrasts that with animals like the koala bear who eat only one thing, such as eucalyptus leaves. "Eating might be simpler as a thimble-brained monophage, but it's also a lot more precarious, which partly explains why there are so many more rats and humans in the world than koalas. Should a disease or drought strike the eucalyptus trees in your neck of the woods, that's it for you. But the rat and human can live just about anywhere on earth, and when their familiar foods are in short supply, there's always another they can try."
Fungi are apparently neither animal nor vegetable and this whole chapter is hilarious. Pollan describes why people find mushrooms mysterious and somewhat off-putting. "That the fungi are so steeped in death might account for much of their mystery and our mycophobia. They stand on the threshold between the living and the dead, breaking the dead down into food for the living, a process on which no one likes to dwell."
But of course the real meat of the book, so to speak, is Pollan's vivid and damning description of where the meat at McDonald's or Safeway comes from. His patient tracing of industrial food from subsidized corn through the CAFO to the terrible process that produces ground beef. E. coli, obesity, and a host of ills are traced back to bad food.
What struck me is how relatively recent the really bad stuff is. The misguided agricultural subsidies started under Earl Butz, Nixon's Agriculture secretary. I grew up in a different world and much of this pernicious development took place while I was in Europe. European agriculture has been industrialized as well, of course, but never to the same extent and the backlash started much earlier than here. England is a good 10 years ahead of us in food awareness, I know from my friend Sheila Dillon at the BBC Food Programme.
But the awareness is growing here. The Joel Salatin chapters are such an eye opener, as Pollan meticulously describes the genuinely organic loop at Polyface Farm, where it all starts with grass. Polyface is only a couple hours' drive from here, so it's easy to relate to. Not sure to what extent I'll jump on the locavore bandwagon, though I'm already on it to a much greater extent than I was a year ago. We'll see.