This book took forever. Not because of the book — oh no. I started reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma around Christmas. Then I paused to finish Walking to Canterbury. Then I got sick, and didn’t want to read at night for awhile…which is really my only opportunity to read right now. Then I was just plain tired for too many nights in a row, so I didn’t read it then. Then he started talking about foraging for mushrooms, which I don’t really like to eat, so my interest waned.
This book was great. It doesn’t matter how long it took me to consume it — it was by turns fascinating and revealing. The idea of the book is that Michael Pollan is going to try to create four different meals — one from all industrially sourced foods, one from industrial organic foods, one from “true” organic foods, and one where he has hunted or grown or found all the foods himself. The meals are all unforgettable, and I won’t blow it for you by telling you how all of them turn out. His meals are just a lovely little piece of creative nonfiction.
The real interest in this book comes in the reveals he makes. About 7 years ago, Drew and I were watching Real Time with Bill Maher, and we laughed at what a fool Bill Maher was. He was going on and on about how bad corn was for everyone, and how it was killing us, and how terrible it was for our country. The panel just laughed, and so did we. Well, Bill Maher, I formally apologize for making you into a Cassandra. Turns out, he’s maybe right. Check it out:
A growing body of research suggests that many of the health problems associated with eating beef are really problems with corn-fed beef. (Modern-day hunter-gatherers who subsist on wild meat don’t have our rates of heart disease.) In the same way ruminants (cows) are ill adapted to eating corn, humans in turn may be poorly adapted to eating ruminants that eat corn.
Pollan talks to a farmer in Iowa about corn subsidies: So the plague of cheap corn goes on, impoverishing farmers (both here and in the countries to which we export it), degrading the land, polluting the water, and bleeding the federal treasury, which now spends up to $5 billion a year subsidizing cheap corn. But though those subsidy checks go to the farmer (and represent nearly half of net farm income today), what the Treasury is really subsidizing are the buyers of all that cheap corn. “Agriculture’s always going to be organized by the government; the question is, organized for whose benefit? Now it’s for Cargill and Coca-Cola. It’s certainly not for the farmer.”
He has a biologist friend of his put his meal from McDonald’s into a mass spectrometer:In order of diminishing corniness, this is how the laboratory measured our meal: soda (100 percent corn), milkshake (78 percent), salad dressing (65 percent), chicken nuggets (56 percent), cheeseburger (52 percent), and French fries (23 percent). What in the eyes of the omnivore looks like a meal of impressive variety turns out, when viewed through the eyes of the mass spectrometer, to be the meal of a far more specialized kind of eater. But then, this is what the industrial eater has become: corn’s koala (Earlier in the book, he describes what it means to be an omnivore — it means we have choices when we eat, and that can lead to many “dilemmas” about what we are actually going to consume. The koala, on the other hand, doesn’t have this problem — it only eats one thing. Like us, now!)
Because of diabetes and all the other health problems that accompany obesity, today’s children may turn out to be the first generation of Americans whose life expectancy will actually be shorter than that of their parents. (This is shocking…and the biggest reason why having a child makes me want to change my diet even more. No way is Patrick’s life going to be shorter than mine — not if I can do something about it. Pollan goes on to list all of the reasons for “humanity’s expanding waistline” but intelligently cuts it down to the real source: “When food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat.” Which is really all you need to know.)
Pollan goes from industrial farming, where he buys a steer and then works VERY HARD to try and track it down through the system (which proves extremely difficult), to a place called Polyface Farms, which is organic and run by a farmer named Joel Salatin who believes very strongly in his way of life and products. He introduces Pollan to all kinds of agricultural insights, like this one about soil — “When we mistake what we can know for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one’s ignorance in the face of a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature as a machine.” And finally, in the face of a farm that “feeds itself,” Pollan (and at this point, me the reader also) asks, “All of which begs a rather large question: Why did we ever turn away from this free lunch in favor of biologically ruinous meal based on corn? Why in the world did Americans ever take ruminants off the grass? And how could it come to pass that a fast-food burger produced from corn and fossil fuel actually costs less than a burger produced from grass and sunlight?”
As you might imagine, he does answer a lot of these questions. But the philosophical idea there is a hard one to answer — why do we eat this way? When we know it’s bad for us, and we know it’s killing us and our children and hurting the environment too — why? And that, there is no answer for.
The book contains SO MUCH more than I can talk about in one blog post — he talks about vegetarianism, he kills a wild pig for his last meal, he talks about how deceptive Whole Foods is (which we all knew anyway, right?). All in all, a fascinating read, even if a slow one. And honestly, shouldn’t a book like this, which ends up giving you faith in the slow food movement be a slow read also? In a way, it was good to have a long time to really think about the ideas he brought up and the experiences he had trying to trace his meals down the food chain. I am really struck by how far removed we are from the food we eat — most of us don’t grow it, or hunt it, or even meet the people who grew it or hunted it or found it or created it in a lab. It’s like magic — it just appears on the shelves or in the cases of your local supermarket. I’m also struck by how cheap food really is, and how little we spend on it.
But the last little quote I’ll leave you with is just kind of fun — and applies to this blog directly. Pollan is about to go foraging for mushrooms for the first time, and will soon go hunting for the first time, too: “Isn’t is curious how in so many of our pastimes and hobbies we play at supplying one or another of our fundamental creaturely needs — for food, shelter, even clothing? So some people knit, others build things or chop wood, and a great many of us “work” at feeding ourselves — by gardening or hunting, fishing or foraging.” Guilty! I play at self-reliance! But hopefully, our little family can continue to play at self-reliance in other food ways as well, and then we can stay healthy and only eat corn when it’s on the cob. With lime.