what i'm reading: the omnivore's dilemma: a natural history of four meals

I haven't had a chance to blog about The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, which I wrote about here, and finished last week. It's a fascinating book, remarkable in many ways.

Think about food. Brainstorm every aspect of food in our lives, and that's what this book is about: the political, moral, ethical, philosophical, environmental, social, cultural, and even spiritual aspects of the entire food chain.

Pollan touches on anthropology, biology, nutrition and human health, human psychology, animal behaviour, cultural norms, humans' relationship to nature and the animal world (both over time and across cultures), philosophy, cooking, and undoubtedly several disciplines that I haven't named. The book is often described as being about "everything in the world," and now I can understand why. Pollan is saying, in a sense, that how we get our nourishment - the choices we make, both individually and as a society - is intimately connected to everything in the world.

This dense melange is structured through four meals, derived from four different food chains: industrial, organic, hunted-gathered, and a fourth Pollan discovers during his research, best called "industrial organic". He traces each meal back through its chain, and through that journey, shows us the true origins and costs of our food.

In an entirely fascinating book, I want to highlight two areas that were particularly fascinating to me.

Pollan spends a lot of time at Polyface Farm, run by Joel Salatin of Viriginia. Through an amazingly ingenious plan, and extremely labour-intensive methods, Salatin runs a farm that is completely self-sustaining and uses virtually no fossil fuels. Chickens, cows, pigs, and - especially, above all, grass - all fertilize, feed and sustain each other. It is the healthiest environment imaginable: for the earth, for the animals and for the people who consume its products.

Salatin is a radical, and fully conceives of his work as socially and politically radical, as well as spiritual. (He is a devout Christian, and his farming is an expression of his faith.) Omnivore's Dilemma is worth reading for the trip to Joel Salatin's farm alone.

Another intensely interesting thread involved the meal that Pollan created entirely from ingredients that he had hunted and gathered himself. (Pollan is not suggesting this as a viable method of eating in the modern world. It was more of an educational exercise for him and for us.)

In this section, I had to ask myself, Did I know that fungi are neither plant nor animal? I must have known this once upon a time, but forgot. (That's my answer to everything now.) When I cook or eat mushrooms, I think of them as vegetables. But they are not. They are a third form of life, neither animal nor vegetable, and humans understand very little about them.

Well, I just learned something about mushrooms. And if that sounds dull, read this book and you'll change your mind.

* * * *

I have been reading Michael Pollan's work in magazine form for many years, but I had been avoiding reading The Omnivore's Dilemma for two reasons.

One, I had the impression Pollan had drifted into a very elitist sphere, disconnected from the reality of most ordinary people's lives - something along the lines of lecturing people who work at Wal-Mart on the importance of buying organic strawberries for $4.00 a pint.

This was unfounded. The world Pollan would build would be a healthier world for everyone. Food would cost more, that is true. But one of the central points of this book is that modern food prices are artificially low, and we never see the true cost of those low prices. Wresting food production from industrial control, educating people on nutrition, making more healthy choices available, would benefit everyone.

And since the people most directly affected by environmental degradation, unsafe labour conditions and other related ills, are low-income people, a healthier food chain would directly benefit the world's poor.

The other reason I was avoiding reading this book was more personal. In a sense I was avoiding it for the same reason I wanted to read it. I knew it would lead me to make changes in my own shopping, cooking and eating habits.

For a long time, I've been troubled by contributing to factory farming by buying and eating factory-farmed meat, but I haven't done anything about it. Now I'm finally ready to.

When I was growing up and throughout my young-adulthood, I was very prone to all-or-nothing thinking. It's a great way to paralyze yourself into inaction. Every decision becomes impossibly weighty, because it carries with it your entire future.

One of my biggest areas of growth as an adult has been moving away from that all-or-nothing trap. For many years now, I've understood the value of making incremental changes. I encourage myself (and others) to be flexible, and to remember that doing anything is better than doing nothing. Every step in a positive direction is worth taking, all by itself.

With these lessons foremost in my mind, I'm now investigating where I can buy pasture-raised meat. It won't be a perfect system, as (for various boring reasons) we'll mainly do this in the warmer months when we make dinner on the barbecue grill almost every night. And it won't effect food we eat in restaurants.

But it will be a positive action, and it may lead to other positive actions, and it's a step I'm ready to take.

* * * *

Michael Pollan has a new book out, called In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto. But if you haven't read him yet, I think you'll want to read Omnivore's Dilemma first.

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