Sunday, March 16, 2008

This Omnivore's Dilemma

Just in the past few days it seems like everyone is reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (or, at least, TRYING to read it . . . keep at it, Tammy!). The book was published two years ago, but it's got legs: the paperback version is currently ranked #42 on Amazon's sales ranking. I've heard Pollan interviewed on the radio at least six times in recent months, bloggers are blogging about it, and now everywhere I go someone mentions that he or she is reading The Omnivore's Dilemma.

If you've heard all about it, too, and are thinking of picking up a copy, I do have one word of warning. It's a really good book, but if you aren't careful it may well make you unable to eat ANYTHING.

When The Wife was pregnant with our second child, our oldest (then five) was very curious about how the baby was growing inside Mommy and, more to the point, how it would get out of there when the time came. The Wife explained the whole birthing process in a factually accurate but non-graphic way, and the Then-Five Year Old pondered it for a little while and finally concluded, "That just doesn't seem like a very good idea."

Which is sort of my feeling about the whole industrial food system after reading Pollan's detailed but non-preachy analysis. I've never had a strong moral compunction about the killing of animals for food (witness me at a barbecue joint), and I find the typical "OH, MY GOD! YOUR FOOD IS KILLING YOU" headlines ludicrous. But, the more I got into Pollan's descriptions the more unsettled I became.

It's not a pretty picture: the dominance of corn monoculture and the never-ending spiral of farmers' chasing higher yields at the expense of never-ending new technology, ever-mounting debt, and dependence on the government and single crops. The grim absurdity of the cattle feedlot, where bovines are loaded up on a food they can't tolerate (corn) and crowded into pens hoof-deep in cow crap and pumped full of antibiotics just to keep them alive long enough to be killed. The scientific dismantling of food into its constituent parts (proteins, sugars, starches, etc.) then putting it all back together again into new, unheard of combinations (the chicken nugget)--it just doesn't seem like a very good idea.

But thanks, Michael. Your book is also makes a pretty convincing case that the alternatives aren't much better. Like "Big Organic" food, which is to say most Organic food, which except for not being grown with chemical fertilizer doesn't seem particularly different from "conventional" produce (e.g. "ready-to-serve" greens that are cleaned, chopped, wrapped, and shipped across the country in refrigerated trucks). Joel Salatin's back-to-the-earth alternative farm produce sounds fantastic, but how the hell do you get your hands on it? If everyone reading your book wanted to try it, all the throw-back farmers in America would be sold out in half an hour. And, as much as I enjoyed reading about your adeventures in trying to kill and forage your own food, I do have to keep my day job.

And that's the real Omnivore's Dilemma: there's nothing left to eat!

Do yourself a favor: don't read this book now. Wait until June when the farmer's markets are open again and a fresh stream of local produce is available. If you read it now, it's just going to sink you into depression.

I go to the local Publix and push an empty cart up and down the aisles looking for something that isn't loaded full of hormones, adulterated with high fructose corn syrup, or picked three weeks before ripening and shipped here on a plane. I'm gone for an hour and a half and come home with a bag and a half of groceries, and even those aren't very tempting.

Since I no longer bring food into the house, The Wife has had to fend for herself in recent weeks, which means she is living on a diet of Fruit Loops and drive-thru burgers, which is the exact opposite of the book's intended effect. This can't go on.

Fortunately, Pollan isn't going to leave us foodless forever. His latest book, In Defense of Food, was published in January and promises to give you the magic secret of how we can actually find enough good nourishment to stay alive amid the flood of un-food. It's fourth on the NY Times bestseller list for non-fiction, so a bunch of people are buying it, but surely no one is actually reading it. I mean, he gives away the whole content of the book on the jacket flap by boiling it all down to a simple dictum: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

I'm all for the first part, but "Not too much?" "Mostly plants?" I can tell you right now that's never going to fly.


Scott said...

I haven't read this yet, but what I have read on the subject is daunting. My strategy thus far is to be informed, pick my battles, and just do the best I can.

One can go a long way just by avoiding as many processed foods as they can, though.

Katy said...

i haven't read it yet, but i know what you mean -- once you're committed to local products, suddenly you feel guilty eating at the cafeteria in your workplace, at any restaurant that doesn't specify that they use organic, local intredients, etc! and our farmer's markets are pretty barren this time of year too... but i still love them. :-) i think you do what you can, when you can, and make choices that you can feel good about at the end of the day without turning your life upside down. you know?

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