Saturday, May 8, 2010


The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

I've been a little wary of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, but I can't for the life of me remember why. Maybe I was worried it's a guilt bomb that makes you feel bad about eating anything that has a face? I've been on a decades-long eating arc away from an all-chocolate-chip-cookie-and-milk diet and toward veggies and good lean meats. Not that I've stopped with the cookies, but it's dawned on me that I can't make an entire dinner out of them. I hear diabetes is a total bummer.

Anyhow, I'm so glad I read this.

He takes you through an educational, compassionate, funny, and really really interesting trip backwards from your plate. Or more realistically, your bun, your hand, or however you eat the Big Mac. Fortunately, he doesn't stop here, or this book would just be another Fast Food Nation. Though he does trace back how the corn is grown and fed to the cattle and chickens, and industrially processed to form such a huge percentage of your Coke and sauce and chicken McNugget, he doesn't try for the Upton Sinclair oeuvre by exposing the inner workings of slaughterhouses. He definitely gives you a picture of what happens (though he's not even allowed into the facility), but the focus is more on the effect the corn-based food has on your body. Corn is fascinating, and terrifying.

He then tries for a meal harvested from his local Whole Foods, and provides an interesting take on the industrial organic food industry. The basic takeaway is that it's a good thing so many farms are going organic because they're not putting lots of unneeded chemicals into the groundwater etc, but the processes are often not too different from non-organic factory farms. Grass-fed free-range chickens can receive that appellation by "having access" to grass and open fields for some portion of their lives. The farms keep the doors to the outside locked for most of the first few months of life, and then open them a few weeks before slaughter. Predictably, chickens living their entire lives inside don't run outside as soon as they have the chance, so they often don't have any range to be free on. But they also don't have a lot of chemicals and antibiotics put into their food. So it's a great step forward and if we can get all food produced this way and reduce the cost in the process, the planet and our health will be a lot better off.

If we could all eat his third meal, we'd all be happier and healthier. He goes to Polyface Farm in Virginia, where they raise chicken, cows, pigs, and veggies. But if you ask the farmers, they say they raise grass. All animals are pastured in sequence. In one paddock, separated by mobile fences, grass experiences a cow munching it down to an inch off the ground (as it's used to on an evolutionary scale), and then getting pooped on by the cows, which enrich the soil. Then they're moved, and chickens move in (as birds around the world follow herbivore herds) and eat the grubs in the now-short grass and the bugs attracted to the cow paddies. The chickens poop all over, nourishing the grass further. Then the grass gets time to relax and grow, and the cycle starts again. They let trees grow to keep moisture in, saving on irrigation and cooling down the animals. There's also, you might guess, a very elaborate composting system. This is a very self-sufficient farm. At work we just signed up for, which lets us order local organic food to be delivered every week, and to my delight, Polyface Farm meat is available. At least, it is theoretically. The downside to farms like this is that it's probably not scalable and you don't have the 400 cows being slaughtered every hour that permit me to go to the supermarket any day of the week to get a steak. But the meat from grass-fed beef and chicken, and the veggies that take advantage of this cycle are supposed to taste amazing and be very good for you. I can testify to the eggs - true pasture-fed chicken eggs are delicious. I'll let you know if they ever fill our order for Polyface steak.

His fourth meal is based entirely out of gathered food. He grows veggies in his garden, hunts a wild pig in Northern CA, gathers yeast from the air outside, and picks fruit from neighbors' fruit trees. Fascinating. And about 2 months of work for a single dinner.

I'd highly recommend this book. He deals with vegetarianism in a very honest way and I believe gives all sides a fair shot. The quibble I had early on in the book was when he discussed how setting scientists loose on the makeup of food was a bad thing, because they identified what nutrients are important and industrialized the food chain. He makes the claim that by introducing science to the understanding of food and creating, say, multivitamins, aspects of food that weren't understood back then (isoflavones, omega 3 fatty acids, etc) were eliminated from people's diets. My response as I was reading this was "but that's how science works - that prior understanding of food held up until scientists experimenting more recently found that other compounds in food were important for digestion or fighting cancer." He went off on pseudoattack on science that made no sense.

But that blip wasn't enough to take the fifth star off the review - I was very impressed by this book, and his motto: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly vegetables."

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