I was excited to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. The reasons should be resonably obvious: I’m a bleeding-heart liberal who doesn’t mind the occasional environmental trend. The “foodie movement” is one of these trends, but one I believe worth its while. At the very least, Michael Pollan has written an excellent manifesto on food and how we are/should be eating, and it deserves all the attention it has received since it was published in 2006.
Pollan divides his book by considering the three ways modern humans recieve their breakfast, lunch and dinner: the industrial food system (or, a system based on corn), pastoral agriculture, and hunting and gathering. In each of these, Pollan follows his food from its most basic form—from plants, fueled by the sun—to whatever form they eventually take: from a McDonalds hamburger, braised chicken breast, to forest-harvested mushrooms. Along the way, he discovers the secret behind concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), dicusses the differences between organic and non-organic lettuce, and faces the morality of hunting and eating meat.
Since Pollan clearly has an objective, it’s important to consider the author’s bias and intentions. Pollan clearly wants us to reconsider the American industrial food system, and by our individual actions, reject what we’re (forgive the pun) force-fed by the bigwigs at Coca-Cola, Nestle and Kraft.
This is all well and good, and I agree with most of what Pollan has to say, even if it wasn’t revolutionary. What he discusses, through his visits to a CAFO or slaughtering his own chicken, didn’t necessarily surprise me. My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki shocked me more than any book on the modern food industry, and I grew up with a grandfather who raised beef cattle. What I enjoyed about Pollan’s book, though, was his acute observations, his commentary and insight. Pollan is incredibly knowledgable on his subject, making The Omnivore’s Dilemma required reading for anyone interested in (or concerned with) how food is grown, produced and distributed nationwide. Pollan’s writing is clear, concise, and—perhaps most importantly—enjoyable to read.
I’m hesitant to say much else about The Omnivore’s Dilemma, mainly because so much has already been said. Pollan has been lauded by innumerable media sources, and I’m sure we’ve all heard something about his books (whether it’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food or his newest book, Food Rules).
I will say that Pollan’s reflections on eating meat—as well other moral considerations—touched me deeply. I’ve already posted quotes from Pollan that closely reflect how I feel about eating meat, but what I liked best was that Pollan insists it’s not what we eat, but where that food came from. How it reached our plates. Whether it was procured in a healthy, humane, sustainable fashion. Those who choose to abstain from meat for personal reasons are free to do so. However, Pollan stresses man’s omnivoracious eating habits, from our meat-tearing teeth, to the fact that our brains were kick-started into rapid development by hunting. Agriculture, Pollan reminds us, is a relatively new invention and humans are only slowly adapting (by becoming tolerent to lactose, for example). To this day, we retain the bodies of our hunter/gatherer forebears.
I was happy Pollan chose this approach, instead of beating his readers over the head with the mantra of self-righteous vegetarians everywhere: “meat is murder.” Eating meat may involve a “murder” of some kind, but it’s also part of our DNA and our evolutionary history as members of the human race. The less politics are involved in food, the better. This means deflating the organic bubble, upbraiding vegans for assumed moral superiority, and exposing giant food corporations for producing substandard products that resemble real “food” less every day.
All in all, the lesson of The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the same of French Women Don’t Get Fat: be considerate of what you put in your body. Keep things fresh, and avoid food with ingredients you can’t pronounce. Cook food in your own kitchen, and choose meals that both nourish your body and satisfy your soul. Just as French Women inspired me to drink more water and be more conscious of what I put in my mouth, The Omnivore’s Dilemma inspired me to garden, bake bread, and choose single-source beef whenever I can. I’m not going off the grid, or changing the world. But you know, it’s the small steps that really matter. I think Pollan would agree.