Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Book Review: Omnivore's Dilemma

I highly recommend this book by Michael Pollan, and actually, I recommend reading the Young Reader's Edition as well. If you need a good starting point in your quest to understand our food system and how it relates to everything else in our history and culture, this would be a good read for you.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Now here is a book that I would recommend as a 'must-read' for everyone. There are many excellent books that focus on our present food issues, but Michael Pollan has clarity and a straightforward personality that will reach all audiences. Pollan writes about the concerns we are all starting to have, but remains extremely real and grounded. He is someone who you could imagine hanging out and having a beer with. He isn’t going to look down his nose at you for eating a hamburger, or lecture you about the evils of the banana you are putting into your mouth. Instead, he’ll sip his beer and tell his fascinating stories of his own discoveries; the journeys he has embarked on to find answers to those gnawing questions we have about our food. He’ll make you think a little, and perhaps change your mind about some of the ways that you eat.

I have to admit, I'd been putting off reading any of Michael Pollan’s book for awhile. Maybe I felt there was too much hype about them and was afraid I'd be disappointed if they weren’t as good as everyone claimed. Or maybe I didn't want to read the awful truths I knew he'd be revealing. Now I realize what I have been missing. Omnivore’s Dilemma gives a lot of detail about the bits and pieces I already have learned about our food system—that part I was expecting. What I wasn't expecting was his humor ... and his humanness. Unlike some others who write about food and our culture, he never once ‘talks down’ to the reader, nor does he seem to live an unrealistic, purist lifestyle. He simply takes a long, hard look at the ways we, as a species, eat, and puts into words all the things we wonder about as human beings when we really begin to contemplate our food. Most amazingly, he finally admits that with everything having been said, he might still once in a while happen to eat a McDonald's hamburger. Even though, he says, he is losing his taste and appetite for industrial food, just like so many of us are.

I love the 4 parts of the book and their focus on different types of meals: The Industrial Food Chain, The Big Organic Food Chain, The Local and Sustainable Meal, and the Foraged/Gardened/Hunted Meal.

The history of our Industrial Food chain didn't provide me any huge surprises, since I have read so much about it already, but the history of corn was nice. I was amused by Pollan's viewpoint of corn's success as a species, and how the plant itself is, evolutionarily speaking, the winner in the whole deal.

I have been a little suspicious of Big Organic for quite some time, so it's nice to have an author address the issue. Yes, Pollan writes, it's good to avoid pouring chemicals into our earth and water...but growing organic food on a big scale to meet the demands of a national market has huge drawbacks. The techniques of cultivating the land, bringing in compost/manure if it's not made onsite, and storing and shipping the harvested food turns out to be just as fuel-burning as conventional food production. Pollan claims that going organic on a big scale is an improvement, and gives us more choices...but that we can do better.

His chapters covering the Local, Sustainable food chain really had me sitting up in my chair, because it's something I believe in. He spent some time living at and helping with Polyface Farm (a 'grass farm' in Virginia that produces sustainable chicken, pork, beef, eggs and produce) and goes into great detail describing the amazing ways this farm operates. Polyface Farm is the kind of agricultural operation that I imagine when I think of a future of sustainable agriculture. Joel Salatin, the owner, has incredible wisdom about what he is doing, and farms like his are quietly spreading the idea that we, as eaters and consumers, do not have to settle for the Industrial Agricultural system.

I'll never view hunting in quite the same way after reading about his Gathered/Gardened/Hunted meal. Pollan really put into perspective some of the struggles I've had about eating meat in these chapters. I've been 'almost a vegetarian' for years...the key word being 'almost'. Pollan brought a lot of issues up that resonated with me and my still-wanting-to-have-meat-sometimes struggles. He gives a lot of thought to what a person needs to be responsible for and have knowledge about if they are going to eat meat. What if the walls of our CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) were completely transparent? What if everyone knew exactly what was involved in getting that ‘inexpensive’ meat all the way to their plate? Pollan believes, and I full-heartedly agree, that if the business of meat processing were not ‘out of the way and out of view’, many more of us would completely lose our taste for meat.

My favorite part of Omnivore’s Dilemma is Pollan’s enthusiasm for the ability each one of us has to make choices and changes. In his Young Reader’s Edition of the book (which is highly valuable in its own right), aimed at middle/high school students, he includes an afterword called “Vote with Your Fork”. He states that “It’s an exciting time to be an eater in America. You have choices today that your parents couldn’t have dreamed of: organic, local, CSAs, humanely raised milk and meat. When they were your age, there was basically only one way to feed yourself: from the industrial food chain. You have the option of eating from a very different food chain—you can vote with your fork for a better world, one delicious bite at a time.” Indeed!

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