I finally let myself pick up The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I admit. When I went to the grocery store, Pollan in mind, I bought grass-fed ground beef (I have maybe twice before bought beef for myself, and would not have picked it up had it not been for my interest in beef beyond the feedlot, a la Pollan) and organic milk. I report this to you as someone, after having seen the movie Baraka with what I can remember being about a 30 second clip showing a chicken factory became a vegetarian for nigh on a decade. I think it speaks volumes to Pollan’s abilities as a writer and storyteller that I do not feel compelled to swear off meat or dairy this time. Avoiding the standard “end is near” scare tactics that are too prominent in the non-fiction section of any given bookstore, Pollan tells the “natural history of four meals” as the subtitle indicates. He studies four meals from earth to plate – a fast food meal, a meal with ingredients purchased entirely out of Whole Foods (where I came to own grass-fed beef and organic milk), a meal with ingredients purchased from one organic farmer, and a meal entirely hunted and gathered by Michael Pollan himself. He does not resort to damning potential readers who may have the occasional McDonalds value meal (and indeed has one himself during the book – much to the disgust of his wife who opted for a “premium salad”). He has a healthy understanding of what is standing in the way of society returning to the position as that of hunter/gatherers. He does, however, clearly examine these things, allowing the reader to make their own informed decision. This style of informing without preaching is what I am most impressed by in this book.
Magnus told me this morning that Pollan has suggested that the lawn in front of the White House be turned into a productive vegetable garden. I am wildly enthusiastic about this idea – what a thing would that be?! If President Obama went out to the garden to pick some tomatoes and greens for a salad for he and his family, what a message would that send to the world about the priorities of this country. It would undoubtedly raise more consciousness about where food comes from than the lengthy tomes written on the subject, even ones as popular and accessible as Pollan’s. It might be a largely symbolic statement, but what a statement it would be.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma studies the Polyface farm in Virginia, which is self-described as beyond organic, which is a movement more interested in knowing the farmer raising the food one consumes, and disregards the idea of government certified organic labeling. The idea is that such policies would not be necessary if people were just more connected to their food. There is such a wide spectrum of food from the TV dinner in the deep freeze chest at Safeway than there is from the weekly share of a CSA (a system of agriculture where the consumer pays a couple hundred dollars directly to the farmer at the beginning of the year and gets a share of each week’s harvest as it is collected), all the way to wild mushrooms and game. Pollan looks at each step along the way in detail, discussing both the pros and the cons.
I could no more strongly suggest this book to people interested in learning more about where all kinds of food comes from. After reading this book, I believe that people will be sufficiently equipped to consider what the best way for them to eat will be. Pollan describes the omnivore’s dilemma as being the boon and burden of being able to eat more or less anything that lives, and how we have evolved to such a status on the food chain. How we all use that knowledge is up to us – does the fact that the actual cost of most processed food is well beyond what we pay at the supermarket checkout stand matter? Or is it more important to pay more money for unprocessed food that has not traveled 1500 miles to get to us? It may sound pretty black and white, but the grey area is the crux of Pollan’s book, and is vividly interesting. Call us here at the library and we’ll make sure you get a copy of the book. As for me, I’ve got a list of books this one has made me want to read: I will be reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle as well as Pollan’s other book In Defense of Food. My friend Joe told me that if The Omnivore’s Dilemma interested me that Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle would as well, so expect to hear some more from me about these food-reads that I can’t get enough of.
As a side note, in addition to reading about food I have been wildly preparing food of my own. Lately I’ve been throwing myself headfirst into bread baking. The power went out during a storm lately (which due to my lack of a woodstove means that I freeze in the dark when this happens) and I decided to bake a loaf of multi-grain bread (which did not rise properly because it was too cold!) and a big hearty barley and vegetable soup. Curled up, reading by candlelight with a pot of homemade soup and a still warm, fresh from the oven (albeit a little more dense than expected) slice of bread I remembered how much I love Big Sur. Here’s hoping you all find the same joy in where you live. And if you don’t, come have a vacation in Big Sur and find joy in where I live.