Thursday, August 03, 2006

I actually finished The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History Of Four Meals by Michael Pollan just a couple of days after I got back from LA. Somehow the time got away from me and I never posted about it. Let's go to the notebook, shall we?

The four meals he traces back to the source are: McDonald's fast food, a Whole Foods dinner, an organic Polyface Farms meal, and one prepared entirely with food the author hunted or gathered himself.

McDonald's and much of the prepackaged food you buy in the supermarket Pollan describes as "industrial food" which is "any food whose provenance is so complex or obscure that it requires expert help to ascertain." He finds out that corn makes up a scary amount of what we eat. He doesn't shy away from the politics involved in farm subsidies: "While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest." While this food may be relatively cheap, it fails to take into account the true cost to the soil, energy, public health, etc. We're never charged directly for any of that, but indirectly and invisibly it all takes a toll on the taxpayers, the health care system and the environment. He also traces the meat back to the big industrial farms and CAFOs that also depend on the prodigious amount of corn produced. Let's see... I'm supposed to mention the drive to LA takes you past the CAFO at Coalinga. Trust me, if you have a sense of smell you can't miss it.

The next section is about what he terms "industrial organic." He discusses Whole Foods and organic producers like Earthbound, and Grimmway (whose semi trucks I also passed on the way to and from LA). With regards to Whole Foods he wondered about the implications of importing and buying produce out of season - the expense and energy required to ship the food here, should the best South American soil be devoted to growing food for us, etc. while not ignoring the potential benefits: buying generates foreign exchange and income and supports the care of that country's land with organic regulations. Organic food is more nutrient dense and tastes better, but he argues the large organic farms have made costly compromises that betray the true roots of the organic movement, which is what leads him to Polyface Farm and the intricate ecosystem maintained there.

The last section of the book was the least interesting to me. The extreme lengths he went to for the hunter/gatherer meal he admits were not economic or practical but to "teach us something about who we are beneath the crust of our civilized, practical, grown-up lives." Which has, especially from the distance of a couple of weeks, more than a hint of bullshit about it. I mean, I have relatives who hunt every year for meat. Bow hunting, no less. I also don't buy his half-hearted and short lived conversion to vegetarianism. I suppose it would have been a glaring omission if he hadn't devoted space to it, but it felt like a tangent and didn't necessarily work within the structure of the book for me.

Overall, I thought the book was well worth reading and I found most of it fascinating. I suspect it would have felt more revelatory though if Fast Food Nation hadn't already finished up the indoctrination my dietitian relatives began long ago.

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