Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Omnivore's Dilemma (Michael Pollan)

The Omnivore's Dilemma got a lot of press when it was first published, the doomsday oh-the-horror kind of press, the kind I don't seek out because I really don't want to spend my free time reading about how horrible the state of American food is, especially when I'm doing my best to eat well and naturally. But then Michael Pollan kept creeping up everywhere: there were the open letters he and John Mackey (the CEO of Whole Foods) wrote to each other, their Berkeley showdown (available as a webcast), which turned out fairly amicable, and a highly recommend (by me) essay where he lists 12 rules of eating (his take on nutritionism and food science). Michael Pollan was saying some sound, reasonable things, and I was finally convinced that I should read The Omnivore's Dilemma.

In full disclosure, I have to say that I did skip some parts of the book, like the chapter on slaughtering chickens and the one on hunting a pig. Other than the puppet show Tim Cunningham and I presented in eleventh grade re-enacting the atrocities of Sinclair's The Jungle using sock puppets, I tend to stay away from that kind of reading.

I'm also more of a glass half-full kind of person and would rather focus on what I can do (or what is being done) to help make a bad situation better. And after a rather lengthy opening section on the horrors of subsidized corn (that corn makes its way into most processed foods in one way or another, this processed food contains more fat/sugar than natural foods, which makes us fat and unhealthy, and growing corn the current industrial way is bad for the soil, environment, and the economic health of the farmers who grow it . . . I could go on with even more examples; really, it's very depressing), he eventually turns to what I thought was the best part: the story of Polyface Farm, a sustainable farm that runs on grass management. Not grass management through pesticides and chemical fertilizers, but grass management through cow grazing, chicken grazing, earthworms, pigs, and rabbits (each playing an integral role at different stages), with the farmer orchestrating which animals go where when, and for how long.

What I came away with from this book is to focus on eating as much locally grown food as possible and eating as much unprocessed food as possible. And while this may seem overly simple, I realize it can be very hard to do in our society today. One of my former commuters on the CalTrain talked about the produce at the local farmer's market as being as expensive if not more so than the produce at the grocery store. When I said, but you're helping your local community by supporting the farmers (trying not to get into the politics of it all, which was pretty hard considering how much food literature I read), he said, but I've got two kids to feed. And I understand that. But I'm also guessing that most of his weekly food budget is not being spent on fresh produce and may be used for processed, or convenience foods. In Pollan's book, he states "Americans today spend less on food, as a percentage of disposable income, than any other industrialized nation, and probably less than any people in the history of the world." It's definitely worth thinking about and reassessing priorities both in our spending of money and time in food preparation (i.e., less money on prepared/packaged foods and more money on high-quality produce, fruits, and grains).

And I know I've been spoiled by the bounty at the local farmer's markets in California, which I can visit year-round and get lots of fruit, but we did a pretty good job of eating locally in Madison. And I know I do more from-scratch cooking than a lot of people, but I'm not the only one out there. Here are just a few examples of women in the blogosphere who are spending quality time cooking: The author of the French Laundry at Home blog writes about her attempts to cook the recipes (all of them) out of the French Laundry Cookbook (from the premiere Northern California restaurant known for its complicated, exquisite tasting menus), and her postings are quite entertaining. In Washington, Jennifer McCann takes photos of the bento-style lunches she makes her grade-school son before he takes them to school in her blog Vegan Lunch Box (and rates them based on how much he ate and enjoyed the meals). I wish this woman would make my lunches! And there's Rebecca Blood's blog Eating Organic on a Food Stamp Budget, where she's feeding a family of two following the USDA's thrifty food plan budget, here's the catch, eating organic food.

I would also like to point out that the three nominated books for the Writing on Food category of the 2007 James Beard Foundation Awards were The Omnivore's Dilemma, The United States of Arugula, and Heat, all of which have now been reviewed on this site. While I think Heat is the most entertaining read of the group, Omnivore's Dilemma won, and I agree that it is probably the most thought-provoking of the three and the one most likely to create change throughout our national food system.

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