Book: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
Author: Michael Pollan
Published: 2006 (Penguin)
Pages: 411 (plus end notes)
Everything I try to write about this book makes it sound dull and over-obvious.
- “Hey! Did you guys know that we Americans eat a shit ton of corn in our diets and that it isn’t even as, like, real corn?”
- “We’re totally doing farming wrong but the people with the biggest stakes (heh) are too invested in the current system to change without losing a shit ton of money that shouldn’t even be there in the first place!”
- “Organic farming’s grown into enough of an industry itself that it’s possible to buy organic TV dinners and the organic industry has this huge riff over whether that’s a good thing or not!”
Well duh. I’m not going to break any surprising ground (sorry, the farming puns will probably come of their own volition in this post) by telling you what I learned, nor will I pretend that I hadn’t heard most of it before. (Except for that organic TV dinner part. That sounds like the worst of both worlds.) But I swear this was a good book.
I almost feel like food writers are cheating a wee little bit because everybody eats, so everybody has at least a baseline interest in the topic. That doesn’t mean the good stuff isn’t compelling.
Pollan follows the production line of three different food gathering methods: industrial, organic, and gathering. He’s clear about his methods and reasoning and changes in plan as he goes along, which takes us with him on the journey as he watches corn get mashed up into the sugar for his McDonald’s soda and sees/smells/hears the difference between a feed-cow and a grass-cow and learns how to triangulate his vision to find mushrooms in their natural habitats.
He explains everything clearly like a PBS narration, adding historical and business-y and national conversation-y bits about a topic after he’s seen it for himself and can add a personal perspective. He sounds like the normal-guy protagonist in a sci fi film who’s been taking along for the ride and gets to ask all the stupid/weird questions we want answered but that everybody else in the situation already knows.
The best bit (by a narrow margin because none of it’s bad) was when he talked about the ethics of eating animals. He outlines points made by animal rights people that if we think animals don’t have feelings and we don’t protect those feelings from the agony of slaughterhouses, we’re being speciest. He then points out a bunch of people on the other side that are all, “Hey, killing animals in quick slices and stretching them for food is a lot kinder than what would happen to them in the natural food chain.” Which – okay, that falls apart when you get to industrial farms that don’t let the animals live in the space and freedom they would otherwise, but if you go to small farms that let the animals do their natural grazing thing (which, by the way, perpetuates and stimulates farm growth cycles all by itself, like a self-winding clock) and manage to kill them in sanitary conditions that really do knock them out the first time, sounds like a good reason to keep eating local chicken.
So there was that, but I wasn’t overly fond of how he wrote the section where he went hunting for the first time. I don’t have strong feelings about hunting; but it irritated me to read his overly romantic description of the actual hunt juxtaposed with his overly horrified reaction afterwards. It’s by far the most personal-opinion and –experience-driven part of the book, and it’s like he wants to get the same exact approval from the two extreme kinds of people who will be most riled up by it.
And when he was done gathering and started reflecting on the meal he made almost entirely from things he had foraged himself, he got sappy about the circle of life, but he also revealed that you can gather natural yeast by filling a bowl with flour and water and waving it around outside your window. Seriously. That junk’s just floating around, apparently. I wonder what Columbia-yeast bread tastes like – humidity and mosquitoes and river water and ambulances and college kid beer? Anyway, that was sufficiently interesting enough to keep me distracted while he thanked all his friends and crap.
Going back to the library’s bookshelf! If it were my own copy, I would definitely keep in on my shelf, although I don’t know what sort of re-readability it has.