The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan (Penguin, New York, 2006)
My limited knowledge of Michael Pollan prior to devouring this book was primarily his mantra for healthy eating: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. There's a lot of wisdom there — not that I'm very good at following it — but that phrase itself is not found in The Omnivore's Dilemma. It is the beginning, however, of an excellent Pollan article in the New York Times, Unhappy Meals.
I'll admit I was expecting a diatribe, a full-force blast against agri-business and the factory farm, more along the lines of what we hear from the more strident vegans and animal rights activists. Pollan, however, is much too skilled as a journalist and writer for that. If his journeys lead him to both Food Hell and Food Heaven, they also show him that there is no clear, simple, and easy path to salvation when it comes to eating.
The Omnivore's Dilemma is Pollan's attempt to answer some important questions about the food we eat, which I have unfairly boiled down to: Where does the food that we eat come from, and how did it get from there to us? His quest takes him through the horrifying house of cards that is industrial farming, ranching, and food processing, a vision that will either open your eyes or make you screw them tightly shut, because most of us don't have a lot of choice when it comes, for example, to eschewing the monoculture corn that finds its way into most of what we eat and much of what we don't. The first of the four meals in the subtitle is of McDonald's fast food, eaten with his family but hardly "shared," as they each consumed a different choice of foods, all the while driving along the highway, as many fast food meals are eaten in America today.
Skipping ahead, the fourth and final meal was as personal and local as Pollan could make it: meat from the wild pig he shot himself, bread made with wild yeasts, produce from his garden, mushrooms gathered by his own hands, and more, all crafted into a gourmet feast that he shared at the table with friends, family, and good conversation. With apparently honest and transparent struggles, he experiences both the attraction of vegetarianism and the joy of the hunt in preparation for what he called his Perfect Meal. Not a meal for everyone, nor for every day, but a meal of grace, embodying the ultimate answer to his questions.
In between is Organic, what Pollan calls "pastoral food," in contrast to "industrial." This required two meals, because "organic" isn't what it used to be. "Big organic," symbolized by the Whole Foods Market, has hit the big time. It is proof that we do, after all, have some choice about where our food comes from. That we can now buy organic food at Wal-Mart says a lot for the power of the consumer. But this victory came at a price: our 1960's-bred image of the small, family, organic farm remains only on the patently misleading pictures on the food packages. In order to become a mass-market commodity, organic food has taken on many of the harmful practices of the industrial system, from migrant labor to "free range" chickens that never see the outdoors. It's still a good thing — organic farming is much better for the land and produces food that is at least somewhat more nutritious — but has it lost its soul?
Joel Salatin would say it has. The section on Salatin's Polyface Farm in Virginia is worth the price of the book all by itself. This is Food Heaven on earth. If you've seen the movie, Food, Inc., you've seen Joel and the wonder that is Polyface. The Salatin family, beginning with Joel's parents, took an abused and exhausted plot of land and healed it ("We are in the redemption business"), turning it into a showpiece of truly sustainable agriculture. It's all I ever dreamed of for the Ideal Farm, and more, one that produces a great deal of food while enriching, rather than depleting the land, and where the people, the animals, the plants, the smaller creatures, and the soil play out their interdependence to the advantage of all. To add to my delight, the Salatins are also homeschoolers.
As many of us who have chosen to homeschool our children are in defending our educational way of life, Joel Salatin is perhaps a little too strident in his enthusiasm for his way of farming, not showing much concern for those of us who have no access to locally-grown food but still want to eat. I know from experience that such is a common, though unhelpful, reaction when the rest of the world — and especially the government — seems determined to stop you from doing what you know is good, right, and healing for yourself, your family, and your community. That is the position that small farmers are in today, much as homeschoolers were 30 years ago in the United States, and still are in many parts of the world.
Putting that defensiveness aside, however: in all the areas in which I care so much for the local and the personal — homes, families, education, childbirth, businesses, farms, and more — no one path is right for everyone, and in diversity is our strength.
Deciding whether [the future of food] should more closely resemble Joel's radically local vision or Whole Foods' industrial organic matters less than assuring that thriving alternatives exist; feeding the cities may require a different sort of food chain than feeding the countryside. We may need a great many different alternative food chains, organic and local, biodynamic and slow, and others yet undreamed of. As in the fields, nature provides the best model for the marketplaces, and nature never puts all her eggs in one basket. The great virtue of a diversified food economy, like a diverse pasture or farm, is its ability to withstand any shock. The important thing is that there be multiple food chains, so that when any one of them fails — when the oil runs out, when mad cow or other food-borne diseases become epidemic, when the pesticides no longer work, when drought strikes and plagues come and soils blow away — we'll still have a way to feed ourselves.
Michael Pollan is a superb writer, making The Omnivore's Dilemma a very welcome change from much that resides between book covers these days. I doubt I'll ever get used to seeing certain four-letter words in print, but here they are context-appropriate, and best of all, rare. There's no need for a grandchild or nephew warning, as by the time they are old enough to read this book (or, more to the point, old enough to want to read it), they will, alas, have already seen and heard things much more shocking.Much of the content is, in itself, more shocking than a few Anglo-Saxon words could ever be. But far from being the jeremiad I had expected, Pollan's careful investigations and respectful reporting make The Omnivore's Dilemma a book that everyone who eats should read.