Many of you already know that I started paying close attention to what I eat a few years ago – and have become steadily more informed and therefore more picky about what I put in my mouth (take that one any way you like). It started (of course!) with a $3 book, written in 1979 called (I believe) Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Nutrition, which has since disappeared from my collection. Then I gave up beef because I had a craving I couldn’t get rid of. Then I read Fast Food Nation. And on and on. I told my son I would have to stop reading or I wouldn’t eat anything at all. Thankfully, there are farmer’s markets, cool organic grocery for mindful eaters – such as New Seasons and Natural Pantry – and a growing awareness in the world, so I haven’t starved just yet.
I bring all this up because I read another book on the human-food relationship, this one called The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, the author of In Defense of Food and other books, and the co-writer of the film Food, Inc with Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation). What first surprised me about the book was the dilemma referred to in the title.
In Pollan’s mind, the current U. S. omnivore’s dilemma is too many choices and not enough history. He’s not supporting the industrialization of the food supply – and he gives economic, gastric and nutritional reasons why – but he puts the current situation of fad diets and flip-flopping nutritional advice into a historical context.
Being an omnivore allowed us to flourish in difficult times, since we could eat so many different things. But now the availability of so many different things all the time creates a different kind of obstacle. Culture has always assisted us in making food choices, and it is the absence of a stable, universal culture in the U.S, coupled with the economical success our country enjoys, that make us vulnerable to the crazy food fads and yo-yoing advice on what to eat – much of that advice profit-driven, not health-driven at all.
I really liked the fact that Pollan is not on a fanatical crusade to indict the industrial food complex and those who eat from it. He approaches his research like a journalist and uses his personal experiences for description, not to sensationalize. He does not confuse exposition with indoctrination. He doesn’t assume that his perspective is universal – he shares his experience and allows you to draw your own conclusions. He works through the economic calculations with the reader before he shares the results of those equations. And it’s only those kinds of details that he takes as facts to be applied universally. Numbers are not subjective. And if he includes expenses or other factors you don’t consider important or germane, you can see them and re-work the equations for yourself (not that there’s a math test or anything…).
What you get is a treatise on four different food chains – the industrial complex, the organic industrial complex, local and personal. He puts together four meals, following each item from its origin to his plate, and takes you along with him. This includes his very first hunt, mushroom gathering, a sustainable farm, the new large-scale organic operations, and the typical corn plant and slaughterhouse cow. I’ve read a lot on this subject, and I’ve never seen anything this comprehensive, even-handed and enjoyable to read.
Read the book – it’s good for you.