I have Sandy and Sarah to thank for pointing me to the best book I read during my baseball-induced blog hiatus. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, through the sometimes strained conceit of tracing four specific meals back to their source materials, is a fascinating exploration of the current state of our production of—and relationship to—food. Coming from a farm background, and being both a vegetarian and a subscriber to the produce of a nearby community-supported farm, I knew a little bit about the subject going into the book. I know that our contemporary food system is built on a willful blindness about the materials and methods that bring us our meals. I know that most American eat in ways that are bad for them and their planet, out of a combination of ignorance, busy-ness, complacency, and lack of opportunity. I know that, like many other aspects of our resource use as a culture, our current approach to food is likely to be unsustainable. And I know that I haven’t always had this knowledge, despite my background and the amount of cooking I’ve done since I became an adult; I distinctly remember being stopped cold by Wendell Berry’s reminder that we can never be any healthier than the land from which we draw our sustenance.
But despite that knowledge, Pollan’s relentless questioning, his dogged working backwards through link after link in the food supply chain, taught me a lot about aspects of our food culture that I knew little about. Take the huge fields of corn that blanket the Midwest. Pollan’s opening chapter clearly and carefully explains how, in part because of various subsidies and government programs, American agriculture after World War II began growing a tremendous surplus of corn every year. That corn has ended up in every part of our food system, with often terrible, unanticipated results. Corn syrup replaces sugar in soft drinks; because corn syrup is so cheap, the soft drinks get larger (rather than getting cheaper); people drink more calories of soft drinks; people get diabetes. That’s a simplified version, of course, leaving out many mitigating and complicating factors (which Pollan does not neglect), but when you see similarly malignant patterns in the realms of livestock, chemical fertilizers and herbicides, crop rotations, and more, the overall effect is powerful.
That chapter, and subsequent ones on large-scale organic farming (which has its own grave problems) are both fantastic. But the highlight of the book is when Pollan visits a small-scale farm in Virginia, where grasslands, chickens, hogs, and cattle interact in layers and loops of dizzying complexity to create an ecological system in careful balance, one requiring very, very few external inputs beyond sunlight, rainfall, and manual labor. The farmer, evangelical about his type of farming to the point where I think he’d probably be annoying as a relative or friend, is adamant that this is the way forward: producing and selling locally, keeping a close connection to the land and therefore (as Wendell Berry would certainly agree) fully understanding of the responsibility the farmer has to the land. At first, Pollan is confused that the farmer won’t fedex him a steak; by the end of his visit, he feels like a fool for having asked.
The closing section, on hunting (pigs) and gathering (fungi), isn’t t anywhere near as interesting. And while I love the process of cooking, I’m not actually that interested in reading about food itself, so the descriptions of meals that crop up here and there in The Omnivore’s Dilemma were mostly skippable. But it’s still a great book, and the one I’m most likely to buy as a Christmas gift for more than one person this year. It’s also the gift most likely to spark lively discussion. Pollan, after all, raises far more questions than he answers—he ‘s too smart not to acknowledge that every possible solution to our current situation has its own limitations and problems. But I’ll be very surprised if you can read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and keep it out of your thoughts the next time you sit down to a meal with the person you gave the book to, or the next time you go to the grocery store.
After all, asparagus in January? Apple cider in March? Twinkies, ever? Clearly there’s something wrong here, but how wrong, and how can we make it right? That’s a Thanksgiving dinner conversation if I’ve ever heard one!