Book Review - Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
I just finished an incredible book called The Omnivore's Dilemma. I have heard good things about this book for years and finally borrowed it from the library. Written by Michael Pollan, it wasn't at all what I expected. And as frugal as I am, I have been paying my library fines for the last week, so that I could keep it and finish it. They wouldn't let me renew it, but I wasn't going to return until I was done - it is that good. But be prepared for it to change the way you think about food and eating. I found it truly fascinating and it has been a long time since a book made me think so much.
Michael Pollan believes we (the United States) have a national eating disorder. After reading this book, I would have to agree. The way in which we micro-process most foods and take them from something nutritious, delicious and edible and turn them into a jumble of artificial everything laden with chemicals. All so that we can have our meals quicker and easier than our ancestors. Also, so that the food manufacturers (not growers) can make more money. Pollan talks about how many calories the average person should have and how the food companies have spent decades trying to figure out a way to get us to consume more calories - just so they can make more money. I couldn't help but think about Taco Bell's "4th Meal".
The Omnivore's Dilemma made me wonder how we can call what we eat food. The majority of the foods we eat are not in their natural form. We no longer get our nutrients from nature as we should. We get what we need from fortified foods - foods no longer in their natural state, but processed. On page 303 Pollan states that-
"Instead of relying on the accumulated wisdom of a cuisine, or even the wisdom of our senses, we rely on expert opinion, advertising, government food pyramids, and diet books, and we place our faith in science to sort out for us what culture once did with rather more success."
I couldn't agree more. This makes me want to eat more and more locally grown food - namely food I grow myself. That is the only way to be sure of what you are getting. Realistically, aside from some fruits and vegetables, the average person is not capable of growing all their own food, and that to me is a problem.
I like the way The Omnivore's Dilemma is broken up. Pollan follows the different food chains from which we feed ourselves - industrial, organic and foraging. He starts the book by talking about corn. Corn seems to be in everything and I can't imagine what a person would do if they were allergic to it. He follows corn from a farm in Iowa until it becomes our food. Funny, because it was food to begin with, but the amount of processing that turns it into other things is ridiculous. Eventually it makes its way to a feedlot where cattle are finished - on grain.
Most people don't realize that cattle are not equipped to eat corn. Cows need grass. But yet, because corn is cheap and the United States grows too much of it we are always in search of more ways to use it. So we feed it to animals that are not made to eat it and then fill them with antibiotics to keep them from getting sick from it. Nice. Because so much of the processed food we eat is laden with corn products, he completed his journey of following corn by having a fast food meal from McDonald's with his family in the car - where millions of people eat their meals each day.
Next he looked at grass, pastures, organic foods and animals raised on grass. He spent a fascinating week at a farm called Polyface in Virginia. They consider themselves beyond organic and have a completely natural way of raising animals, eggs and produce. They have it down to a science - a natural one that is. If only the food manufacturers would realize that if they grew food the natural way they would not have to use nasty chemicals that cause all sorts of diseases and bad things. Not just for humans, but for animals and the planet. If only everyone read this book. It will really change the way you look at food.
Lastly he wanted to cook a meal that he entirely created himself; from hunting the pig, to finding the morels, to collecting the yeast to growing the vegetables in his backyard. He wanted to see what it was like to enjoy food with the shortest food chain and in the way it was intended. Hunting, foraging, growing and harvesting things himself with nothing bought and no artificial anything. He called it the perfect meal, but admits that everyone could not eat like this all the time. I think we would be a lot healthier if we did though.
We have become too removed from our food. We don't want to think about how the steak we are eating for dinner actually came from a cow that had to be killed to feed us. We don't want to think about what is actually in a McDonald's hamburger or where our food came from. But we need to be thinking about - all of us. It seems our toughest decision is what to make for dinner - or alternately where to stop to pick up dinner on our way home. If only Americans knew what is happening to the animals that eventually become our meals. As Pollan puts it on the last page-
"But imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What is it we're eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in true accounting, it really cost."
I think that many changes would be demanded - and that would be a very good thing. I hope more people read The Omnivore's Dilemma - it should change how you think about food and hopefully, in turn, change some of what goes on before that food hits the grocery store.