Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Chew on this


So I finally got around to reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan's excellent and deservedly popular book.

I am probably the wrong person to review this book, possessing what have been often derided as the Worst Eating Habits on Earth. Ever.

For the past three nights I've had broccoli and jellybeans for dinner. I would have the same thing tonight, but I've eaten all the broccoli and jellybeans. Which means I am probably going to eat edamame and Junior Mints for dinner tonight.

Fortunately, Pollan's book isn't another Watersian, slow-food-worshipping polemic. Sure, Pollan is trying to gently noodge his readers towards something (which we'll get to later) but he also understands that in order to change, really meaningfully change on a large scale the way we eat in America, we'll have to dismantle our entire industrial farming enterprise, and that's as likely as the Pope on a pogo stick.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess that Pollan's book has not, as of yet, made me change my eating habits (see: jellybeans, containing not only high fructose corn syrup, but artificial dye, which we now are finding out is actually Satan). But what Pollan's book does, and it does it very very well, is explain how our eating habits are being controlled by factors that we do not see, do not think about, and probably don't ever connect to the way we eat.

Pollan looks at four meals: a McDonald's burger and fries; organic chicken and vegetables from Whole Foods; chicken, vegetables, and eggs from a small, organic family farm; and finally, a meal containing only things he'd found or killed himself.

I found the first meal the most interesting, if only because I find American fast food really bewildering. My ill-advised shamrock shake adventure notwithstanding, I don't eat fast food - not in any sort of sniffy, health-conscious way (see: my raging sugar addiction and one-entire-salami-a-week habit) but simply because I am too lazy to go and get it. The irony.

Certainly, there are many other things just as bad for you as fast food, but the point that Pollan seems to be making is not only is fast food bad for you, it's bad for everything. Pollan visits a Midwestern farm that grows corn, nothing but corn, super-high-yield genetically tinkered with corn, that then delivers this corn to be processed by agribusinesses into forty zillion different corn products, from the aforementioned syrup to all kinds of other Frakensteinian concoctions, which then end up in your food. Even if that food has nothing to do with corn.

The corn also ends up getting fed to cows, which is kind of weird when you consider that cows are not grain-eaters. But as Pollan's guided tour of a vast feedlot shows, we've gotten around that in a number of ingenious ways.

'Farming' in America has become something of a massive, money-sucking shell game, and Pollan rightly points out the irony in delivering federal subsidies to "family farmers" whose farms don't grow anything you could actually eat, but rather suck up petroleum and spit out corn.

What is the intrepid consumer to do? Jump ship and head for the more colorful, life-affirming aisles of Whole Foods? Not so fast, as 'organic' farming, at least on the scale necessary to supply the Whole Foods of North America, may not use as many pesticides as other farms, but the philosophy doesn't jibe with the reality. Pollan takes a fascinating little linguistic detour here as he takes the reader through a genre he terms "supermarket pastoral," parsing the flowery snippets of prose that Whole Foods likes to paste around the grocery store.

To highlight the difference, Pollan decamps for Polyface Farm of Virginia (and if you've eaten at any of the restaurants in the area that are way out of my price range, you may have seen things like "Polyface chicken" on the menu), a real, organic, multi-use farm run by a  farmer who seems like a cross between MacGuyver and the guy from "Back to the Future" (and also seems more sane in Pollan's book than his website may lead you to believe). Joel Salatin, the owner of Polyface Farms, would seem like exactly the type of small family farmer who should be rolling in federal money, but of course he's not, and USDA standards (written to the exact specifications of lobbyists for the meat industry) even keep him from producing his own beef and pork.

Pollan certainly makes a convincing case for vegetarianism, but his Omnivore's Dilemma is really about how an omnivore can make conscienable choices about what they eat in a system designed for profit, and not human or environmental health.

Pass the Jujubes.

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