Monday, December 14, 2009

Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma

Once again, I'm trying to catch up to my writing so that I can get on with my reading. And I'm reminding myself that my only commitment is to record what I've read; no demand that I do a full review.

Too bad, though because Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals could easily take up a post or four. After all, one of my brightest students commented that it has changed her life, and I can easily see how. I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to respond to the challenge this book presents me -- it's going to require some accommodation, considerable commitment, and definitely some inconvenience, but then, look where convenience has got us. . .

Pollan's rhetorical strategy is very clever. The heavy loading, the rather daunting statistics and the depressingly bad news about the costs of our corn-based foodway is at the front end of the book. While this means that I've met one or two readers who got bogged down in this section, never to move beyond, it also means that once you get through the bad news about corn, you start to see that it might be possible to make some meaningful changes.

The part of the book I found most appealing, most galvanizing and hopeful, the part that made me think about how we might raise a few chickens and bees in the backyard and how we really should finally plant up those raised beds we filled last year and what about those fruit trees we've been talking about . . . this was the section on the grass-based farm, Polyface Farms. The brilliance of good old-fashioned common sense. The ingeniously simple methods for getting an abundant yield from the land while enriching it at the same time make me hope that we could save the planet after all. Seriously -- there is that kind of evangelistic optimism and it's tempered (even better) with the pragmatic admission that if we want this solution we need to pay for it -- Once again, good-bye to some of the conveniences we've become addicted to and hello to higher-priced food. But at least the costs will be up front rather than hidden only to surface later as environmental damage.

In the last section of the book, Pollan forages and hunts to put together a meal, confronting his meat-eating directly by shooting and butchering a wild pig. The honest confrontation with the troubling ethics of meat-eating takes the reader through a consideration of the burgeoning library of work on animal rights, speciesism, and so on. Pollan doesn't flinch from looking at his own hungers clearly and he admits the possibility that he's looking for a philosophy that accommodates those hungers. In the end, his rationalization for meat-eating articulates my own position so clearly that I'm very grateful. This alone, for me, is worth the price of the book.

I'm still debating the possibility of having my 1st-year classes tackle this one next year, but I suspect I'd be doing too much nagging for it to be worthwhile. The young woman whose life the book has supposedly changed wants me to go for it, but she admits that her peers are not as avid readers as she is. Instead, she suggests, I might consider his other book, In Defense of Food. Have you read either? How would you compare them?

And I'll leave you with a couple of quotations. This brief one struck me as particularly true: "It's axiomatic that the more weary you feel the more kindly you look on fossil fuel." I register the truth of this every time I get off the boat at the end of the work day and have to pedal my bike a mere kilometre (especially if it's raining).

And here's a longer one that seems important to me:
For most of us today hunting and gathering and growing our own food is by and large a form of play. That's not to say there aren't still subcultures of people, especially in rural places, who hunt some portion of the protein in their diet, feed themselves out of their gardens, and even earn an income foraging for wild delicacies such as morels or ramps or abalone. But the exorbitant price these wild tastes bring in the market-place is only proof that very few of us can be serious foragers anymore.
So though a hunter-gatherer food chain still exists here and there to one degree or another, it seems to me its chief value for us at this point is not so much economic or practical as it is didactic. Like other important forms of play, it promises to teach us something about who we are beneath the crust of our civilized, practical, grown-up lives. Foraging for wild plants and animals is, after all, the way the human species has fed itself for 99 percent of its time on earth; this is precisely the food chain natural selection designed us for. Ten thousand years as agriculturists has selected for a small handful of new traits suited to our new existence . . . but for the most part we still, somewhat awkwardly, occupy the bodies of foragers and look out at the world through the hunter's eye.
This is what I'm learning or remembering when I pick blackberries each summer . . .


  1. I've been wanting to read this for ages, but haven't yet. Have you read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? I have slowly been developing what I hope are more sustainable eating habits - I never buy imported fruit or vegetables, I buy local and/or organic as often as possible, etc. Chooks are on the cards for the new house, and I have a garden bed planned that should contribute somewhat to our meals ... Must put that book on my Xmas wishlist! Thanks for the review.

  2. I haven't read the Kingsolver although I have read reviews of it. I have similarly been moving toward more sustainable eating. Not as good as you, though, about never eating imported fruits or veg -- can't quite imagine never again eating bananas or avocados . . . But I do try to do local. I'm looking forward to hearing about your chickens once you're settled in your new place.

  3. We're very lucky here, because we get everything from stone fruit to tropical delights thanks to our climate. So it makes it easier to be 'virtuous'. It's actually the little things that I find tricky, like avoiding imported lemons - so many summer recipes call for lemons, when the only ones we get at this time of year are imported from the US. I substitute lime or calamondins or try to remember to freeze lemon juice when we have a glut!

  4. I'm envious, Tiffany, of all those exotic-to-me fruits that you can get relatively locally. Mango, papaya, avocado, banana, lime, lemon, grapefruit, orange -- none of these would be in my diet at all if I were a strict locavore.