We Are What We Eat, In More Ways Than One – A Review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

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Food: one of the three most important things that human beings need to survive. It’s usually the first thing mentioned in that all-important three-item list of what humans need in order to be able to live – the other two are clothing and shelter, in that order. The list is often amended to include water before food, but it was the original three-item list that was drilled into me since grade school (though sometimes religion classes will insist that God is more important than those three, since the teachers insisted that it was God that provides them). Animals need to eat, after all, and humanity is no different in this regard.

It’s one thing, though, to say that one must eat; oftentimes, the more interesting – and more pressing – question is what one eats, especially in the context of everyday living. Does one go for cheap fast-food, or splurge a little for a salad? Does one order food to be delivered, or try to cook something instead? Vegetables or meat? Butter or margarine? Non-fat or full-cream milk? Sugar or no sugar? No fat, low fat, or regular fat content? The decisions to be made when considering the question “What to eat?” can be pretty confusing and overwhelming if one considers the full implication of the question. This issue is something Michael Pollan addresses in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and is also what he calls the problem omnivorous humans have when confronted with the wide range of choices available to them when it comes to food.

In order to answer “What to eat?” Pollan realizes that before he can answer that question he needs first to find the answer to: “What am I eating?” In some ways the questions are similar, but at a fundamental level, they are not. The former is simply a question of choosing from a wide selection of possible foods; the latter requires a greater amount of involvement in one’s food far beyond simply choosing what to have. In order to answer that question to the fullest, Pollan decided to structure his quest for answers around four meals: one from a drive-through fast-food joint; another by cooking a meal made from ingredients from Whole Foods; yet another by spending a week and then cooking and having a meal at a “beyond organic” place called Polyface Farm; and finally, by cooking a meal made up of food he either hunted or foraged himself. Pollan’s plan was to trace the most important ingredients of each meal before they ended up on his plate, thus figuring out precisely what it was he was putting into his body. The answers, of course, were not as comfortable as they might seem on the surface.

Now, to be fair, not all of Pollan’s book was revelatory: a lot of what he talks about regarding how animals are processed industrially I’ve already read about in Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. What I did find interesting, though, was how Pollan pointed out the predominance of corn in processed food, and not in a form that the average shopper in a grocery store would recognize, either. By untangling the mysterious ingredient lists on the labels of common foods like soda, Pollan reveals that almost all processed food contains corn in some way, shape, or form. He also points out that lots of animals are in some ways corn, too, since many animal feeds used in commercial animal production are corn-based. He then reveals what this dependence on corn is doing to the farmers that grow it, and from there the health of the animals that eat it and on to the people who consume all that corn-based food and drink. He concludes his meditation on the corn-based industrial food chain (and corn-based economy) of the US while eating a fast-food meal with his family, consumed in a car while driving.

Reading this portion – the first fourth of Pollan’s book – is uncomfortable, to say the least, mostly because I know I consume quite a bit of that corn-based processed food Pollan describes. It also makes me look askance at the meat I’ve been eating. I used to imagine that animal feeds in the Philippines were rice-based – that’s what’s easily available, after all. But now that I think about it, the country still has to import rice, so I doubt any farmers are going to waste rice by giving it to animals. I now have the sinking feeling – more like a sinking certainty – that the animal feeds in this country are corn-based after all. And although it may have very little to do with the greater issue of what’s going into the pork and beef and chicken I eat on a regular basis, I can’t help but think of all the soda I used to drink, and wonder if the subsequent weight gain was in any way connected to the amount of corn (in the form of high fructose corn syrup) sweetening the drink. I haven’t given up soda entirely, but I’ve stopped drinking so much of it, and I’ve actually managed to lose some of the weight I gained. After reading Pollan’s book, I rather like to think the weight loss, however minimal, is because of the amount of corn I’ve cut out of my diet.

The second and third parts of The Omnivore’s Dilemma are actually kind of linked, because they’re both a response to the question of “organic food.” The first part of the book is about industrial processed food, and after reading that I think the obvious response is to say: “Well, all right, what if I were to go organic? Would that mean I can avoid all this high fructose corn syrup and mysterious preservatives in my food?” Pollan reveals, however, that the word “organic” is now fraught with complications, since the question of how it’s defined is no longer what it used to be. In the sixties and seventies, “organic” had a very specific meaning: food produced without chemical pesticides or fertilizers, and with minimal processing. This is still the meaning that the average eater still has in his or her mind when he or she thinks of the word.

Unfortunately, this is no longer what “organic” means, especially if one sees it on the label of a can of soup or a box of cereal in a grocery store. In fact, the so-called “organic” soup or cereal in a grocery store might be made from “organic” ingredients in the sense that the wheat or carrots were not sprayed with chemical pesticides or given chemical fertilizers while they were being grown, but the subsequent processing they undergo is really no different from their industrially-grown cousins undergo. To be sure, not using chemical pesticides and fertilizers is a good thing, especially for the environment, but only marginally, and the health gains are actually minimal compared to what one would get from industrially-grown raw materials. As for so-called “organic meat,” well, it’s really not that different from industrially-raised meat, with the exception that the cows and the pigs and the chickens are given feed based on organically grown corn. In the culminating meal, involving a home-cooked meal made from produce and meat bought from Whole Foods, Pollan comments that, while there was something to be said about the taste factor when it comes to what he calls “industrial organic,” the gains are in fact minimal: the industrial-organic food system actually costs more in terms of petrochemical usage than the industrial food system that he first tackled.

So where, then, should one go if one is looking for the original meaning of organic? The answer to this question leads Pollan to a farm all the way out in Swoope, Virginia, called Polyface Farm, which practices something called “beyond organic:” a term adopted by the owner of the farm, Joel Salatin, and other like-minded folks in order to distinguish themselves from the industrial-organic movement currently embraced by the mainstream. At Polyface Farm, Pollan discovers food grown and raised according to the original spirit of the word “organic:” a farm that operates like an ecosystem, with the plants reliant on the animals, who are in their turn reliant on the plants, and as minimal input in terms of animal feed as the farmer can possibly get. Pollan also confronts the reality of having to kill an animal before eating it when he has to slaughter a chicken.

This is the first time Pollan has to confront the mortality of his food. In the US this is very common: most people never give a second thought to the fact that their pork chop used to belong on a live pig. This is the same problem a growing number of Filipinos have, though there’s still a large part of the population that’s very aware of the fact that in order for one to eat barbecued pork ribs or deep-fried chicken thighs, someone had to kill a pig or a chicken first. I belong to that section of people: I’ve witnessed a chicken go from walking around to having its throat slit and its feathers plucked and its innards cleaned in preparation for the cooking pot, so seeing an animal die so it can feed me does not bother me in the least. As long as it wasn’t someone’s precious pet; it’s not going to go extinct any time soon; it was killed humanely; and it was raised well, I will cheerfully consume a chicken – or any animal, for that matter – with very little to no weight on my conscience.

It is at this point that Pollan addresses the issue of animal rights and veganism and vegetarianism – and does so admirably well, defending the position of that large section of humanity that likes meat a little too much to want to give it up. It’s a rather involved portion of the book, since Pollan addresses this issue in light of killing the chicken, and it takes reading that portion to really understand it. I will say this, though: Pollan does a good job reminding his readers that a single example of a species is not the entirety of the species itself (a single chicken as opposed to the entire species of Domesticated Chicken, or Gallus gallus, to use the scientific name), and that domesticated species would actually go extinct without humans (except the pig, and he explains why). He pretty much takes the same stand I do: as long as it was raised and killed humanely, and is not about to go extinct, there really shouldn’t be any guilt at all in consuming an animal – especially if one has already seen an animal killed for just this reason and so knows exactly what it means to take an animal’s life to feed oneself. If one does feel this guilt, however, then one is free to go ahead and go vegan or vegetarian – just don’t force the entirety of humanity to adopt the same practice (and don’t do it to your cats, for heaven’s sake!).

The final fourth of the book is, quite possibly, the most intriguing. In it, Pollan decides to go take the shortest route to his food, which also happens to be the oldest: to hunt his own meat and gather his own vegetables – or mushrooms, rather. He shoots a wild pig (which causes an even greater emotional crisis than his slaughter of the chicken did), and goes mushroom-hunting with a few friends (this part is particularly interesting, if only for the insight into the culture of mushroom hunters), using everything to cook a pretty spectacular meal. The conclusion he comes to is this: the last meal, by and far, was the most difficult in terms of time and skill to create, and yet it was the most satisfying, mostly because he knew where everything had come from, and what each part of the meal had undergone before it got to the table. On the opposite end of the scale, the fast-food meal, Pollan finds that while it was, hands-down, the easiest to obtain, and also the cheapest, it was the least satisfying of all four meals. This leads him to his conclusion that eating a meal is not just about the taste of the food: it’s about everything else that brought that food to the table, and having a true awareness of where each part of the meal came from adds a certain special dimension to the food, and to the act of consuming that food, as well. And this, Pollan says, more than any fancy diets or medical studies, is what people should really take into consideration when eating and preparing food.

Overall, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an incredible, fascinating attempt to answer the question “What am I eating?” which then answers the question “What to eat?” Pollan’s language is clear and lucid, and the narration of the book is entertaining even when it tackles some of the more scientific aspects of Pollan’s search for answers. The last fourth of the book is, in my opinion, the most entertaining, and if it elicits cravings for wild mushrooms or fresh berries, then that’s only a sign of the effectiveness of Pollan’s prose. Most important, however, is that this book makes the reader ask questions, and that, I think, is precisely what Pollan hopes to do – and in writing the book, offer some possible interesting answers.

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