Saturday, January 5, 2008

In Progress: Omnivore's Dilemma

I'm halfway through The Omnivore's Dilemma and am so impressed by the sheer scope of the work. In fact, one reason it is taking me so long to finish, is that I find myself needing to take a break so I can fully "digest" each chapter (pun intended).

What I appreciate the most, however, is the experiential data and the lack of sanctimony. When it comes to what we eat, there are few unadulterated heroes. Pollan leaves few stones unturned and is equitable when examining industrial agriculture, the "organic" movement, and even the idyllic farming pastoral embodied by the small family farm.

Finally, Pollan's writing is an absolute joy to read, peppered with humor and enthusiasm for his subject. I'll include a few excerpts here that I found most thoughtful and engaging.

Yet the organic label itself--like every other such label in the supermarket--is really just an imperfect substitute for direct observation of how a food is produced, a concession to the reality that most people in an industrial society haven't the time or the inclination to follow their food back to the farm, a farm which today is apt to be, on average, fifteen hundred miles away. (137)

Ain't that the truth? And really, that's the point of the book, as far as I can tell thus far. If we invested more emotional and mental energy into what we eat (including pondering where the food comes from), we could really impact the entire chain--from farm to table.

Pollan begins his journey with an examination of corn, which is the closest thing to a clear-cut villain in his story:

Corn has done more than any other species to help the food industry realize the dream of freeing food from nature's limitations and seducing the omnivore into eating more of a single plant than anyone would ever have thought possible. (91)

Seduction is a good word for it. Advertising and economics have seduced us into what we now have as the "typical" American diet. Corn, Pollan offers, may be one of the lousiest bedfellows around for numerous reasons.

And finally, while shopping at Whole Foods today, Pollan's words lodged in the back of my mind:

I enjoy shopping at Whole Foods nearly as much as I enjoy browsing a good bookstore, which, come to think of it, is probably no accident: Shopping at Whole Foods is a literary experience, too. That's not to take anything away from the food, which is generally of high quality, much of it "certified organic" or "humanely raised" or "free range." But right there, that's the point: It's the evocative prose as much as anything else that makes this food really special, elevating an egg or chicken breast or bag of arugula from the realm of ordinary protein and carbohydrates into a much headier experience, one with complex aesthetic, emotional, and even political dimensions. (135)

I can't wait to read more.


Rebecca said...

This sounds like a book I would really like to read.

There are so many people who just don't know where food comes from. During my childhood I lived on a farm and also in Alaska where my parents were subsistence hunters. Yes, I have eaten seal and muktuk (whale). But it was in the context of food and not "delicacy."

I have actually had people offer my white bread because they figured it would be "safe" as it wasn't wheat bread. Perhaps it goes back to the topic of "literacy." *sigh*

Rebecca said...

I've actually had you in mind as I've been reading this book. I think you would really enjoy it.