The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Endlessly fascinating! I know, it sounds cliché, but it accurately describes this read. Every time I sat down to read it, I was engaged, tuned in, and thinking about my relationship with food (a relationship that is somewhat warped). I think that’s what Pollan is trying to do here, just give you information so you can think about what ties you and your food together. He nails it big time and although I’m not going to make any major changes in my eating habits immediately, I have a feeling that this book will stick in my mind forever and certainly change how I view what I shovel into my gullet.

Warning, this is an aside! Before I launch into my take on this book, I need to mention something about really great nonfiction and really great fiction. I’m never as captivated by really great nonfiction as I am by really great fiction. This book still took me a few weeks to read and it’s one of the best chunks of nonfiction I’ve read in years. Contrast this to a little piece of Scalzi’s sci-fi that I read while I was reading this book; I banged through it in a matter of days. I just get along a little better with fiction, I guess.

Pollan structures this book as a description of four meals that he consumes with family and friends. He uses each meal as a mechanism to describe four different ways that food can get to your plate. He digs deep, and goes way back to the original speck of energy that indirectly caused the origination of that morsel of food you’re going to put in your mouth. In the process, he goes on numerous thoughtful and often humorous diatribes about various social and ethical consequences of eating what we eat. It’s not preaching at all, it’s just discussing. I think he does a good job of looking at things from multiple angles.

The four meals in order are:

  1. Industrial (burgers, fries, and McNuggets in the car on a California expressway, with wife and son)
  2. Organic Industrial (oven roasted chicken and vegetables, steamed asparagus, organic ice cream and organic blackberries, all purchased from Whole Foods, with wife and son)
  3. Grass Fed (grill roasted chicken and sweet corn, chocolate souffle, from Polyface Farm in Virginia, with friends)
  4. Perfect Meal (wild California pig, slain by Pollan himself, hand picked greens, Bing cherry cake, with fellow hunters and gatherers and wife and son)

Think of these meals as a continuum – a continuum from most processed (McDonald’s) to least processed (wild pig), from higher on the food chain to lower, and from industrial to private. Do not interpret this order as going from unhealthy to healthy, unsustainable to sustainable, or ethically wrong to ethically virtuous. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if many interpret it this way. Pollan, at times, may come off as self-righteous with an agenda, but I think he tempers it with a grasp of reality. I read it with an open mind and I haven’t checked any of his facts. I assume they are mostly correct because this book hasn’t been met with any noticeable public outcry from, say, the beef industry or McDonald’s. But like any work of nonfiction, or news story, read it with skepticism.

So on to the four meals. The basis for the industrial meal is corn, and Pollan explores it in detail in the first quarter of the book. I knew I was going to like this book when I came across a few interesting gems like the following within the first 30 pages.

On where the term corned beef came from:

… Originally “corn” was a generic English word for any kind of grain, even a grain of salt – hence “corned beef”. …

On where the term corn hole came from:

… the shelled cobs were burned for heat and stacked by the privy as a rough substitute for toilet paper. (Hence the American slang term “corn hole.”)

Eventually Pollan converts to a very serious tone when discussing corn. The “corniness” of his family’s meal from McDonald’s is probably higher than you think.

Some time later I found another way to to calculate just how much corn we had eaten that day. I asked Todd Dawson, a biologist at Berkeley, to run a McDonald’s meal through his mass spectrometer and calculate how much of the carbon in it came originally from a corn plant. … soda (100 percent corn), milk shake (78 percent), salad dressing (65 percent), chicken nuggets (56 percent), cheeseburger (52 percent), and French fries (28 percent). …

I never thought of corn this way. Even if you don’t agree or trust his facts (and he recites a ton of data), this book will make you think of corn differently. You will make the link between fossil fuels and corn production, between government subsidies and corn production, between obesity and corn production, and between the environment and corn production. Links that may be debated as to their direct or indirect effect on the well-being of humanity, but thought-provoking and worthy of consideration nonetheless. He sums the corn/industrial section up with:

… America’s corn-fed food chain looks like an unalloyed disaster. I mentioned earlier that all life on earth can be viewed as a competition for the energy captured by plants and stored as carbohydrates, energy we measure in calories. There is a limit to how many of those calories the world’s arable land can produce in a year, and an industrial meal of meat and processed food consumes – and wastes – an unconscionable amount of that energy. To eat corn directly (as Mexicans and many Africans do), is to consume all the energy in that corn, but when you feed that corn to a steer or a chicken, 90% of its energy is lost – to bones or feathers or fur, to living and metabolizing as a steer or chicken. This is why vegetarians advocate eating “low on the food chain”; every step in the food chain reduces the amount of energy by a factor of ten, which is why in any food system there are only a fraction as many predators as there are prey. But processing food also burns energy. What this means is that the amount of food energy lost in the making of something like a Chicken McNugget could feed a great many more children that just mine. …

The thing is, despite his tone, I don’t expect him to give up McDonald’s, especially since his son likes it. He left me with the impression that he’s open-minded about it all; that if his kid says “hey dad, let’s get a McNugget meal,” Pollan would grab a salad and maybe even a small order of fries, and think nothing of it.

Corn falls by the wayside, but the term industrial hangs around for the next quarter of the book because Pollan uses it as a modifier for his organic meal. He unearths a fair amount of hypocrisy occurring in our country’s recent obsession with organic and discusses the facts and perceptions around the term. Here is a synopsis:

And yet, and yet…an industrial organic meal such as mine does leave deep footprints on our world. The lot of the workers who harvested the vegetables and gathered up Rosie for slaughter is not appreciably different from that of those on non-organic factory farms. The chickens lived only marginally better lives than their conventional counterparts; in the end a CAFO [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation] is a CAFO, whether the food served in it is organic or not. As for the cows that produced the milk in our ice cream, they may well have spent time outdoors in an actual pasture…, but the organic label guarantees no such thing. And while the organic farms I visited don’t receive direct government payments, they do receive other subsidies from taxpayers, notably subsidized water and electricity in California. …

But perhaps most discouraging of all, my industrial organic meal is nearly as drenched in fossil fuel as its conventional counterpart. Asparagus traveling in a 747 from Argentina; blackberries trucked up from Mexico; a salad chilled to thirty-six degrees from the moment it was picked in Arizona…to the moment I walk it out the doors of my Whole Foods. …

… And so, today, the organic food industry finds itself in a most unexpected, uncomfortable, and, yes unsustainable position: floating on a sinking sea of petroleum.

He spends more time on this topic and weighs the pros and cons of going organic, industrial, or industrial organic. This gets kind of tiresome and circuitous, but makes a lot of sense when he moves on to the next meal; the grass fed meal based on ingredients from Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia.

Pollan had heard about Polyface Farm in his research so he called up Salatin and requested to purchase a steak and have it Fedexed to Pollan’s home. Salatin said no, because Fedexing a steak was explicitly against his code of ethics. Salatin says:

“Just because we can ship organic lettuce from the Salinas Valley, or organic cut flowers from Peru, doesn’t mean we should do it, not if we’re really serious about energy and seasonality and bioregionalism.

The interesting thing is that Salatin’s Polyface Farm makes no claims about being organic and Salatin actually detests the word.

… Polyface Farm is technically not and organic farm, though by any standard it is more “sustainable” than virtually any organic farm. Its example forces you to think a lot harder about what these words – sustainable, organic, natural – really mean.

Thus we embark upon what I think is the most fascinating part of this book: the stories of Pollan’s time on Polyface Farm. This Salatin guy refers to himself as an “alternative farmer” or as a “grass farmer.” He basically uses the ecosystem on his farm to maximize his use of the land. Here is a passage that I think is important:

It isn’t hard to see why there isn’t much institutional support for the sort of low-capital, thought-intensive farming that Joe Salatin practices: He buys next to nothing. When a livestock farmer is allowed to “practice complexity” – to choreograph the symbiosis of several different animals, each of which has been allowed to behave and eat as it evolved to – he will find he has little need for machinery, fertilizer, and, most strikingly, chemicals. He finds that he has no sanitation problem or any of the diseases that result from raising a single animal in a crowded monoculture and then feeding it things it wasn’t designed to eat. This is perhaps the greatest efficiency of a farm treated as a biological system: health.

One the coolest examples is the way they have the chickens graze on the same area that cattle have after a three or four day lag. Salatin says “…you’ll always find birds following herbivores…that’s a symbiotic relationship we’re trying to imitate.” Pollan elaborates:

… It seems the chickens eschew fresh manure, so he waits three or four days before bringing them in – but not a day longer. That’s because the fly larvae in the manure are on a four-day cycle, he explained. “Three days is ideal. That gives the grubs a chance to fatten up nicely, the way the hens like them, but not quite long enough to hatch into flies.” The result is prodigious amounts of protein for the hens, the insects supplying as much as a third of their total diet – and making their eggs unusually rich and tasty. By means of this simple little management trick, Joel is able to use his cattle’s waste to “grow” large quantities of high-protein chicken feed for free; he says this trims his cost of producing eggs by twenty-five cents per dozen. … The cows further oblige the chickens by shearing the grass; chickens can’t navigate in grass more than about six inches tall.

Incredible isn’t it? I thought this was so cool, but it’s only one of the tasty morsels Pollan serves up in the Polyface Farm section. I’ll let you read it because we have to get to the meal that he hunts and forages for himself.

This hunting and foraging starts out with Pollan talking about our omniverousness, how being omniverous effects our physiology and psychology, and just how messed-up our dietary habits are in America. He then branches off into the ethics of eating meat. All great, thought-provoking stuff. I have so many pages turned over for stuff I want to talk about that it’s overwhelming, so I’m not going to talk about it.

Anyway, it’s all just a build-up for his trip into the woods to hunt and kill the wild pig for dinner. Pollan, who is somewhat of a vegetarian, is surprised by his trip into the forest to hunt the pig. I love this passage describing the start of the hunt.

Walking with a loaded rifle in an unfamiliar forest bristling with the signs of your prey is thrilling. It embarrasses me to write that, but it is true. I am not by nature much of a noticer, yet here, now, my attention to everything around me, and deafness to everything else, is complete. Nothing in my experience (with the possible exception of certain intoxicants) has prepared me for the quality of this attention. I notice how the day’s first breezes comb the needles in the pines, producing a sotto voce whistle and an undulation in the pattern of light and shadow tattooing the tree trunks and the ground. I notice the specific density of the air. But this is not a passive or aesthetic attention; it is a hungry attention, reaching out into its surroundings like fingers, like nerves. My eyes venture deep into thickets my body could never penetrate, picking their way among the tangled branches, sliding over rocks and around stumps to bring back the slenderest hint of movement. In the places too deeply shadowed to admit my eyes my ears roam at will, retuning with a the report of a branch cracking at the bottom of a ravine, or the snuffling of a …wait: What was that? Just a bird. Everything is amplified. Even my skin is alert, so that when the shadow launched by the sudden ascent of a turkey vulture passes overhead I swear I can feel the temperature momentarily fall. I am the alert man.

Eloquent, intense, and I can completely relate. Not because I hunt, because I don’t. But I play golf, which is stalking a different type of beast. You know what I mean if you’re passionate about golf.

He finally gets his pig. Pollan describes the fourth meal in great detail, the Perfect Meal. It is a great finish to a great book.