May 13, 2012

Sitzbook: "The Omnivore's Dilemma," by Michael Pollan

Notice how I put the book in the refrigerator for this picture? Pretty clever, right?

If you read these Sitzbook reviews, you may have noticed that this year I've been reading more non-fiction than last year. That's actually completely coincidental, but it's a good thing, too. I like novels, but sometimes it's nice to mix things up. Some people complain that non-fiction is dry or boring, but if you think that, then I'd point you in the direction of books like this one.

My friend Brad, once again a source of great knowledge and even better book recommendations, mentioned this book when we visited him in Iowa in December. He commented about how the book looked at corn production in the US, and in particular focused on Iowa. It was a pretty eye-opening book in many regards, but the way it highlighted the sheer proliferation of corn-based products in American food --and not just high-fructose corn syrup, although that's a huge part of it-- was pretty amazing. 

The book is divided into three main parts:

1. "Industrial: Corn"
2. "Pastoral: Grass"
3. "Personal: The Forest"

All three sections are equally engaging and well-written, but I have to say that the second one most caught my interest. In it, Pollan spends a good deal of time on a farm in Virgina called "Polyface Farm." The farm owner has adopted and adapted farming practices to ensure not only efficient, healthy production, but also sustainability. Although the author doesn't seem to force any opinions or views on the reader, it's hard to read the book without coming away with thoughts along the lines of: "Wow, this is amazing, and we're all totally screwed." I won't go too much into it here, since you can just read the book if you want to find out more, but for me personally the biggest question it brought to my mind was: "How do they do things in Costa Rica?" 

The book makes a strong point that the farming and food production system in the US is destructive and self-destructive in the long term, and it just makes me wonder what similarities and difference there might be between the system there and the one in place here in Costa Rica. I imagine that one big difference would be the use of corn products and corn syrup, since Costa Rica has sugar plantations. Additionally, Costa Rica supplies a lot of its own rice and beans, and meat in the form of cows, chickens, and eggs. Although I don't really have a strong desire to visit a slaughterhouse here, I have a feeling that it wouldn't be as disheartening as one in the US, simply because the scale of such an operation must be a few orders of magnitude smaller here.

Anyhow, I'd highly recommend this book. It took me a while to write the review even though I finished the book back in February. It did have a strong impact on my thoughts, and I find my self thinking of it even now when I buy food in the grocery store or sit down to eat. Maybe it just took me a bit longer to "digest" it, lame pun entirely intended.

As usual, here are some of my favorite or most illustrative passages from the book:

From p. 3:

“Nor would such a culture be shocked to discover that there are other countries, such as Italy and France, that decide their dinner questions on the basis of such quaint and unscientific criteria as pleasure and tradition, eat all manner of “unhealthy” foods, and, lo and behold, wind up actually healthier and happier in their eating than we are. We show our surprise at this by speaking of the “French paradox,” for how could a people who eat such demonstrably toxic substances as foie gras and triple crème cheese actually be slimmer and healthier than we are? Yet I wonder if it doesn’t make more sense to speak in terms of an American paradox—that is, a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily.”

Also from p. 3, a passage that briefly explains the book's title:

“To one degree or another, the question of what to have for dinner assails every omnivore, and always has. When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety, especially when some of the potential foods on offer are liable to sicken or kill you. This is the omnivore’s dilemma, noted long ago by writers like Rousseau and Brillat-Savarin and first given that name thirty years ago by a University of Pennsylvania research psychologist named Paul Rozin.”

From p. 5, one of Pollan's ideas of why it's harder to "eat well" in the US:

“Certainly the extraordinary abundance of food in America complicates the whole problem of choice. At the same time, many of the tools with which people historically managed the omnivore’s dilemma have lost their sharpness here—or simply failed. As a relatively new nation drawn from many different immigrant populations, each with its own culture of food, Americans have never had a single, strong culinary tradition to guide us.”

This passage from p. 124/5 describes Joel Salatin, one of the farmers mentioned in the book:

“Two centuries and a one-hour drive over the Blue Ridge from Monticello, Joel Salatin, a self-described “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer” is attempting again and against all odds to put real-live grass under the old agrarian-pastoral ideal, to try to make it new long after the triumph of the industrial system Jefferson fretted over has been completed.”

This quote from p. 280/1 is actually along the lines of something I've thought myself, but never really had the opportunity, time, or gumption to follow through on:

“My wager in undertaking this experiment is that hunting and gathering (and growing) a meal would perforce teach me things about the ecology and ethics of eating that I could not get in a supermarket or fast-food chain or even on a farm. Some very basic things: about the ties between us and the species (and natural systems) we depend upon; about how we decide what in nature is good to eat and what is not; and about how the human body fits into the food chain, not only as an eater but as a hunter and, yes, a killer of other creatures. For one of the things I was hoping to accomplish by rejoining, however briefly, this shortest and oldest of food chains was to take some more direct, conscious responsibility for the killing of the animals I eat. Otherwise, I felt, I really shouldn’t be eating them.”

Finally, a longer passage from p. 332/3 to tie it all together:

“Sometimes I think that all it would take to clarify our feelings about eating meat, and in the process begin to redeem animal agriculture, would be to simply pass a law requiring all the sheet-metal walls of all the CAFOs, and even the concrete walls of the slaughterhouses, to be replaced with glass. If there’s any new right we need to establish, maybe this is the one: the right, I mean, to look. No doubt the sight of some of these places would turn many people into vegetarians. Many others would look elsewhere for their meat, to farmers willing to raise and kill their animals transparently. Such farms exist; so do a handful of small processing plants willing to let customers onto the kill floor […].
The industrialization—and brutalization—of animals in America is a relatively new, evitable, and local phenomenon: No other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do. No other people in history has lived at quite so great a remove from the animals they eat. Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do. […] Yes, meat would get more expensive. We’d probably eat a lot less of it, too, but maybe when we did eat animals we’d eat them with the consciousness, ceremony, and respect they deserve.”

Well, thanks for reading if you made it this far! If you have any comments or if you've read this book, I'd love to hear from you in the comments section. Have a nice day!

365: Picture a Day Project    365 Leftovers    All My Pictures    Sitzbook

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