Vegetables Every Day

Vegetables Every Day
Carrot Tarator with Beets

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael

Yes, another food book!  The Omnivores Dilemma is that as omnivores, we can eat most anything, and today's  huge selection of food makes it difficult to pick what to eat.  And in the US, where we don't have strong traditions of what to eat (and when to eat it), the result is a very dysfunctional relationship with our food, which has in turn led to high levels of obesity and other food-related illness.   The premise of this book is to follow supply lines of food - "industrial corn" which is responsible for the bulk of the calories eaten today in America, small sustainable farms as well as organic farms (which are mostly not small), and "forest" for hunting and gathering.  For each one he starts at the source (the first is a corn farm in Iowa, later is hunting pigs in Northern CA) and follows through to a meal (the corn resulting in a McDonald's meal, from the beef raised on corn to the soda made with high fructose corn syrup, later the forest resulting in a gourmet dinner with friends that helped with the hunt).  
Pollan contrasts the four systems:  the industrial corn is scalable, but not sustainable (not only is it killing the land, its likely to kill us), industrial organic (think Whole Foods) is some better, but still relies on mono-culture and lots of petrochemicals, small farms (grass) are sustainable but not scalable, and hunter / gather is neither sustainable or scaleable, but does get people much more in touch with their food.

His message is similar to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, but I found it much easier to digest ... yes he ranted about oil companies and high fructose corn syrup, but started with facts and put them together into a story.  Ultimately, the industrial corn and the resulting industrial beef, chicken and pork industries are portrayed as evil, but he provides a lot of data to support the conspiracy theory (how does that saying go, just because your paranoid it doesn't mean people aren't out to get you?).   He explains the government policies and history that made the industrial corn what it is today, where corn is sold for less than the production cost.  He goes through the calculation of how it takes more energy (calories) from petrochemicals to produce corn than calories of energy in the corn (which really makes ethanol production from corn a head scratcher).  But he also doesn't proscribe any easy answers or fixes.

The story of looking at food from the source to the final meal is also similar to  The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy by Sasha Issenberg, which I have been reading (for months now... it really more than you ever wanted to know about sushi), but is much more readable.  Sushi Economy gives insight into how airfreight became an acceptable means for moving our food around the world, as well as how food traditions change over time (before WWII, Bluefin tuna was not even a delicacy in Japan!)

The message is that we should care about our food: its important and a source of great enjoyment, and should not be reduced to filling and cheap.  We should care about where the food comes from, how the land and animals are treated, and enjoy the seasonality of the food.

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