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The Omnivore's Dilemma

2006-05-30 18:42:12.865249+00 by Dan Lyke 4 comments

Dori & Tom's rave about Cyrus in Healdsburg got me thinking about going out to eat. I think I've mentioned here that while I've eaten out at some pretty exotic places, when I think back about the times I still remember the details of the food (rather than fondly remembering the overall experience), only in a few cases are the standouts expensive restaurants.

I've wondered at the value of going out to eat when I'm in such a mindset. Cyrus sounds wonderful (although there's a lot of pleasure I'm deferring 'til we're in a better cash-flow situation), but I don't know that if I'm in that mode of trying to separate the experience from the food that I'd be able to appreciate the experience.

So it was in that fairly utilitarian space that I picked up Michael Pollan[Wiki]'s The Omnivore's Dilemma[Wiki], a book which asks "since we omnivores can eat anything, what should we eat?" Refreshingly, as my area is fairly heavily steeped in some of the fuzzier aspects of "natural foods", it does so with a remarkable lack of preaching.

Pollan follows four meals from their sources, a burger and nuggets from McDonald's, with the associated trips to the cornfield and the feedlot, a salad from Whole PaycheckFoods, taking him to Earthbound Farm's facilities to see how spring mix is made and Petaluma Poultry to see what makes a "free range" chicken different from a caged one, thence to herding cattle and killing his own grass-fed truly free range chickens at Polyface Farms under the instruction of Joel Salatin[Wiki], a farmer who believes in local production and consumption, and finally into Northern California, the woods to forage mushrooms and kill a wild pig, the streets of Berkeley to garner fruit off of trees shedding on to the sidewalk.

He does not, however, come to an answer of an objective "better". Each system has its positives and negatives, and just as he's not willing to spare the vegetarians as he examines the tasks of killing his own meat:

A deep current of Puritanism runs through the writings of the animal philosophers, an abiding discomfort not just with our animality, but with the animals' animality, too. They would like nothing better than to airlift us out from nature's "intrinsic evil" — and then take the animals with us. You begin to wonder if their quarrel isn't really with nature itself.

he also doesn't shy away from the fact that because widespread corn monoculture factory farming is the dominant form of food calorie production there are obviously things to recommend it (even if most of those things are the huge federal subsidies which make it possible).

But I started this little ramble off talking about how I've been distinguishing the food from the social experiences surrounding the food, and the reason I'm running around grabbing random strangers by the shirt collars and screaming "you have to read this book!" is that Michael Pollan[Wiki] makes a very good case that we mustn't separate the food from the experiences and relationships that lead to the sustenance we consume. Food comes to us with various overt and hidden benefits, it's not just a matter of a few thousand calories a day and we're done, and reducing any part of that experience to a commodity has political, social, physiological and environmental effects that we should make as informed consumers who are aware that the decisions of those around us have an impact on our lives.

So I'm recommending this one because it acknowledges that food is about more than taste, and that life, and the ability to make rational informed decisions, involves a knowledge of the processes of the world and an understanding about how our consumption and production fits in to those processes. And I desperately want those around me to be more aware of their own place within the mechanisms of the culture and nature.

[ related topics: Politics Books Nature and environment Food Bay Area Sociology Consumerism and advertising California Culture McDonald's Michael Pollan ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2006-05-31 03:28:54.148184+00 by: Dori [edit history]

When I look back on the top dining experiences of my life, they mostly revolve around the people and the situation more than the food. Given that, some of the wonderfulness of our Cyrus experience may have been due to the fact that it was our 5th anniversary as much as anything else.

One of the best parts of living here is that much of the local foodie culture is about eating locally, and I appreciate that I'm living in a place where an amazing variety can be found within just a few miles. Does Pollan discuss the pros and cons of long-distance versus local food?

Responding to myself (sorry!): I see that some of this is answered in Whole Foods Market's Open Letter to Michael Pollan.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-05-31 14:09:42.207189+00 by: Dan Lyke

Yep. In fact as a Bay Area guy he recounts calling up Joel Salatin[Wiki] and asking if he could FedEx some beef, and Salatin told him "no", but it wasn't 'til Pollan lived on the farm for a week that he got why. In Salatin's case it's not just that he wants the economy he serves to be local, it's also that a farm shouldn't be a monoculture, it should be using manure to fertilize, and a rotation of livestock to keep the pastures fresh, and this can't be done at a scale that can support a distribution system in the middle. So the food has to be local.

One of the things that turned me and Charlene off from Good Earth (Fairfax's natural foods store) was the realization that their spring mix came delivered via Sysco, just like the stuff at United Markets but a buck a two a pound more. Now I understand why: When you're growing at a scale that can support distribution beyond the farm (and perhaps a few "farmer's markets", although I have questions about how those actually end up working) there's no reason not to push into the supermarkets. The Whole Foods and Good Earths of this world are about merchandising, not about changing the underlying production strategy.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-05-31 14:34:44.782586+00 by: other_todd

I bought The Omnivore's Dilemma a week or so back, but haven't started it yet. If it is like The Botany of Desire, I expect it to be fascinating in stretches, tediously pedantic in others, and not necessarily the most cheery thing in the world. (This is not, in toto, a negative assessment, or I wouldn't have bought the book.)

I agree with you about people losing sight of where their food comes from; to my mind this is the major problem with our food consumption habits and our ways of thinking about food. Too many of my peers assume that beef magically springs into existence as shrink-wrapped packages on a shelf. I don't care if you do or don't eat meat, I don't care if you do or don't only buy organic produce, but I think everyone should know more about the process; it's a matter of making aware decisions.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-05-31 16:24:44.225401+00 by: Dan Lyke

Whole Foods: An Open Letter to Michael Pollan has some interesting points, but in my reading seems to play up the parts that Pollan played up, and ignore the issues that Pollan raised.

I'll try to give it a more thorough reading later.