Yes, I’m aware that I’m reading this book about nine years after the rest of the world discovered The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In my defense, I did purchase it when it was in the height of its popularity, but, well, you know how that goes. This book is the first in a personal reading challenge I planned for myself back in late 2012, when our blog was in its infancy, and I actually thought that reading challenges on Postcards from Purgatory were things that were meant to be completed, not to go on, and on, forever. (Remember the AP English Challenge, everyone?) So, somehow I put off starting my “Foodie Book” reading challenge for about three years, and not for any particular reason other than I’ve had a lot of books to read.
The inspiration for the “Foodie Book” challenge was my late 2012 lifestyle change wherein I (along with my husband, of course) stopped eating constantly and started taking breaks from reading and internet shopping to walk my dogs and do Jillian Michaels DVDs. At this point, eating relatively healthfully has become a fact of life, and with the exception of once-weekly (or maybe twice) Triscuit and mug cake binges, not something I think a whole lot about. Well kind of. I think about food all the time. I’m not one of those people who forgets to eat, and being hungry is not something I enjoy. I told one of my coworkers on Facebook recently when she was complaining about being hungry all the time because of some meds she is on, that at least she had an explanation for being constantly hungry–I just like food. No, I love food. I used to eat when I was happy, and eat when I was sad, and eat when I was bored, and eat when there was some combination of these emotions. And I still think about it. At this point, I’m maintaining (approximately) the weight I lost in 2012 and 2013. I get anxious if I go more than one or two days without exercising. I feel kind of yucky when I eat too much processed or carb-heavy food. So that’s where I was when I started The Omnivore’s Dilemma in early November (right around when my 2015 Goodreads Reading Challenge went off the rails)—trying to stay away from foods that are generally considered unhealthy, but not thinking much about where my food comes from, though that being said, my husband has developed a preference for eating locally grown produce, and since we started trying to be more healthful our food choices have tended towards the fresh and away from the processed. It wasn’t for any moral reasons, I assure you. But what this book taught me is that we should all probably be thinking more about what we are eating. Like a lot more. And maybe Michael Pollan is advancing his own agenda, but maybe he isn’t. Maybe he’s speaking truth, and we all need to listen.
Michael Pollan is a journalist, and since The Omnivore’s Dilemma came out in 2006 he’s become mostly known as a food writer. I believe this book was his first one in this vein. It’s organized around four different meals that Pollan consumes, starting with a meal from McDonalds, then a “big organic” meal, then a meal prepared from ingredients from a small family farm, ten a meal prepared from ingredients that Pollan himself hunts, forages, and grows. And this book was fascinating. It took me a month to read this book because it was long and work has been super busy, but when I was actually reading it, I was lost in the worlds Pollan took me to, from the industrial corn fields of Iowa (where I learned that corn isn’t the devil that people make it out to be, but that the people who have turned it into what it is may be the ruin of America) to the hills of Sonoma County, California, where Pollan shot a wild pig. This book made me cry a little, and it also made me laugh. I wanted to do a post about each individual meal, but life got in the way while I was reading, and that fact still makes me disappointed in myself, because there is no way I’m going to spend a ton of time with each meal in a single post—it’d be way too long for anyone to actually finish.
I will, however, devote a paragraph to each meal. The first one, a McDonald’s feast consumed by Pollan, his wife, and son in their car while driving around Marin County, California, was the most troublesome to me. Not the eating of the meal itself, of course. I’ve eaten many a McDonald’s meal while driving somewhere in my car, though it’s been a few months since that’s happened, and after reading this book I’m sure it’s going to be a few months more until it happens again. Pollan’s goal with this book is to follow all the ingredients in each meal he writes about from their start to their finish in his meal. The distressing thing about the McDonald’s meal is that pretty much every ingredient seems to start off as corn in Iowa. Pollan talked about how the government subsidizes farmers these days, and that upset me—the market is saturated with corn, and they have to keep growing more and more to support themselves but the more they grow the cheaper it gets to buy and it’s just not the way that things should be. But man, those fries are delicious.
The second meal was purchased with ingredients obtained from a big box organic food store (i.e. Whole Foods Market), and it seems that the founders of the big organic movement have had to make quite a few concessions in order to succeed on a large scale, and that’s not entirely surprising, but it is disappointing, and it makes me feel better, in a way, that we don’t eat much organic food.
For the third meal, Pollan visits a small farm in Virginia called Polyface, which has been in the Salatin family for a couple of generations. It seemed like the perfect place to get food from—they grow grass to feed the cows and chickens, and have vegetables as well. The ecosystem here is endlessly complicated, and likely not something that can be done on a large enough scale to feed everyone in the country, but I really wish it would be someday.
The fourth meal turns Pollan into a hunter of wild boar and a gatherer of wild fungi and a thief of fruit. Nothing is processed or corn-fed. This meal is obviously the least feasible one for day-to-day life in modern society, and many people don’t have the constitution for hunting their own meat, but talk about having a close connection with every single thing you put in your mouth.
This book was fascinating and I enjoyed it very much. It wasn’t always easy reading: Pollan describes slaughtering chickens at Polyface Farms in more detail than I needed to read, but at the same time I wouldn’t consider it excessive. Same goes for the description of the boar hunts he went on. The descriptions of the short, awful lives of feedlot cows, pigs, and chickens made me convinced of my feeling that I’d rather eat game my dad hunts, fish my husband catches, or pigs my friend’s aunt raises than buy any of it from the grocery store. My husband has become a dedicated farmers market shopper over the past couple of years, and I was so glad of that while I was reading this book! I felt like we were doing right by local growers. I think that this book should probably be required reading to be a person who eats in America. Obviously that’s sort of hyperbolic, but anyone who wants to be a more thoughtful eater should definitely read this book. I want to say that it changed my life, but I think that could also be hyperbole. The Omnivore’s Dilemma solidified some notions about food that I was haphazardly working on on my own, and I will be making people I see often read it so we can talk about it, so look out.