This book had been on my list for a couple of years, but I kept putting it on the back-burner. Why should I read a book about food, of all things? Aren’t there more important issues to be reading about than what we put into our mouths? Nevertheless, last week at the library, I saw it lying neglected on a cart and I decided to borrow it on a whim. And what a good whim it was! I learned quickly that food is indeed one of the most important issues to be reading and thinking about these days.

 

I like that this book has no polemical food agenda. It doesn’t really argue for fast food, slow food, local food, organic food, or foraged food. It doesn’t preach. What it does do is make the reader much more conscious of his/her food choices through a careful examination of four very different meals, from field to plate.

 

This brings me to an important point that Pollan emphasizes frequently. Food does come from a field, that is, a plant. It’s hard to imagine that Twinkies, Fruit Roll-Ups, and Doritos come from plants sometimes. Actually, it’s more like one plant — corn. Maybe you’ve heard, maybe you haven’t — but high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), maltodextrin, modified corn starch, etc. are in many of the convenience foods we eat. Using very scientific (… okay, bordering on too scientific) analysis, Pollan examines the evolutionary path of corn and how this humble vegetable came to dominate our plates. He concludes that corn won the evolutionary rat-race, so to speak, with its large edible kernels and other usable, though non-edible, parts. Meanwhile humans, who can eat all sorts of diverse foods, are reduced to mostly eating this one measly grass. He writes about a fast-food meal from McDonalds where the beef is fed corn instead of normal grass, the chicken nuggets are coated with cornstarch, and the Coke is full of HFCS. He goes further to say that the “natural fruit flavor” in your Fruit Roll-Up is probably a corn product as well, not a cheese product. “Okay,” you’re probably saying, “But I’ve heard all of this already. HFCS is bad for you, blah blah blah. Fast food gives you heart attacks, blah blah blah.”

 

So maybe you’ve switched to organic food thinking it’s healthier for you. Happy bovines grazing verdant green pasture. Chickens clucking happily in the loam. Ah, the beauty of the organic farm… Right? Wrong, at least partially, according to Pollan.

 

In the chapter entitled “Big Organic,” Pollan visits an organic chicken farm to check out if the “pastoral narrative” on their egg boxes is really as idyllic as the image it conjures in the mind’s eye. Unfortunately, he only discovers chickens living in stifling conditions similar to traditional chicken farms, with the exception that they are not fed antibiotics. Sadly, this farm still meets federal organic regulations, which are now incredibly lax due to farmers’ pressures on government officials. The “free range” that the chickens are allowed to roam is not an open field, but rather a narrow strip of grass at the edge of their enclosure which, if anything, the chickens seemed to be avoiding. Since they are kept in conditions similar to factory farms sans antibiotics, the chickens have to be carefully protected from pathogens and humans have to wear biohazard suits before entering the plant. I wonder what’s worse – having the chickens in such an environment with antibiotics, or without. The same goes for organic dairy products.

The egg-mobile, a humane contraption for moving chickens around the farm. Polyface Farm, Virginia.

Local food would seem to be a good solution, but it has many obstacles to deal with. Of all the alternatives, I think that buying local is the most feasible, effective way to know what you’re eating. Purchasing local food builds community, allows buyers and suppliers to interact, and encourages us to eat seasonally. Many proponents of local food are also a part of the Slow Food movement, which calls for buying locally, cooking fresh foods, and sitting down to eat them slowly with family. But Pollan points out many of its drawbacks, which include:

 

A) People in cities find it difficult to find local foods. I identify with this because I live largely in New York, and I can rarely find fresh fruits and vegetables like I can find in New Jersey.

 

B) Local food is expensive, and low-income individuals may only be able to afford fast food. This is a terrible predicament because fast food perpetuates the cycle of poverty and obesity. At a Slow Food event I attended in Boston, the speakers mentioned the hidden costs of fast food. Even though these people may be buying cheaper food monetarily speaking, they are bankrupting their health and their environments. Ultimately, however, local food needs to become affordable in order to reach the people who need it most.

 

C) Local food does not have the government-backed financial support it needs. Corn and dairy farmers make their livings off of government subsidies. Local farmers have no such subsidies, which forces them to pass their costs on to the consumers. This is part of the reason that local food is so expensive relative to what you might find in the supermarket, or even in organic stores like Whole Foods.

 

D) Local food is not scalable. Organic food is. The economics is simple. There are huge sacrifices to the food’s integrity when local farmers scale up beyond a certain threshold, whereas organic farmers can operate on a large scale while maintaining government standards. What do I mean by the “food’s integrity”? Suppose a local farmer decides to expand his ten-acre lettuce production to a hundred-acre lettuce production. He has a surplus that he can’t sell locally, so he has to use fossil-fuel-burning refrigerated trucks to ship the food somewhere else. This totally defies the concept of “local” and renders it meaningless.

 

All of these factors combined mean that, unfortunately, local food is better in concept than in practice. At least in the bigger scheme of things, that is. If you can afford to buy local, and are near a reputable farm, I would commend the decision to switch. Local farmers burn less fossil fuels, use less pesticides, and are usually more aligned with the community’s interests.

 

In the last part of the book, Pollan describes his journey to cooking a fully foraged meal. That is, he hunted and gathered almost everything on his plate in order to achieve what he called “full consciousness” of his meal. This seemed like a logical conclusion to a book that began with fast food, wandered into organic food, and tasted the potential of local food. Foraging a meal is mostly not practical, but Pollan knows that. He went through great difficulty (including a week of cooking in advance), to gather the ingredients and create the meal. He even killed a wild boar while hunting, and discussed the implications of animal cruelty in the context of human omnivorousness. After hearing about his journey, I really wanted to try foraging myself. But on second thought, I think I’d probably kill myself with a toxic mushroom.

 

So what did this book mean for me? It didn’t turn me into a vegan or a vegetarian, a slow eater or an organic eater. I liked that this book didn’t push me in any direction, choosing instead to present the facts and allowing me to decide for myself. As Pollan said, it was more of a journey towards “consciousness” of what was on my plate. Many of the facts in this book were familiar to me, but Pollan’s concise journalistic writing style combined with personal anecdotes made it so enjoyable to read. On its Wikipedia page (ahem), The Ominvore’s Dilemma is listed as one of the non-fiction books that reads most like fiction, and I would have to agree. This was one of the first non-fiction page-turners I’ve ever encountered. Props to Pollan for this wonderful book.

 

Michael Pollan, center, visits Richmond Gardens.

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