Saturday, March 30, 2013

Everybody eats: a review of Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma"

Why I read this book:

There is arguably no topic about which I know less given how important it is to the course of my life than food and nutrition (see Figure 1). Sure, I know the basics: junk food is bad, fruits and veggies are good, and if you are going to eat chocolate, make sure it is dark, not milk, and preferably Swiss or Belgian. But I have no answers to the questions that require some knowledge of nutrition: Is red meat bad for you because it is red meat, or is it the industrial methods of producing the meat that make it unhealthy? Is wheat bad for you? What about milk? And once the conversation disintegrates to the point where the central question revolves around the proper level of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet, you can forget about it. And where should I shop for my food? Is the organic  craze a legitimate movement, or is it just another marketing ploy that exploits our perception of what seems legitimate?

Figure 1 - Knowledge of Food/Value-Add ratio in my life

"Omnivore's dilemma" may not answer all my questions, but it is a start. Help me, Michael Pollan. Help me.

1. Twinkie
2. French Fries
3. Supermarket ground beef
4. Organic chicken
5. Eggs from a hen named Scarlet from your local farm


- Read this book

This is an interesting, well-researched, and well-told dissertation on food. Michael Pollan asks a simple question: “What’s for dinner?” and then proceeds to walk through the four food chains that produce the food for the dinner table: industrial, big organic, pastoral (small farms), and food procured by foraging. By tracing the sources of our dinner from the beginning to the end, Pollan exposes the incongruities and the disorder in the way we eat. The complexities of the way we get our food, Pollan argues, stem from the omnivore’s dilemma. Unlike most animals, who are limited in the type of food they eat, we humans are quite un-picky in our food selection (I had a friend in middle school who used to eat pieces of paper for time before an adoring crowd of classmates - farther proof of the superiority of the human digestive system over that of other animals). This gift is also a curse - if you can eat anything, how do you know what is safe? What stops you from eating other humans? Tradition and culture guide and moderate the rules of eating, but the advances in agriculture (we can grow more, faster, cheaper), food sciences (we can now break down food into the smallest units and rebuild artificial food systems, like a twinkie), and transportation have removed some of the limitations (availability of food, seasonality) and have pushed the limit on what and how much food we can intake. 

Figure 2 - America's Omnivore's Dilemma is definitely a first world problem.
You get the sense that you can ask Pollan to write about any subject, and you will get your money's worth. There is so much cool, important information in this book - did you know that everything is made of corn? Like..everything. If Mexicans knew how much more corn Americans consume per person than them, they would probably be more upset over that than over the fact that the USA national soccer team tied Mexico at the Estadio Azteca in World Cup qualifying. And do you vaguely remember your teacher blabbering something about the Haber process in freshman biology while you were busy trying to figure out if anyone would go to Homecoming with you? Well, “Omnivore’s Dilemma” accomplishes what your biology teacher never could - you will finally understand why the Haber process was so important.

Pollan is a good journalist and a good writer, but, above all, he is really passionate about food. I mean, the man REALLY likes food. For the first time, I associate term "foodie" with a respectable human being (see table 1). To be precise, Pollan is a foodie intellectual, and throughout the book, he weaves the relation of food to culture, human development, and philosophy. 

Table 1 - My top three pet peeves
Pet peeve
The driver in the next lane who darts into the middle of the intersection in traffic when the light turns yellow, then cuts into your lane when cars move up while you wait patiently at the light. Three minutes of your life and your altruistic attitude that day - both gone in a flash.
When people do not put the cap back on the soda bottle. I can practically see the bubbles escaping. Why would you want to drink flat soda? (OK, this is my problem).
People who exclaim, "I am a total foodie!" No, you just like to eat out a lot. Unless you are Michael Pollan - you are cool.

It is not difficult to guess Pollan’s political dispositions or his conclusions (you are reading the musings of a Berkeley professor, not a Big Oil executive after all), but neither does he impose his views on the reader. And this is largely what makes reading the book so great - the experience feels like a long, involved conversation that delves into all corners of food, our attitude towards the sources of it, and the implications of those attitudes. It is a conversation that commands your attention and keeps your interest because the author balances the philosophical arguments (“Is it wrong to eat animals? Are they capable of suffering?”) with practical considerations (“this chicken is sooo tasty!*”). So when Pollan talks about his conflicting feelings of excitement and guilt over his hunting expedition, you understand. And when Pollan takes his family to McDonald’s and then proceeds to illustrate the true cost of that meal when you consider the skewed, petroleum-fueled, unsustainable economics of industrial food, you think: “That was probably the only time in the last ten years you had a fast food burger, Mr. Pollan, but I appreciate you walking the mean streets for us in order to get street cred”. But you understand.    

- Think about your food 
    • There are so many “big” issues at stake in the discussion about how we eat:
    • Is it morally acceptable to eat animals?
    • How do we balance the profit-driven engine of capitalism with harmonious existence with Nature? How much should be driven “bottom up” (consumer awareness/demand) versus “top down” (food policy)?
    • Why has In-N-Out not opened up operations on the East Coast?
    • What is Man’s rightful place in the Universe? Are we bigger than Nature, or are we but a small part of it?

    I do not have the answers to these questions. I suspect that we will never stop progressing, and, of course, I like to have strawberries in the winter as much as the next guy, but we have to realize that our petroleum-fueled, antibiotics-driven methods of producing and consuming food are unsustainable. 

    Neither can I claim to have major revelations about the way I eat, at least for now. I am not quite yet willing to forego the convenience of my local supermarket for trips to the closest self-sustaining farm, but hey - I am eating a lot less meat than I used to, and my friendship with the McDonald’s drive-through lady slowly dissipated over time**, so that is a start, right?  

    We will come back to the topic of food (and eventually, nutrition) again. For those of you who are as new to the topic as I am, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” serves as a terrific introduction. In this book, Michael Pollan produces a treatise on food. He also asks us to think about it. For the knowledge and for that simple request, I am grateful. 

    *The examples in quotes are not Pollan’s exact words, I am just paraphrasing for effect. If you are going to judge, judge me, not Pollan.
    ** She always used to give me extra ketchup packets, and I think of her fondly to this day.

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