First Book of 2008: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

For Christmas, I got a raft of good books, and somehow the two about food rose immediately to the top.  I toted (if I can use that word for a nearly-1,000 page book) along to family Christmas to show it off, and have already been cooking out of it.  But it was Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that I delved into as my first read of 2008.

The book is broken into four parts, tracing the path of four meals that Pollan provides for his family: the first, from a McDonald’s; then an organic meal purchased at Whole Foods; then a meal comprised entirely of food raised on or around PolyFace Farms in Virginia; then a food that he hunted and foraged for himself.  (!!).  It was captivating, and I’m finding it hard to explain why.  When I’d stop and try to answer the question “What are you reading?” my answers often made the askers’ eyes glaze over or roll slightly, because the answers were things like this: I’m reading about how corn-fed cattle who live in their own shit are going to be the death of us all!  I’m reading about how Big Organic is nearly as environmentally questionable as  Conventional Produce!  I’m reading about the history of corn!!

It’s an informative book and, strangely, it’s a well-tempered book.  Pollan takes care to point out the impracticality of many of the things he tries.  Not everyone can dash out to their local salt flat for a bit of spice; not everyone can kill their own chicken.  And, as he points out, the way the food industry works these days, not everyone can afford to eat organically, or to pay attention to where, exactly, everything on their plate has come from.

His point seems to be aimed higher than the common consumer — though he’s offering some good stories for us, too.  His point (and I hear this is extended dramatically and wonderfully in his new book, In Defense of Food) seems to be that the entire food “industry” (and possibly the fact that we *have* a food industry) is broken, that we have become complacent about methods that are ultimately unsustainable and harmful to ourselves and our world.

It’s not news, sure, but here’s a thoughtful, ethically argued case for what’s wrong and why.

(And, sidenote: as a vegetarian, I already get some weird looks from people (including family members) expecting me to be some kind of food activist or vegetable evangelist or something, and they seem to think this book is just some kind of MEAT IS MURDER Handbook.  A). I don’t think meat is murder, and b) This book is not pro-vegetarian (he kills his own wild pig), and it seems to emphatically anti-vegan.  In fact, this is the first thing I’ve read in a long time that’s made me sort of interested in limited meat-eating.  Maybe meat is in my future after all…).

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