The Omnivore's Dilemma
by Michael Pollan
1These two books got me started:
Digging Up America
by Frank C. Hibben;
Neither book is currently in print, but both are available, used, from Amazon.com.; look them up by the names of the authors...
Years ago, when I was first becoming interested in archaeology, beginning to plan my first trip out to the New Mexican desert from my home on the east coast of Florida, I read two very interesting stories about the importance of corn to the ancient Americans1. This is where Michael Pollan begins his book.
Omnivore's Dilemma is the story of the current state of American food. Pollan's thesis is that man should know the origin of the food he eats.
Big CornCorn, that important food for early man, that simple product of his first agriculture, sweet, yellow, everywhere, is just that: everywhere. The first section of Pollan's book is about how corn has taken the primacy over all other forms of agricultural produce. Pollan says it is a story of victorious evolution—corn has supplanted almost every other crop and has gained (literally) its place in the sun.
In the process of gaining such importance, corn has forced the American farm, which was once the foundation of our culture, to become the global farm. It grows the world's corn, is almost bankrupt, and has begun to disappear. Pollan blames this dilemma of the American farmer on monoculture—the planting of one crop, corn, to the exclusion of almost all others—and on the American government's department of agriculture, beginning very specifically with the machinations of Mr. Earl Butz of the Nixon Administration to build a system to obtain corn for industry at very low prices.
The corn Mr. Pollan is talking about is not the friendly green ears, roasted, steaming, dripping with butter (oleo for me) on the dining room table at Thanksgiving. It is industrial corn: corn for ethanol, corn for oils and plastics and paper and adhesives and diesel fuel; and corn for cattle food.
The basic problem is this: corn is a profitable U. S. crop. It has many uses. In our present corn economy, the market for this commodity is controlled by a few big buyers, and is always glutted—more corn in supply than is needed. This drives the price per bushel down, down. Big Corn can control the prices so completely, because it is the farmer's only legal outlet. Indeed the price now is only about half of what it costs the farmer to produce the corn. This shortfall of profits for the farmer requires him to grow more to keep up with his debts, and that the government pay him for some of his money shortfall. The more he produces, the more under he goes. Pollan develops this point until you want to cry.
But the American corn farmer can't cry. He can only try to increase his ever underpriced crop.
Another important point Pollan makes is corn's unsuitability for cattle food. I was surprised. "Corn-fed beef!" had always been a lovely picture to hold while grilling a steak. But Pollan demolishes the image with a visit to a feed lot and slaughter house, and with information from nutritionists about the inferiority of grain-fed beef. To learn more accurately, he signs on at a multi-thousand-acre Iowa corn farm owned and operated by George Naylor. During the week with Naylor, Pollan learns enough about Big Corn growing and its effects on America; enough to write arrestingly about it.
Farming is generally considered a "green" actiity, you know—solar-powered—but Big Corn is petrochemical-energy-intensive. It is oil powered, and Pollan can prove it.
...They may also be available from your local or college library.
by C. W. Ceram.
The MarketIf Naylor's corn is not for human consumption, for whom will it be food? Well, humans, but indirectly, as byproducts and ingredients in human food sold in mass market stores like Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Target. It will be in the meat case in barcoded blister-packed trays of beef and pork; as shrink-wrapped fryers and cut chicken parts; as frozen meals, high-fructose corn syrup, and other food products and additives. Pollan is not judgmental here; he just wants us to know where we may be able to encounter the efforts of Big Corn.
Pollan and his family eat their Big Corn meal at a MacDonald's, where Pollan shows us exactly how to find the corn in the meal. He knows where that meal comes from. His analysis is astonishing—he pays about $20.00 for the meal; the actual cost is more than five times that!
GrassIn this section the book becomes, for me, a little more of an adventure and less an economic treatise.
The American Indian hunted bison on the plains. Bison eat grass. Cows evolved to eat grass, too, not corn. It's proven by their secondary stomach, the rumen, which cannot digest corn, and when fed corn, must be assisted by antibiotics and other medications, applied at the feedlot. Pollan's next visit is a week at Polyface Farms, a grass farm,operated by Joel Salatin near Charlottesville, Virginia.
Salatin produces beef, rabbits, chickens, turkeys, vegetables, but he insists he is really a grass farmer. His success is completely tied up in his land's ability to produce excellent, varied grass for his livestock.
In truth, it's not just the land's ability, but the land as managed by Salatin. Salatin is a "true believer," an organic farmer purist. He employs no chemical pesticides or fertilizers, but he does use a very detailed plan for managing his pastures, and that includes moving his herds, cattle and chickens, from pasture to pasture daily. All to manage the grass!
At this point, let me say that I am not a "true believer." I resist buying organic foods as a sort of rebellion against the liberal counterculture. I was, at least, until I read this section of Pollan's book. This is a remarkable story that needs to be read (and reread) as written by Pollan. By the time Salatin's story is complete, Pollan has cut hay, moved chicken coops, seen truly happy cows and chickens, and slaughtered chickens for sale in Salatin's farm store.
"Fifty of these (chicken) pens were spread out across the damp grass in a serrated formation that had been calibrated to cover every square foot of this meadow in the course of the fifty-six days it takes a broiler to reach slaughter weight; the pens moved ten feet each day, the length of one pen. Each ten-by-twelve, two-foot-tall floorless pen houses seventy birds...He's also met happy customers who are more than willing to pay about twice Wal-Mart's prices and to drive hundreds of miles on a weekend for Polyface Farms fresh chickens. And all of this from a 40-acre farm that even manages its own forest and makes its own lumber. Naylor could never afford to leave any acreage in woods; Salatin shows us why a grass farm cannot afford not to.
Where Naylor's farm was powered by petroleum, Salatin's is solar—truly.
But all is not ideal in Salatin's OZ. He lacks one thing he needs to really succeed—a market. The federal government reluctantly allows him to sell his produce only in his farm store or at farmers' markets. The problem is the inspection process. Uncle Sam requires, for example, that any approved packing facility must have a private bathroom for each government inspector. Salatin's solution is to frequent a packing facility run by a friend. The capacity is not hundreds of beeves per day, but about eight.
Pollan eats his grass meal with the Salatin family at their dining room table. He has participated in almost of every aspect of its production. He knows where it comes from.
The ForestIn his last section, Pollan becomes a hunter-gatherer, he calls it "forager," and he begins to wax even more poetic than in the earlier sections of the book. Here, he says, is the epitome of the omnivore's dilemma. The human is an omnivore, he can eat animals or plants for food. The forager must kill animals for meat and must collect plants for the rest of his meal. Can he be sure that what he collects is safe to eat?
First Pollan, a New York City Jew living in California (he makes constant indirect reference to this, so I don't feel bad about mentioning it), must learn to hunt. He has never shot a gun. He turns to an acquaintance, Angelo Garro, a Sicilian decorative iron forger from San Francisco. Angelo knows how to hunt, what for, and where. And how to eat! Angelo says he will teach Pollan.
In Louisiana, my father taught me to shoot and hunt and fish. It was part of Southern culture, and almost all my friends had the same background. My son-in-law, from Alabama, had the same background, as will his three sons. It is part of who we are. Pollan, from the great northern city, had a different background. He is reticent to hunt; is it moral? Do animals have souls? Can he do it? He really felt guilty slaughtering the chickens on Salatin's farm; how will he feel shooting an animal? And eating it? I overcame these dilemmas when I was still a boy. To me Pollan's apologies and mental maneuverings are a little cornball, but I certainly understand them.
In a very well-written section, Pollan does get his gun, so to speak, and he kills his wild pig in the forest without guilt. Or at least not right away.
"I could sense Angelo a step or two behind me, preparing to take his shot the second I took mine. We were both down on one knee. I braced the rifle against my shoulder and lined up my sight. I felt calmer and clearer than I had expected to; at least, when I looked down the barrel of the rifle it didn't appear to be wagging uncontrollably. I took aim at the shoulder of the grayish pig, aligning the site's (sic) U and I with the top of the animal's front leg, and then inched down a shade, hoping to correct for the fact that at the rifle range my shots had all landed several inches high. I held my breath, resisted a sudden urge to clamp my eyes shut, and gently squeezed."
The pig will be part of his final dinner for the book. But not before another seemingly unexpected experience.
"The sense of elation didn't last. Less than an hour later I found myself in a much less heroic role, embracing the pig's hanging carcass from behind to steady it so Angelo could reach in and pull out the viscera."
The hunt, as written by Pollan, was much like my experiences. It was an adventure available only by standing on the forest floor. I like adventure stories.
As to the foraging, Pollan decides to collect wild mushrooms, about which he knows nothing. Will they poison him? He tries the guidebooks, but can't be sure (my experience, too. The only mushroom I ever felt safe collecting in Louisiana was the puffball.)
"Mushroom hunters are famously protective of their 'spots,' and a good chanterelle spot is a precious personal possession (though not quite as precious as a good porcini spot). Before Angelo agreed to take me I'd asked a slew of acquaintances I knew to be mycophiles if I might accompany them. (The Bay Area is home to many such people, probably because mushroom hunting marries the region's two guiding obsessions: eating and the outdoors.) I was always careful to solemnly swear to protect the location of their spots. For some people you could see at once that this was an entirely outrageous request, tantamount to asking if I might borrow their credit card for the afternoon. Others reacted more calmly, yet always cagily. Angelo's friend Jean-Pierre is reputed to have good chanterelle spots right within the Berkeley city limits, but he repeatedly found polite ways to deflect my entreaties into the distant future."I could relate to Pollan's experience. I had relatives (in Mississippi, not Louisiana!) who did the same thing with family recipes. They'd make it for you, but they wouldn't tell you how to make your own.
To help him he turns to his mentor, who will become a good friend, Angelo, and Angelo's friend, Anthony Tassinello. In one excellent adventure, Pollan tells how Angelo and Anthony and he hunt morels in the mountains. It is, really, handled like the pig hunt—high adventure. I loved it. In the end I came away with some pretty good insights into hunting mushrooms, in case I should ever decide to try.
Pollan, himself, cooks his hunted/foraged meal for his family and a few good friends. He knows where all the food comes from.
Local and SeasonalThroughout The Omnivore's Dilemma Pollan refers to a growing "green" trend in restaurant fare, serving food that is as local as possible (from within 100 miles) and in season. I'm very interested in this idea, and I began to think during the book, that I wasn't sure I had ever eaten grass-fed beef or chicken. I didn't know what they tasted like, or even if they were different from supermarket barcoded meats I had eaten. I can see how this idea can succeed in California. But what about near my home in Central Florida. When I tried to find local, seasonal produce near my home, in summer, I was not successful except for avocados or mangos. One would have to travel about 150 miles north or west to buy grass-fed beef or chicken (or ostrich or bison). I'll keep looking, but so far, no cigar.
Why I read Omnivore's DilemmaMy daughter from California and I both like to eat, so we found a common interest in Pollan's tale. It will make a lot of good conversation when we try to build a local/in-season California Thanksgiving this year.
Top of Page