Sunday, November 29, 2009

Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma - A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

As we put the Thanksgiving holiday weekend to bed, I'm finishing up my latest blog post -- and by late, I mean very late: I haven't posted to this blog in a long, long time. It is fitting, though, that the subject is one that involves food and being thankful for the gift of life and creation -- both of which are provided to us by a loving God.

Finished reading Michael Pollan's great food book some time ago -- with a little help from the Holy Spirit.* Was talking to my friend Erick Bell about it just this past weekend as we were helping him move. 

Pollan's book is a fascinating exercise in tracing four typified meals from their very beginnings to their consumption by the author and his family. Pollan -- a professor at the University of California, Berkley -- looks at three (one of which has a variant which becomes the second meal type) different types of meals: the Industrial, the Pastoral, and the Personal.

The Industrial Meal

The first, Industrial, begins with the realization that over the last 40 years, Corn has been in ascendancy in terms of the percentage of our calories which are derived in some part from it. Corn now exists in an astonishing percentage of the industrial food products we Americans consume. When it is not in the form of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) -- a mass-produced, industrialized and cheap form of sweetener now present in practically everything in the supermarket -- it is being fed to the industrially mass-produced protein sources (beef, pork, poultry and now, unbelievably, industrially-raised fish). This is apparently a very bad thing.

For example, Pollan points out that cattle are not naturally equipped to digest corn meal. In fact, it makes them sick. Nonetheless, a diet of corn also very quickly adds mass to the beef cattle that are fed in concentrated industrial Commercial Animal Feedlot Operations (CAFOs) where they are packed into lots and fed a diet of corn and antibiotics.

The antibiotics are in part to keep the cattle alive long enough to be slaughtered, as the corn that they're fed literally makes them sick.

Pollan's industrial meal follows the mutation and asexual reproduction of corn plants from the central highlands of Mexico (some 6,000 years ago) to an Iowa farm where corn is big (agri)-business and finally (where else?) to a fast-food meal of McDonald's chicken nuggets consumed in a convertible rolling down the highway.

Pastoral - Big Organic Meal

Next up is the Supermarket Pastoral meal where big organic and natural foods chains market "Organic" with a capital "O". Make that a "capital-ist 'O'", because far from the vision of some hippies hanging out in a commune in Northern California or Vermont or someplace, Organic has indeed become big-business. A look inside my refrigerator betrays the truth of this observation, where my milk comes from Horizon dairy and my eggs from Eggland's Free-Range eggs. (Otherwise, I'm not all that devoted to organic food. I'd like to be, but with four kids to feed, clothe and educate,  my own "capital" leaves something to be desired.)

Pollan investigates the $11 Billion-dollar (2002 figures, probably more now) Organic Food business and what he finds is a mixed bag: yes, the food is mostly well-grown and produced in healthy operations. But corporate food interests being what they are, there is a certain amount of advertising mythos that must needs be applied to prevent the reality that this too is an industrial process. Pollan remarks,
"Organic" on the label conjures up a rich narrative, even if it is the consumer who fills in most of the details, supplying the hero (American Family Farmer), the villain (Agribusinessman), and the literary genre, which I've come to think of as Supermarket Pastoral. By now we know better than to believe this too simple story, but not much better, and the grocery store poets do everything they can to encourage us in our willing suspension of disbelief." (OD, p. 137)

One of the best things that this book did for me, was to remove the Madison Avenue marketing curtain of pastoral mythos from the food sales business in supermarkets. By that I mean that Pollan points out that there is an active effort on the part of the supermarkets to pretend that the food they sell is from the archetypal "American Farm". You see this in the decorations in the supermarket and the packaging of the industrially-produced food that they sell -- the images of red barns and hay bales, as if the food comes from some bucolic paradise where a farmer in a straw hat and his happy cows frolic and gambol across green pastures. 

Pollan made me realize for the first time that these pastoral images by which we're sold the food are complete bunk. The food doesn't come from farms, it comes from factories. There are no bucolic farmers or happy cows. No cartoonish roosters or even any iconic red barns. Instead our food comes from factories, where the animals that become the food are often abused in hellish conditions and live their sorry, short and pain-filled lives deprived of sunlight and even air.  There's no "Farmer John", there's no red barn. There are metal buildings stretching to the horizon. There are stench-emanating CAFO feedlots where the beef or pork constantly stand in seas of their own liquified filth. 

The Organic food business may have slightly improved on this nightmare, but probably not as much as you might think (or hope). Pollan notes the organic slight of hand marketing where organic dairies may claim that their dairy stock "have access to the outdoors", but in reality that may mean there is simply an opening in their concrete and metal warehouse where they might catch a glimpse or earth and sky. Or, they might have actual access to grass free patch of hardscape that is nothing like the idyllic pasture that you and I imagine when we think of farming.

Certainly makes one wonder what they're really buying at Whole Foods, doesn't it? Could be that what you're really purchasing is not much more than an illusion, in the form of a really sophisticated version of the supermarket's pastoral myth.

The Grass-fed Meal: Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm
Joel Salatin is a farmer of a different breed. His operation, far from the mono-culture of the industrial farm factory, resembles nothing so much as the myth that the supermarkets try to sell us with their images of smiling cows and red barns and hay bales.

Salatin, of whom I first read about in Smithsonian Magazine about a decade ago, eschews the industrial model of farming and is famous for his battling of federal regulations and regulators. He wrote a book a few years ago entitled "Everything I Want to Do is Illegal". Salatin has spent his life perfecting his Virginia farm operation and it's beyond-organic natural system.

For example, Salatin has a system of holistic farming that utilizes the inputs and outputs of all of his varied stock of cattle and chickens and so forth. He knows exactly how long to allow the cattle to graze the pastures filled with clover and grass, and how long to delay introducing his chickens to those same fields to harvest the larvae before they hatch and become flies. Here's Pollan on Salatin and his fellow "grass farmers":

"Grass farmers grow animals -- for meat, eggs, milk, and wool -- but regard them as part of a food chain in which grass is the keystone species, the nexus between the solar energy that powers every food chain and the animals we eat. 'To be even more accurate,' Joel has said, 'we should call ourselves sun farmers. The grass is just the way we capture the solar energy.'" (OD, p. 188)
Here's another point that I hadn't really realized until reading The Omnivore's Dilemma: that our food chain and the environment is really a system for the conversion of solar energy into organic matter and, ultimately, human beings. All of the energy we consume on earth -- yes, even the food energy -- is a storage system that is designed to store energy from the Sun. The sun's rays deliver energy which plants synthesize through photo-synthesis and animals eat to convert to flesh, and we then harvest to build our own selves.

Now, perhaps this something that is radically obvious to others. But it wasn't to me. Far from being (merely?) the source of heat and light, our sun is in fact the primary source for all energy and the plants and animals we consume (and thus convert to our own energy-burning bodies) and for us as well. For me as a Catholic, there's a certain symmetrical beauty to this system to extends beyond the electro-chemical mechanics of it all and points us to God and His providence. 

Pollan actually spends some days or weeks living and working with Salatin on his farm, and ultimately even helps to slaughter a chicken. (Salatin is a big believer in the necessity of pulling back the curtains of the abattoir which are purposely hidden from us by the food industry, and letting individuals see and even participate in the slaughter of the food we consume.) 

Salatin (and Pollan, his erstwhile student) bemoan the waste that follows from our current industrial food production system, arguing that Salatin's holistic practices are actually more productive and less wasteful than the industrial systems which rely on hydrocarbons to create, package and ship food across the globe to the point of their ultimate consumption. This, Salatin argues, is the true inefficiency and cannot be sustained except in a system where oil is artifically cheap and plentiful. In a world where energy is no longer is no longer cheap or plentiful, the ultimate considerations are obvious and scary.

"Why did we ever turn away from this free lunch (a' la Salatin's closed cycle of sustainable farming) in favor of a biologically ruinous meal based on corn? Why in the world did Americans every take ruminants (grass eating livestock) off the grass? And how could it come to pass that a fast-food burger produced from corn and fossil fuel actually cost less than burger produced from grass and sunlight?" (OD, p. 199)

You might think -- but would be wrong -- that Joel Salatin's beyond-organic 100-acre farm is less productive than its industrial competition. But that conclusion is not borne out by the facts. According to Pollan, Polyface Farm's 100 acres produce the following astonishing output each year:
  • 30,000 dozen eggs
  • 12,000 broiler chickens
  • 800 stewing hens
  • 25,000 pounds of beef
  • 50,000 pounds of pork
  • 800 turkeys
  • 500 rabbits
 As you might suspect, the quality of the food produced is extremely high. Polyface Farms markets their produce and eggs to high-end gourmet restaurants on the Eastern seaboard. Their eggs, for example, are particularly prized by gourmet chefs for their unusually robust flavor and color.  Salatin's unusual yield and beyond-organic practices might have anyone asking, why indeed have we abandoned this form of multi-culture farming for the mono-cultures based on petroleum and factory farming?

The Hunter-Gatherer Meal

I've managed to get this far without explaining the title of Michael Pollan's book. The "omnivore's dilemma" is this: what shall we eat? It's based on the realization that as omnivore's we can eat practically anything and everything. 

Think of it this way: the sparrow doesn't have to decide whether he'd like a nice salad or a big steak for dinner. His dinner is the same one he ate yesterday, and the day before yesterday and every day. Similarly, the cow doesn't have to decide what to eat today (although once she's sent to the CAFO that feed may change radically). She's eating grass. Today, yesterday and tomorrow.

We're not like that, obviously. Tonight at my house we're having Tyson chicken. Last night we ate tacos with ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes and onions and topped with cheddar cheese. Tomorrow it may be left-over turkey and dressing.

The fourth and final meal in Pollan's book is one that is probably the oldest, culturally-speaking: a meal that he hunts and gathers himself. After all, for nearly all of human history man has relied on his own wiles and tools to kill and eat animals, the development of agriculture coming relatively late in human anthropology. In this case it turns out to be roasted wild-boar and mushrooms -- both of which are gathered near his Northern California home. But as you might guess, a Berkeley college professor is not necessarily a big hunter. 

But Pollan figures that it's a classic cop out to object to hunting just because he doesn't want to kill. After all, if you eat meat you're participating in killing for food. Moreover, the killing of your own food is very likely to involve much less pain and cruelty to be inflicted on the animal than causing a given hog to endure the factory farming and CAFO process.  Pollan's experience in learning to hunt and kill his own food is thought provoking and interesting. 

Pollan also delves into the world of mushroom hunters -- a secretive sub-culture that regards mushrooms and their hunting grounds as jealously as any bass fisherman or deer hunter protects his hunting grounds. 

To finish out his hunter-gatherer meal, Pollan dives for abalone, gathers fava beans and arugula from his own garden, and picks cherries from a local cherry tree. He bakes bread made from wild yeast captured from the breeze (who knew the air contains yeast?) and provided chamomile tea gathered from Beverly Hills and wine from a friend with a vineyard.

The end result is a delicious-sounding perfect meal full of warmth and friendship, and leaves the reader wishing he'd been invited. And, as he notes,"Scarcely an ingredient in it had ever worn a label or bar code or price tag...."

*POSTSCRIPT: One of the reasons that I've taken so long to review this book is that in the midst of reading it, I lost the damn thing. There was therefore an unintentional interregnum of several weeks or maybe even months in which I wasn't reading due to its being lost. 

Friends of mine know that I am involved in our local Perpetual Adoration program at the chapel located in St. John Medical Center in Tulsa, where the Blessed Sacrament (Jesus' real presence and body, blood, soul and divinity are contained within a consecrated host) is continually exposed for worship 24/7/364 days a year. 

I mention this because at one point I had nearly despaired of ever finding again my copy of Pollan's book, and late one night I was doing my weekly adoration shift at the chapel when my mind wandered to my lost book and its fate. I found myself thinking, "What if the book were back there on the shelf in the chapel? Wouldn't that be a great thing? What if I cast a glance back there to the bookshelf, and my eyes came to rest on the book? Wouldn't that be cool?"

So, while thinking those thoughts I looked back to the shelf. Unfortunately, my eyesight is not what it used to be, and in the dimly-lit chapel, I really couldn't make out the titles on the spines of the books that were there. 

That's when the thought occurred to me: "Maybe I should wander back there and just look to see what's on the shelf." "Wouldn't it be cool, if I could just wander back there and spot my missing book?" "How neat would that be?"

You can guess what happened next. Yep; believe it or not, that's exactly how and where I found my missing book. You can't tell me that the Holy Spirit wasn't operating there in that chapel that night -- right there in the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. 

(Thanks, Lord!)