various and sundry ramblings from the mind of a bibliophile
09 May 2009
i just finished reading the omnivore’s dilemma, michael pollan’s “natural history of four meals.” and i can recommend it wholeheartedly. it’s a fascinating analysis of the human food chain—of where our food comes from, from its primary source of energy (sun generated calories, plant generated calories) to the methods used to raise and process it. in his first section, he examines industrial agriculture including both corn monoculture and raising beef (two tightly intertwined operations, thanks to our human intervention with beef cattle’s natural diet [we feed them corn, as if it’s some kind of virtue to be “corn-fed” when in reality eating corn sickens and could kill cattle]). the extent to which corn dominates industrial agriculture is astounding. in true pollan fashion, he sets about telling the story of corn not only from the human perspective, but also from the corn’s perspective—as a plant which has successfully enticed humanity into advancing its interests (he makes a similar move in the botany of desire, in which he argues that plants use humans to their evolutionary advantage as much as humans do the same with plants).
the second section is dedicated to two incarnations of “organic” agriculture, organic in quotes because, having read this section, i realize how tormented that term is. having toured several organic agriculture operations, including a lettuce farm and a chicken farm, pollan concludes that “organic” agriculture is little different from industrial agriculture in technique, even if it does not rely on chemical in-puts. his visit to the chicken farm in particular debunks the myths of “supermarket pastoral”—the almost-lyric images and narratives of content chickens and milk cows organic producers use to sell their goods. who knew that free-range chickens often never step foot out of the hen house, where they live their eight-week lives in the company of thousands like them—just as they do in non-organic industrial chicken enterprises. while pollan acknowledges the undeniable good of not relying on antibiotics, pesticides, and herbicides, he also reveals the unsustainable nature of “industrial organic” agriculture.
the other “organic” enterprise he visits is polyface farm, in swoope, Virginia. “organic” in quotes because the farm is much better described as sustainable, with organic being a by-product of its practices. maybe even better than “sustainable,” is the word symbiotic. polyface farm is, in pollan’s description, an intricately choreographed interaction between chickens, cattle, pigs, and—most importantly—grass. joel salatin, the farm’s proprietor, describes himself as a grass farmer because it is the grass that gives life to all of the animals on his farm. j(wh) used to tell me about polyface farm and it was interesting. but there’s no description that can capture the magic of this place without reading about its nature in detail. i never thought i’d put a farm on my list of must-see destinations, but polyface farm is on that list. too bad the tours run $1000 (except for a once-a-month free tour, which is what i’ll try to hit sometime when i’m in Virginia).
the final section of the book is dedicated to food pollan hunts and gathers himself. his experience learning to hunt and to mushroom is both entertaining and informative. and the people he encounters as he educates himself are fascinating. but the magic of this section is in the “perfect meal” he serves at the end, with every dish built around something either he or one of his tutors gathered, hunted, and made. each section ends with pollan’s account of a meal that epitomizes the agriculture he explores—a mcdonald’s meal eaten in a car going sixty miles per hour; an industrial organic meal of chicken and vegetables, including “jet-setting” asparagus from south America (just one example of the hidden costs of “organic” farming); another organic chicken dinner, this time with a chicken and eggs (for a scrumptious-sounding chocolate soufflé) from joel salatin’s polyface farm; and finally the perfect meal of wild pig, wild morels, homemade wine, fresh bread, and cherry galette. aside from the mcdonald’s meal (which sounded terrible in more ways than one), all the meals sounded delicious.
the thing that really sucked me into this book is pollan’s ability to reflect on the agricultural realities he discovers in ways that apply to our world at large. for instance, in a critique of industrial monoculture which relies heavily on chemical inputs, pollan writes: “when we mistake what we can know for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one’s ignorance in the face of a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature as a machine” (148). this insight, firmly rooted in pollan’s critique of monoculture and fertilizers, resounded with me on many more levels. so often human beings mistake “what we can know” for “all there is to know” and, in so doing, set themselves up for incredible failures and pain. pollan taps into the necessity of wonder—wonder at the magic of nature, at the beautifully symbiotic relationships between grass and animals on polyface farm, at the mysterious nature of mushrooms; but also wonder as a necessary ingredient in any human enterprise.
aside from the magic of polyface farm, i think my favorite section of the book was pollan’s treatment of animal rights, vegetarianism, and carnivorism. throughout the book, pollan insists on the importance of people understanding where their food comes from. this theme gets special attention as pollan sets out to hunt his own meat. in his critique of animal rights philosophers, pollan insists that they transfer human ideas of individualism onto what should rightly be thought of in terms of a community or species. he points out that, while killing an individual pig might go against that pig’s interests (it does, after all, end the pig’s life), it does not go against the pig’s species’s interests, so long as the killing is done in a sustainable fashion. in fact, according to pollan, to hunt and gather and consume actually serves the interests of species as they exist in a relationship of “mutualism or symbiosis between species" (320).
according to pollan, “ancient man regarded animals much more as a modern ecologist would than an animal philosopher—as a species, that is, rather than a collection of individuals. in the ancient view ‘they were mortal and immortal. . . . an animal’s blood flowed like human blood, but its species was undying and each lion was Lion, each ox was Ox’” (323). pollan continues to insist that species have as strong interests as individual animals, asking “is the individual animal the proper focus of our moral concern when we are trying to save an endangered species or restore a habitat?” (323). i would add to pollan’s concern, insisting that we must ask the same question when discussing human interests. not that an individual human’s rights and interests do not exist and should not be considered; but rather that we must balance individual rights and interests with community rights and interests—something we too often fail to do. and, similar to ancient man’s view of animals, i think we should see each individual human as Human. because if we would, we would hesitate to do violence against others.
all of which going-on is my way of saying ‘read pollan’s book.’ because it’s fascinating and informative. and because it will make you think. though i should warn you--it may also make you never want to buy eggs from the supermarket again.