27 December 2007

The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan

This is one of those conscientious books that fuzzy green liberals like me adore. It starts from a very simple premise; looking at the dinner table and figuring out where its contents came from, and expands into a thoughtful account of what we eat and why, and what that tells us about the world we live in. The book is divided into three parts; part one examines fast food and the mass industry of eating, part 2 focuses on "organic" foods, first from the mass perspective of stores like whole foods, then on a smaller scale, in local organic farms, and part 3 sets itself the ambitious task of going back to the basics - hunting and gathering.

The writing is not particularly amazing, but it picks up speed as it goes, and whatever the book lacks in prose, it makes up for in content. Because it's truly fascinating to learn about how corn has gradually become a major part of the American diet, and to discover the major economic and political influences that have been behind this shift. So despite the fact that the writing in the first third is somewhat lackluster, it's packed with incredibly interesting information. The writing perks up in the latter portion of the book, whether this is because one simply grows accustomed to the style or because the author finds those parts more interesting is hard to say. Certainly, the first third is more dry in terms of contents - its more about history and politics than it is about getting elbow-deep in the experience of producing the food, and there aren't as many quirky characters.

Overall, the major strength of the book is the amiable, curious narrative voice. Pollan isn't self-righteous or judgmental about the topic, though one certainly gets a sense of his own stance. He occasionally allows himself long detours of somewhat sentimentalized reflection on cycles of life, etc, but they're not too over-the-top, and are actually quite compelling. He is very equitable in terms of allowing his informants to give their own accounts and interspersing a minimum of authorial commentary. He's wonderfully self-aware, particularly in the final section, where he recounts, for instance, the thrill of pleasure he feels after killing his pig, and the later revulsion for that very pleasure, and reflects on how the actual experience has led him to a different view on literary accounts of hunting.

What is also quite interesting is the introduction, which reflects upon American eating habits. Pollan considers the Atkins craze, and why it was that an entire nation suddenly turned away from carbs overnight. It's interesting, because he sort of implies that the reason Americans are so trend-crazy when it comes to food is because they lack a particular culinary tradition. This is kind of intriguing, to me, because one of the things that I so much love about America is that it's one of the only places I know of where one can really eat marvelous food from all over the world. In Chicago, where I live, you can get absolutely amazing food from a whole plethora of countries. But Pollan's point is perhaps valid, that this cornucopia of options may lead to a kind of schizophrenic attitude towards food, and furthermore, it may actually be somewhat unhealthy. Personally, I tend to think that the American obesity epidemic comes from the fact that most American food is over-processed junk and that if people went to their local taqueria when they were looking for something fast and cheap instead of to Wendy's, they'd be much better off, but who knows.

What's really lovely about the book is that rather than exhorting one to begin eating a certain way, or to feel guilty about particular foods, etc, it simply encourages one to reflect upon the contents of your meal and where it came from. It's not starry-eyed or utopian, and neither is it particularly programmatic. Why it's being called "an eater's manifesto", I have no idea, because it is no such thing. Quite simply, it's an inquiry into the contents of one's plate and its origins, and really, that is quite enough.

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