Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Gunnie Book Review

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

I haven’t done a book review in awhile and wouldn’t you know it, I pick one that’s not really about guns. Still, Michael Pollan has written one of those must-read books that too few people read.

Pollan is a journalism professor in California. He’s not a gunnie although he doesn’t seem to be a gun hater either. As part of his research, he borrowed a gun, went out with an experienced hunter, and killed a wild pig. So I guess he’s a junior, double-secret-probationary member of our group.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma looks at the way we eat in America. Given the topic, you might think Pollan would be a scold. He’s not—except when it comes to corn. Instead, he’s interested in understanding our food by looking at three different ways of getting food and the meals they produce.

His first meal is at McDonalds and this leads him to rant about corn. He finds corn is government subsidized, that we have converted much farmland to corn monoculture, and it’s in everything from ketchup to us. A McDonalds meal consists of corn-fed beef, high fructose corn syrup, corn derived preservatives and extenders, and other products that look nothing like an ear of corn.

He interviews a corn farmer who loses money with each crop, but somehow stays in business thanks to the subsidies. Pollan buys a steer and watches it grow from a calf to a feedlot animal where it’s fed copious amounts of corn—a grass that cows never evolved to eat—and sent to the slaughter house. There he finds that we cannot enter the door due to concern for his “tender feelings.”

He turns his attention to organic farming and doesn’t find much to like in industrial-style farms no matter how eco-friendly they make their labels. In fact, supporting large supermarkets like Whole Foods leads to the same shortcuts and economy of scale decisions that Whole Foods shoppers decry. Even worse, big-organic farming can require more fossil fuels to put a product on the consumer’s plate than conventional agriculture.

Pollan is intrigued by a “grass farm” (no not that kind of grass, the kind cows eat). He meets up with a farmer in Virginia who calls himself a grass farmer because he uses pasture rotation and other lost arts to raise chickens, pigs, cattle, and eggs on grass. I’ve ate grass-fed beef before and it’s different from corn and grain fed supermarket beef. I might have to think about finding a “grass farm” up here in New Hampshire and filling up our freezer.

His book’s last section is on hunting and gathering. He decides that he has to understand how mankind gets meat in the most natural way possible. But, before doing that he tries a vegetarian diet. He concludes man is an omnivore and that cutting meat out of one’s diet divorces us from nature. We evolved as a predator not a grazer. Hear, hear.

Pollan teams up with an old-world Italian who hunts pigs for classic prosciutto and wild-boar sausages and Pollan learns how to shoot a rifle. After a misadventure or two, he finally kills a large pig. Pollan talks about his emotions and disgust when he helps field dress the pig, but also about his joy and feeling of oneness with nature. He recognizes that he probably gave that pig a better death than it would have experienced otherwise.

He writes beautifully about his hunting experiences albeit as an urbanite babe in the woods. I doubt he’ll continue to hunt, but he made me wish the summer would pass faster so hunting season would start. If you’re a hunter you must read his hunting related chapters (parts were excerpted in a New York Times article that is now in their archives).

Pollan’s writing is clear, concise, and enjoyable. A quibble is that most of the meals he makes and describes are gourmetish. If you’re a meat and potatoes person, you might be put off by his foodie descriptions. But, if you eat any kind of food (and I know you do) it’s still a must-read book.

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