Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Omnivore's Dilemma (and why we should be thinking about our food in ways other than calories and fat grams)

My favorite reaction when I tell people I try not to eat meat or dairy very often is when they look at me, almost bug eyed and utter (and sometimes whisper) but what do you eat? It is a shock to people that a meal can be filling and full of veggies and grains. This journey of really looking into what my family is eating started about a year ago with the documentary Forks Over Knives. I went crazy for a few months but not in a good way. If it was vegan, I assumed I could eat it. No problems. Well there is a problem when vegan junk food is on the market and sugar is still vegan. I never particularly cared for the taste of meat, but dairy was more difficult to give up. (I still go crazy over some really yummy creamy goat cheese.) Fish and seafood never really left the picture.

But the important part was I started thinking about what I ate. Not in the way of calories and fat grams but what it was and where it came from. So many of our meals are consumed in a rush, on the go, in the car or at our desks while we work and even in front of the television. There is no thinking about what we eat as much as there is let's get shove this in my mouth real quick to get rid of this hunger feeling and move on with what is really important in life.

But our food is important. We spend so much time eating. Our bodies are literally made from what we feed them. From our food is where our bodies get the energy to move, to create new cells, to repair what needs fixed, to fight off infection....what we eat every day could be the most important decisions we make. And it goes even further than that because not only are we affected by what we eat, but we are affected by the food our food eats. The quality, the nutritional value, the taste.... Unfortunately, most of what we eat today isn't what our great-grandparents ate even when it looks like it used to. A steak today is different from a steak 50 years ago. There are farmers out there striving to bring farming back to it's roots and Michael Pollan was able to find one of them.

I just finished reading the The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. I actually read the young adult version as that was what was available from the library (libraries rock!) I expected the book to lean away from the processed and toward the real food movement (even toward a plant based diet.) And while Pollan did not hesitate to admit his personal preference after all of his endeavors, the information is presented in a very matter of fact way (which this English major can appreciate.) The book is set up around his four meals. His goal is to eat one meal that is a direct result from each of the ways to produce food. His first meal is a meal that is produced thanks to the industrialized food industry -- McDonald's and is eaten like many Americans eat fast food, in the car.

He starts off visiting the farms that produce the majority of the food here in America. The industrialized corn farm and the industrialized beef farm. He goes as far to purchase a steer so he can follow the steer until it meets his end (where he was not allowed to visit -- journalists, among others, are not permitted in slaughterhouses and on many industrial farms.) He interviews a corn farmer about how working on a farm has changed. And it is explained (in a way that is both scary and fascinating) how a single kernel of corn is processed. How all parts of the corn are used and extracted and turned into something else. Things I didn't even know were made with corn -- like glue and fireworks. (Seriously. Fireworks. Mind blown. This was the part of the book where I kept waking John up every five minutes to spout off something new I learned about corn. He was nowhere near as enthusiastic as I was.)

For the second meal, he visits an industrial organic farm. While many of these farms started out as small endeavors, they have grown into a billion dollar industries and are run much of the same way as non-organic industrialized farms. They do not use pesticides or hormones, they do allow chickens access to the outdoors but it is  a small sad yard that has a tiny door that isn't even open until the chickens are 5 weeks old. For the remaining two weeks of their lives, they rarely venture out doors.  These are not the happy chickens lives and farming practices that consumers are led to believe they are supporting. There is the fact that these farms are brining organic food to places that normally wouldn't have access to it. They are keeping farmlands from being sprayed with pesticides. There is good here and as a reader (and an eater) we are encouraged to take in the facts, do our own research and decide for ourselves if eating seasonally is an inconvenience we are willing to suffer.

His third meal he calls "beyond organic." Pollan found a farm that farms the way farming used to be done. (And apparently I was trying to see how many times I could use the word farm in a sentence.) He visits Polyface Farm in Virginia which practices sustainable agriculture. He has pasteurized beef and poultry and uses a rotation system so the cows don't destroy the pasture and then the chickens clean up after the cows and fertilize the pasture. Joel Salatin, the farm's owner, refers to himself as a grass farmer and an even more than that an orchestra conductor as he is doing the movement and organization but the animals are doing the work. He will not ship his meats instead he truly practices and believes that burning all that fossil fuel to ship his products is not sustainable. He sells directly to consumers, local restaurants and at farmer's markets. And this is what led Pollan to him in the first place. Because Salatin won't ship a steak to Pollan's home in California, Pollan instead visits, stays and works on the farm in Virginia experiencing it all first hand including processing (a nicer way to say killing) a chicken.

When it gets to the fourth meal, I am wondering really what is next. What kind of farm could he possibly visit to finish this book. But he doesn't visit a farm, instead, he chooses to create a meal from things he has hunted and gathered. Who does that now? Being a Western PA girl I am used to meals made with deer meat but not an entire meal that is foraged. Pollan stays true to the course and learns to hunt wild pig,  how to hunt mushrooms and even gather yeast from the air to make bread (again mind blown. Yeast from the air? Crazy business.) He even attempts to try and gather his own salt from the bay.

After being present at all of Pollan's meals through his writing, I was happy to find him encouraging his readers to think about what we are eating. With the obesity epidemic, we are so conditioned to think of food in terms of calories in and calories out but it is so much more than that. This book was a great way to begin to address that rumbling in our tummy in a much kinder way than just shoving whatever we can grab in our mouths to shut it up (and stay under our recommended calories for the day.)

I am eager to read the adult version of this book (and just ordered it in paper form so I can highlight and make notes in the margin and flip back and forth between chapters when I need to. Sometimes there are things an ebook can't provide. Like the lovely smell of an old book. Mmmmm.)

For more information on Micheal Pollan and his work please visit  http://michaelpollan.com/

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