26 January 2007

The Omnivore’s Mandate

I’ve just finished reading Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. [Check that link - you can download a pdf of the introduction and first chapter there.] The book is a fascinating tour through eating in America, and what one’s choices in food mean in a larger context than a personal one.

Here are the kind of things that took my breath away, in a bad way:
p. 98 – in a chapter on how corn is in just about every processed food there is:

“Natural raspberry flavor” doesn’t mean the flavor came from a raspberry; it may well have been derived from corn, just not from something synthetic.
p. 117 – in a chapter about eating a fast food meal at McDonald’s, and running a duplicate of said meal through a mess spectrometer to calculate how much of the carbon in the meal came from corn:
In order of diminishing corniness, this is how the laboratory measured our meal: soda (100% corn), milk shake (78%), salad dressing (65%), chicken nuggets (56%), cheeseburger (52%), and French fries (23%).
p. 183 – in a chapter about Big Organic:
The food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States (about as much as automobiles do).
And elsewhere there is a description of battery egg layers that is shocking.

On the happier side though, Pollan's description on p. 219 of the complex organism that is Polyface Farm almost makes me want to move to Charlottesville, VA:
Salatin reached down deep where his pigs were happily rooting and brought a handful of fresh compost right up to my nose. What had been cow manure and woodchips just a few weeks before now smelled as sweet and warm as the forest floor in summertime, a miracle of transubstantiation. As soon as the pigs complete their alchemy, Joel will spread the compost on his pastures. There it will feed the grasses, so the grasses might again feed the cows, the cows the chickens, and so on until the snow falls, in one long, beautiful, and utterly convincing proof that in a world where grass can eat sunlight and food animals can eat grass, there is indeed a free lunch.
In a lot of ways, Pollan’s book overlaps with Marion Nestle’s What To Eat (which I read last spring) and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (which I read when it came out). But I think the third was the charm.

The short story – I will change the way we eat. I’ve signed up for a CSA program for next summer at Roxbury Farm. We’ll get a box of organic vegetables every week. We're making a much more concerted effort to get locally raised meat. I'm lucky in that my office is very close to the Union Square Greenmarket, so I have access to local produce (including eggs and meat). I tend not to buy a lot of processed foods anyway, but we'll do better on that front. It's my new year's resolution, even though the year is nearly 1/12th over.