I can’t say enough good things about the current book I’m reading, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals — a 2006 non-fiction book by Michael Pollan in which the author explores the question “What should we have for dinner?” To answer this question, he follows four meals, each derived through a different food-production system, from their origins to the plate.
As Wikipedia summarizes, “Along the way, Pollan examines the ethical, political, and ecological factors that are intertwined in the industrial, large-scale organic, local, and personal (hunted-gathered) food chains, while describing the environmental and health consequences that result from food choices within these chains.”
Anyone interested in environmental issues should be especially interested in this expose of the food we eat.
I’m part way through the book and find every page fascinating.
Not having finished the book, I provide a fairly succinct summary from Wikipedia, not because I believe this source is totally reliable, but because it gives you the flavor of what the book is about quite effectively.
Pollan begins with a deep exploration of the food-production system from which the vast majority of American meals are derived. This industrial food chain is largely based on corn, whether it is eaten directly, fed to livestock, or processed into chemicals such as glucose and ethanol. Pollan discusses how the corn plant came to dominate the American diet through a combination of biological, cultural, and political factors. The role of petroleum in the cultivation and transportation of the American food supply is also discussed.
A fast food meal is used to illustrate the end result of the industrial food chain.
The following chapter delves into the principles of organic farming and their various implementations in modern America. Pollan shows that, while organic food has grown in popularity, its producers have adopted many of the methods of industrial agriculture, losing sight of the organic movement’s anti-industrial roots. A meal prepared from ingredients purchased at Whole Foods Market represents this food chain at the table.
As a study in contrast, Pollan visits Joel Salatin’s small-scale ecological rotation farm, where natural conditions are adhered to as closely as possible, very few artificial inputs are used, and waste products are recycled back into the system. He then prepares a meal using only local produce from nearby small-scale farmers.
The final chapter finds Pollan attempting to prepare a meal using only ingredients he has hunted, gathered, or grown himself. He recruits assistance from local foodies, who teach him to hunt feral pigs, gather wild mushrooms, and search for abalone. He also makes a salad of greens from his own garden, bakes sourdough bread using wild yeast, and prepares a dessert from cherries picked in his neighborhood.
Pollan concludes that, while such a meal is not practical on a regular basis, as an occasional exercise it helps to reconnect us with the natural origins of food as well as human history.