Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Omnivore's Dilemma

It took me awhile to decide where to post this review. When you have five blogs it sometimes becomes difficult to decide where a post should go. This is one of those times. It’s a review of a book, which would normally go on Mediagrouch. It affected me personally, so it might go onto Myspace or Facebook. It took up a lot of my energy, so it could go on Livejournal. It’s here because this is my lifestyle page.

Trouble is, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan is not a very manly book. In fact, it is full of all sorts of whiny liberal angst—worry about the food chain and the environment and guilt over eating meat and fossil fuels. Yuppie liberal guilt—the worst kind. But it has a lot of good stuff to say—especially about hunting and gathering, two Pleistocene era activities, truly manly pursuits. I had read the section on pig hunting in the New York Times magazine when the book first came out, and I was really looking forward to the rest of it. I wasn’t disappointed. I couldn’t put it down.

The conceit of the book is that it looks at three (actually four) of the food chains by which Americans feed themselves: industrial farming, big (industrial) organic farming, small local farming, and hunting and gathering. As a piece of journalism the book is, quite frankly, brilliant. The depths to which he plumbs America and our various eating habits and disorders is astounding. Because I pay attention to such things I didn’t actually learn much in terms of the big picture. I already knew, for instance, that corn is so heavily subsidized that it has become the defacto food source for not only us but everything we eat, and that we are, as one nutritionist he quotes put it “walking corn chips.” I already knew that “organic” in the supermarket doesn’t mean “organic” the in the same way as on the food from the Berkeley Food Co-op when I was a kid (now a Whole Foods Market, in the ultimate irony). And I already knew a bit about the small farm movement and a lot about hunting.

But I learned a TON of new info about mushrooms.

Part of Pollan’s thesis is that we should all take the time to be aware of the food chain that supports us. He examines and rejects animal rights rather quickly. He goes back again and again to the evils of the industrial food chain. But in the end his book is ultimately unsatisfying because it never offers any real solution. It’s clear that Pollan thinks the industrial food chain is unsustainable, but he also acknowledges that the small food movement couldn’t feed everyone. The only real promise he offers is one offered by one of the farmers he profiles, suggesting that the industrial food chain won’t so much be destroyed as it will face competition from an increasingly fractured food chain.

What bothered me about the book was the angst. It was greatest in the section about hunting, when he worried about the pig that he kills and (not immediately, which is important, but after gutting it) the disgust and guilt he felt over the act of killing. He says that hunting cannot stand up to a critical gaze in the 21st century. That’s a lot of bull—weak kneed hand wringing at its most pansy-waist. He is right about the problem—that modern man is so far removed from nature that any reminder of the natural order is disturbing. Not only is it a reminder of his own mortality but, even worse, it is a reminder of his own beastliness. But that’s only for modern men who spent too much time on the East Coast—where I happily live right now—and not enough time exploring their manliness. American culture, American history, teach us that we are part of nature, not removed from it. The deer or turkey that we kill we do so for many reasons: for the pleasure of the act, to nourish ourselves, to uphold tradition. But when you are tuned in to that culture there is no angst about it at all. Game animals are part of nature and so are we. To kill a deer and eat it is the most natural act in the world. We should respect the deer, absolutely, but why should we cry or feel guilty over it? Eventually, after eating and enjoying his pig later, he finally comes to terms with the act.

(Another interesting things is that he quotes heavily from the 20th century Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset: but Ortega y Gasset’s book “Meditations on Hunting” is one of the least important works of this, one of the great philosophers of all time. It prompted me to wonder if Pollan had read any of Ortega y Gassets other works. It seems odd that he should be remembered now for a book on hunting that Pollan describes as “a bit mad.”)

Here is the thing I really learned from this book: I have lived a life closer to nature than I ever really imagined—much closer than Pollan, much closer than normal. This became clear when Pollan talked about hunting and gathering in Norhtern California. A lot of the things he discussed I had done—not the two main ones, mushroom hunting and pig hunting (I plan to remedy that soon) but most of the others. It struck me when his guide Angello mentions that mustard greens are good if you sauté them in garlic and olive oil. It sparked in me the memory of gathering wild mustard greens for dinner along the side of a road in Yolo County with my mom and dad before they split up, and eating the flowers right off the stocks. For years afterward I’d gross my friends out whenever we saw a a mustard plant by picking the flower and eating it. So lots of the stuff he talked about I had experienced, not as an angst ridden adult searching for the meaning behind my food but as a kid playing the way kids sometimes play. I gathered mustard greens. My dad taught me how to fish in the ocean when I was five. My grandpa taught me how to fish in the mountains when I was six. I’ve gathered wild berries to eat and even miner’s lettuce. I’ve made sourdough bread (fourth grade science/home-ec project). I’ve dug clams on Dillon’s beach. I’ve gone out with my dad when he gathered abalone (I was too young). I’d camped out in Desolation Wilderness. Aside from hunting pig and gathering mushrooms, I had already done most of the things Pollan had to discover in the last (and best) section of his book. As a result it didn’t affect me as much as I had thought it would, as much as the earlier sections did.

Which isn’t to say it’s not a great book? I loved it. It is funny and entertaining and has something both interesting and important to say. Everybody should read it. It’s very good. But if you have lived anything close to a traditional rural life—especially in the West—you will see much of it in a “well, duh!” kind of light.