Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Book note: The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

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

So, a friend lent me a copy of this book and asked me to read it. I looked at the jacket copy and the blurbs, and tried to decline. The jacket copy, blurbs, and other promotional writing make it look like the book is aimed at people who worship global warming and/or hang out in far-left blogland but think of themself as intellectual. I figure the book is not going to be worth my time. But the friend insists. So I read it.

I think the folks in charge of marketing this book are missing the boat, driving off conservatives like that. Not that I think it's entirely a conservative-friendly book. But that's the thing. It's not a liberal-friendly book, either, not by a long stretch. By the time you've read the whole book, there's been something to cause umbrage to practically everybody out there. OK, maybe umbrage is the wrong word, but it's close. This book isn't what I thought it would be; it's not a screed and it's not written to fit some template. It's part history book, part science book, part journalism, part amateur philosophizing, part 'what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation'-type adventures, part cookery book, written by a journalist who reads deeply and widely, is willing to talk listen to a wide variety of people, and who is also willing to change his mind based on the evidence. Some of it is a little strange, but there's not as much strangeness as I expected. And it's interesting.

In a nutshell, author Michael Pollan looks around at food, wonders exactly where it comes from before it gets to his table, and tries to find out. Of course, if you're like me, you'd just as soon not think too minutely about how beef and chicken and breakfast cereal, etc., get to your table, but, well, it's not a bad thing for grown-ups to face up to now and then, is it? Especially if there are some things about the system that might be changed for the better? Pollan takes on all comers, I must say. (PETA included.) If he doesn't understand something, he's willing to get close enough to try to understand it. (Example. He's never shot a gun, but decides to find out what it's like to go hunting, so devotes months to the project. What he finds out surprises him. And me, for that matter.)

Fair warning: There are some bits I wish had been bowdlerized, but they are few and far between. I wouldn't hand this to the kids and it doesn't quite pass my "Grandma" test - if my grandmother were still alive, I wouldn't hand her this, mostly because of a few body-part references.

The author and I have our differences, here and there. For instance, he says that he can't see why humans would have abandoned the relatively healthy hunter-gatherer lifestyle for agriculture unless they'd killed off what they'd been hunting/gathering. I disagree. While I'm sure some bands did overhunt or overharvest, and while I'll grant that farming launched some public health issues right from the beginning (epidemics from crowding together and accumulated waste, new diseases incubated in domestic animals), I can think of lots of reasons people who were hunter-gatherers might settle down in one place instead. People tend to be territorial, for one thing; even hunters protect their hunting grounds. That somebody figured that a home base might be more easily defended than a whole region seems a possibility. That somebody got tired of carrying Grandpa around on his back might have been a factor here or there, now and then. Plus, people like to build things. (Including forts, I think.) Also, some people just naturally like to have stockpiles. For that matter, I suspect many a farm was started by a fellow who got tired of hearing, "Must we move already? I just got the camp set up the way I like it." ;)

But I quibble. It's an interesting, if sometimes stomach-churning, book, and I think it addresses some issues that probably ought to be addressed. Our food supply is a vital interest. If we're not smart about it, we court disaster. It's also, at times, an unexpectedly funny book, written by a middle-aged guy out to explore both the world and his inner self. And there are some sometimes-priceless descriptions of different subcultures in today's America. A unique offering. I can't recommend it without reservations, but I can recommend it.

A footnote: Pollan will carefully build up a case sometimes so he can then illustrate why it doesn't hold together as well as its advocates like to think it does. If you jump to conclusions, you're likely to find yourself mistaken. I found that whenever I was getting ready to gnash my teeth, the cure usually was to simply keep reading.

1 comment:

Sherry said...

Ok so you've found me another book to add to the list. I'll read this one in order to talk more intelligently to my vegetarian daughter, among other reasons.