Thursday, April 20, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Michael Pollan Books-Part 1: The Omnivore's Dilemma

I need to admit that I have a bit of an addiction to Michael Pollans books. His books resonate with me from so many perspectives and he is a fantastic writer.  So when I sat down to write a review of one of his books here on my blog I was a bit overwhelmed, where do I even start.  I know I am not a great writer and I want to make sure I do his books justice. Meanwhile I continued to plow through his books so now I have four books that I want to review four you: The Omnivore's Dilemma, Cooked, The Botany of Desire and In Defense of Food.  All of these books, except In Defense of Food are structured in the same way. The author takes the topic and breaks it down into Perspectives usually three or four.  The prevailing theme in pretty much all his books are polyculture and biodiversity is good and when it comes to food we need think about what we are eating.

A little bit about the author He is a journalist who wrote for New York Times (You can find his formal biography here).  He is an avid gardener and was an avid gardener long before he had some of his more contemporary views on food.  Fun little fact… his is the brother of Tracy Pollan (actress/wife of Michael J Fox)

So in Part I of this series I'll talk about: The Omnivore's Dilemma

In Omnivore's Dilemma Michael Pollan attempts to address the issue of "What should we have for dinner?" when as humans we can literally eat anything meat, vegetable, fungi, etc. This book was published in 2006 (yes this book has been on my "To Read" list for too long). That was just after the South Beach and Atkins Diet fads when bread/carbohydrates all of a sudden became evil and Americans had more reasons to rely on animal proteins.

Who needs to read this book: Anyone who buys food in an grocery store in the United States. Yes... anyone. Gardener/Farmers would find the pastoral section incredibly interesting.

What are three "Perspectives" in this book: 

  • Industrial : If you read only one part of this book this is the part to read. What he writes about corn, how it has evolved and how it has shaped how we eat, is fascinating. I don't think I ever really appreciated how some plants are truly dependent on humans for their continued existence (in much the same way the modern dog has become dependent on us). My daughter is reading the young readers version of this book and even she was floored by the section on corn. She immediately got off the couch ran into the kitchen and started looking at all the processed food boxes in our kitchen to look for all the corn that was there. When I was growing up I can remember news reports on how farmers were going bankrupt,  in debt, and loosing their farms. You don't hear those news reports anymore but this book reminded me that the problem is still there, we have just come to accept it.  He also follows a baby steer from birth through slaughter... this is incredibly interesting. He explains E.coli  O157:H7 and mad cow disease, how and why they happened. For those of you that say...well I am a vegetarian so I don't need to understand this. Well three things 1) do you drink milk then yes this still concerns you 2) Do you remember the spinach recall ~10 years, the suspected cause of that was E.coli  O157:H7 in the water run off from cattle farms 3) the impact of all of this on the environment is STAGGERING. I don't really think I could appreciate the impact on the environment fully until I read this book. He talks about fertilizers, really explains whats the big deal. One thing that I appreciate is that he is presenting this as someone who eats these foods, he is not sitting on a soap box and saying you can only eat grass fed beef. He is clearly a meat eater and enjoys eating meat.  
  • Pastoral: This section is divided into two... industrial organic and a sustainable farm, two very different things! The industrial organic section made me truly appreciate "organic spring mix" from the grocery store.  He also makes a good case for why organic food is better for the environment than buying "industrial  conventional" food. He is honest that its not as good as sustainably grown food but it is still better. 
    • Polyface Farms- This is the sustainable farm that Michael Pollan chose to visit for this section of the book. As a gardener I loved this section of the book. Joel Salatin is the creator of Polyface farm. His farm is fascinating and definitely gave me some ideas for my own garden. One sad but important point that Joel makes in these books is that smart people do not want to become farmers. They are inclined to do something more "successful" and farming just isn't it. I do think this is changing but society's perceptions of farmers need to evolve. We need to appreciate our farms more, after all we wouldn't be alive without them.
  • Personal: If any of you are like me you have always contemplated trying to cook a meal with foods you completely grew/foraged/hunted yourself, in this section Michael Pollan does just that. I found this chapter as entertaining as it was interesting. Hunting wild boar, the modern day fears of picking a poisonous mushroom ... all of it was so fun to read. 
If you don't like to read... but are interested in this- Ok so I do have two alternatives for you 1) this book is available in an audio format (I was able to find it in my local library). 2) Watch Food, Inc on Netflix . Food Inc, is a documentary showing how large companies have taken control of our food chain. This documentary covers a lot of the topics from the Industrial section of this book. Michael Pollan was a consultant for Food, Inc., he and Polyface Farms are actually in this documentary. 

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