First, some history. Back in 2001 Hubby brought home a New York Times Magazine article by Michael Pollan had written about corn and the effect it is havingAmerican diets. I read it, was sufficiently shocked, and started reading ingredient labels. A anti-corn syrup activist was born. I have changed my diet (and my family’s) significantly in the past 7 1/2 years: I make my own bread, we limit the cereal and snack intake, we only have soda rarely. Aside from that article, the other motivators for food change over the years have been Fast Food Nation (which Hubby read; he said I probably couldn’t stomach the slaughtering chapters) and Crunchy Cons. We rarely eat at fast food (not never, though I do loathe McDonalds these days), and we try our best to buy local, especially when it comes to food. (Warning: this is one LONG review. Sorry.)
So this book, for me, was not so much a revelation as a confirmation. I can — and should — take the next step, take our food awareness to a slightly higher level (even if that means, much to C’s distress, getting rid of chicken nuggets and hot dogs and mac-and-cheese in a box).
The book is divided up in to three parts: Industrial, Organic, and Foraging, where he follows four meals from the beginning through to eating them. In industrial, he follows corn through corn-fed steers being “processed” to eating at McDonalds. If you read nothing else out of this book, read this section. Please. The only way we’ll even remotely begin to change the hold of industrial agribusiness has on this country is if more people know. (At one point, Pollan writes that the best way to change things would be to require glass walls on all slaughterhouses. Then, the public would be forced to acknowledge what goes on in those places in the name of cheap beef.)
The organic section was the one that I found most interesting. Pollan’s ultimate conclusion is that big organic (Whole Foods, Trader Joes, what you get at the supermarket) isn’t a whole lot better than industrial agriculture. I found this somewhat surprising. But, he visited farms and feedlots, and was unimpressed with the organicness of it all. Sure, they didn’t use pesticides or antibiotics, but the vegetables were still being picked by immigrant workers and the animals were still living in overcrowded conditions. Not exactly environmentally healthy, even if there is an “organic” stamp on it. (He also spends a lot of time talking about USDA regulations. If you can read this book and not end up angry at the USDA, I’ll be impressed.)
The second part of the organic section is Pollan’s ultimate ideal. He spent a week at Polyface farm, run by Joel Salatin. This man is an impressive farmer. He considers himself a”grass farmer“, rethinking how he raises cows, chickens, pigs, and rabbits. Everything is eco-friendly, local and interconnected. It’s an amazing place (it almost sounds too good to be true), and it made me wish for such a place closer to me (either that, or that I still lived in the DC area so I could pop down for a visit). It also made me realize that even though I buy local, I haven’t visited the farms where I get my meat. How are the animals living? How are they slaughtered and processed? I should be more proactive.
The final section is his attempt to recreate the hunter-gatherer. He hunts for wild boar. He forages for mushrooms, and serves a meal, in the end, that cost him practically nothing (except for time). He also visits vegetarianism, and the implications that has for modern eating. It’s all very fascinating (and well-written).
But, in the end, it leaves me slightly depressed. How many people are going to pick up this book? How many people can it change? Sure, organics and farmers markets are growing, but (as we’ve found out), it’s expensive. We spend a good chunk of our monthly paycheck on food, and it’s not because we’re buying more. I liked this quote (from Joel Salatin):
“Whenever I hear people say clean food is expensive, I tell them it’s actually the cheapest food you can buy… [W]ith our food all of the cost are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water — of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap. No thinking person will tell you they don’t care about all that. I tell them the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food or you can buy irresponsibly priced food.”
It just seems like a huge, uphill battle. But one in which I’m more than willing to do my part.