the omnivore’s dilemma-michael pollan

i’ve found that the dramatic moment of a food-based memoir always culminates around a pig. novella carpenter‘s pigs were something else (though the badger stays with me) and this time, the hunt and corpse posing for the camera is the centerpiece, literally and literally. i’ve been a bit horny lately, i’ll admit it, and a call to an old (food) lover, however bittersweet, yielded these unintentionally insight-full words: “i’ll never forget how people in different countries live in their space, how it’s different from us (americans)”. werd.

“‘You know what the best kind of organic certification would be? Make an unannounced visit to a farm and take a good long look at the farmer’s bookshelf. Because what you’re feeding your emotions and thoughts is what this is really all about. The way I produce a chicken is an extension of my worldview. You can learn more about that by seeing what’s sitting on my bookshelf than having me fill out a whole bunch of forms.’” (131-2)


4 thoughts on “the omnivore’s dilemma-michael pollan

  1. corn haze:

    “Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak. Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn. The eggs are made of corn. The milk and cheese and yogurt, which one came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.
    Head over to the processed foods and you find ever more intricate manifestations of corn. A chicken nugget, for example, piles corn upon corn: what chicken it contains consists of corn, of course, but so do most of a nugget’s other constituents, including the modified corn starch that glues the thing together, the corn flour in the batter that coats it, and the corn oil in which it gets fried. Much less obviously, the leavenings and lecithin, the mono-, di-, and triglycerides, the attractive golden coloring, and even the citric acid that keeps the nugget ‘fresh’ can all be derived from corn.
    To wash down your chicken nuggets with virtually any soft drink in the supermarket is to have some corn with your corn…..” (18)

    “Corn’s dual identity, as food and commodity, has allowed many of the peasant communities that have embraced it to make the leap from a subsistence to a market economy. The dual identity also made corn indispensable to the slave trade: Corn was both the currency traders used to pay for slaves in Africa and the food upon which slaves subsisted during their passage to America. Corn is the protocapitalist plant.” (26)

    “The growth of the American food industry will always bump up against this troublesome biological fact: Try as we might, each of us can eat only about fifteen hundred pounds of food a year. Unlike many other products-CDs, say, or shoes-there’s a natural limit to how much food we can each consume without exploding. What this means for the food industry is that its natural rate of growth is somewhere around 1 percent per year-1 percent being the annual growth rate of the American population. The problem is that 1 percent will never satisfy Wall Street, which demands at the very least a 10 percent return on its capital.
    This leaves companies like General Mills and McDonald’s with two options if they hope to grow faster than the population: figure out how to get people to spend more money on the same three-quarters of a ton of food, or entice them to actually eat more than that. The two strategies are not mutually exclusive, of course, and the food industry energetically pursues them both at the same time. Which is good news indeed for the hero of our story, for it happens that turning cheap corn into complex food systems is an excellent way to achieve both goals.” (94-5)

    “Very simply, we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup in this country, but not carrots. While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest.” (108)

  2. republican chicken nugget:

    “What is perhaps most troubling, and sad, about industrial eating is how thoroughly it obscures all these relationships and connections. To go from the chicken (/Gallus gallus/) to the Chicken McNugget is to leave this world in a journey of forgetting that could hardly be more costly, not only in terms of the animal’s pain but in our pleasure, to. But forgetting, or not knowing in the first place, is what the industrial food chain is all about, the principal reason it is so opaque, for if we could see what lies on the far side of the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture, we would surely change the way we eat.” (10-11)

    “…..‘There’s money to be made in food, unless you’re trying to grow it.’ When Tyson food scientists devised the chicken nugget in 1983, a cheap bulk commodity-chicken-overnight became a high-value-added product, and most of the money Americans spend on chicken moved from the farmer’s pocket to the processor’s.
    As Tyson understood, you want to be selling something more than a commodity, something more like a service: novelty, convenience, status, fortification, lately even medicine. The problem is, a value-added product made from a cheap commodity can itself become a commodity, so cheap and abundant are the raw materials.” (95-6)

    “What it has done, of course, is to sell an awful lot of chicken for companies like Tyson, which invented the nugget-at McDonald’s behest-in 1983. The nugget is the reason chicken has supplanted beef as the most popular meat in America.” (114)
    “Eating might be simpler as a thimble-brained monophagy, but it’s also a lot more precarious, which partly explains why there are so many more rats and humans in the world than koala bears. Should a disease or drought strike the eucalyptus trees in your neck of the woods, that’s it for you. But the rat and the human can live just about anywhere on earth, and when their familiar foods are in short supply, there’s always another they can try. Indeed, there is probably not a nutrient source on earth that is not eaten by some human somewhere-bugs, worms, dirt, fungi, lichens, seaweed, rotten fish; the roots, shoots, stems, bark, buds, flowers, seeds, and fruits of plants; every imaginable part of every imaginable animal, not to mention haggis, granola, and Chicken McNuggets. (The deeper mystery, only partly explained by neophobia, is why any given human group will eat so few of the numberless nutrients available to it.
    The price of this dietary flexibility is much more complex and metabolically expensive brain circuitry. For the omnivore a tremendous amount of mental wiring must be devoted to sensory and cognitive tools for figuring out which of all these questionable nutrients is safe to eat. There’s just too much information involved in food selection to encode every potential food and poison in the genes. So instead of genes to write our menus omnivores evolved a complicated set of sensory and mental tools to help us sort everything out. Some of these tools are fairly straightforward and we share them with many other mammals; others represent impressive feats of adaptation by primates; still others straddle the blurry line between natural selection and cultural invention.” (290-1)

  3. word, farmer:

    “Here the drugs are plainly being used to treat sick animals, yet the animals probably wouldn’t be sick if not for the diet of grain we feed them.” (79)

    “For better or worse, these are not the kinds of farms a big company like Small Planet Foods, or Whole Foods, does business with today. It’s simply more cost-efficient to buy from one thousand-acre farm than ten hundred-acre farms. That’s not because those big farms are necessarily any more productive, however. In fact, study after study has demonstrated that, measured in terms of the amount of food produced per acre, small farms are actually /more/ productive than big farms; it is the higher transaction costs involved that makes dealing with them impractical for a company like Kahn’s-that and the fact that they don’t grow tremendous quantities of any one thing. As soon as your business involves stocking the frozen food case or produce section at a national chain, whether it be Wal-Mart of Whole Foods, the sheer quantities of organic produce you need makes it imperative to buy from farms operating on the same industrial scale you are. /Everything’s connected/.” (161)

    “It is an unavoidable and in some ways impolite questions, and very possibly besides the point if you look at the world the way Gene Kahn or Drew or Myra Goodman do, but in precisely what sense can that box of salad on sale in a Whole Foods three thousand miles and five days away from this place truly be said to be organic? And if that well-traveled plastic box deserves that designation, should we then perhaps be looking for another word to describe the much shorter and much less industrial food chain that the first users of the word organic had in mind?” (168)

    “Running along the entire length of each shed was a greasy yard maybe fifteen feet wide, not nearly big enough to accommodate all twenty thousand birds inside should the group ever decide to take the air en masse. Which, truth be told, is the last thing the farm managers want to see happen, since these defenseless, crowded, and genetically identical birds are exquisitely vulnerable to infection. This is one of the larger ironies of growing organic food in an industrial system: It is even more precarious than a conventional industrial system. But the federal rules say an organic chicken should have ‘access to the outdoors,’ and Supermarket Pastoral imagines it, so Petaluma Poultry provides the doors and the yard and everyone keeps their fingers crossed.” (172)

    “‘In nature you’ll always find birds following herbivores,’ Joel explained, when I asked him for the theory behind the Eggmobile. ‘The egret perched on the rhino’s nose, the pheasants and turkeys trailing after the bison-that’s a symbiotic relationship we’re trying to imitate.’ In each case the birds dine on the insects that would otherwise bother the herbivore; they also pick insect larvae and parasites out of the animal’s droppings, breaking the cycle of infestation and disease. ‘To mimic this symbiosis on a domestic scale, we follow the cattle in their rotation with the Eggmobile. I call these gals our sanitation crew.’” (211)

    “Joel is convinced ‘clean food’ could compete with supermarket food if the government would exempt farmers from the thicket of regulations that prohibit them from processing and selling meat from the farm. For him, regulation is the single biggest impediment to building a viable local food chain, and what’s at stake is our liberty, nothing less. ‘We do not allow the government to dictate what religion you can observe, so why should we allow them to dictate what kind of food you can buy?’ He believes ‘freedom of food’-the freedom to buy a pork chop from a farmer who raised the hog-should be a constitutional right.” (236)

  4. thought for food:

    “All these explanations are true, as far as they go. But it pays to go a little further, to search for the cause behind the causes. Which, very simply, is this: When food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat.” (102)

    “When you think about it, it is odd that something as important to our health and general well-being as food is so often sold strictly on the basis of price. The value of relationship marketing is that it allows many kinds of information besides price to travel up and down the food chain: stories as well as numbers, qualities as well as quantities, values rather than ‘value’. And as soon as that happens people begin to make different kinds of buying decisions, motivated by criteria other than price. But instead of stories about how it was produced accompanying our food, we get bar codes-as inscrutable as the industrial food chain itself, and a fair symbol of its almost total opacity.
    Not that a bar code /needs/ to be so obscure or reductive. Supermarkets in Denmark have experimented with adding a second bar code to packages of meat that when scanned at a kiosk in the store brings up on a monitor images of the farm where the meat was raised, as well as detailed information on the particular animal’s genetics, feed, medications, slaughter date, etc. Most of the meat in our supermarkets simply couldn’t withstand that degree of transparency; if the bar code on the typical package of pork chops summoned images of the CAFO it came from, and information on the pig’s diet and drug regimen, who would bring themselves to buy it? Our food system depends on consumers’ not knowing much about it beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner. Cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing. And it’s a short way from not knowing who’s at the other end of your food chain to not caring-to the carelessness of both producers and consumers. Of course, the global economy couldn’t very well function without this wall of ignorance and the indifference it breeds. This is why the rules of world trade explicitly prohibit products from telling even the simplest stories-’dolphin safe,’ ‘humanely slaughtered,’ etc.-about how they were produced.” (244-5)

    “‘We don’t have to beat them,’ Joel patiently explained. ‘I’m not even sure we should try. We don’t need a law against McDonald’s or a law against slaughterhouse abuse-we ask for too much salvation by legislation. All we need to do is empower individuals with the right philosophy and the right information to opt out en masse…..” (260)

    “Our teeth are omnicompetent-designed for tearing animal flesh as well as grinding plants. So are our jaws, which we can move in the manner of a carnivore, a rodent, or a herbivore, depending on the dish. Our stomachs produce an enzyme specifically designed to break down elastin, a type of protein found in meat and nowhere else. Our metabolism requires specific chemical compounds that, in nature, can be gotten only from plants (like vitamin C) and others that can be gotten only from animals (like vitamin B-12). More than just the spice of human life, variety for us appears to be a biological necessity.” (289)
    “The set of rules for preparing food we call a cuisine, for example, specific combinations of foods and flavors that on examination do a great deal to mediate the omnivore’s dilemma. The dangers of eating raw fish, for example, are minimized by consuming it with wasabi, a potent antimicrobial. Similarly, the strong spices characteristic of many cuisines in the tropics, where food is quick to spoil, have antibacterial properties. The meso-American practice of cooking corn with lime and serving it with beans, like the Asian practice of fermenting soy and serving it with rice, turn out to render these plant species much more nutritious than they otherwise would be. When not fermented, soy contains an antitrypsin factor that blocks the absorption of protein, rendering the bean indigestible; unless corn is cooked with an alkali like lime its niacin is unavailable, leading to the nutritional deficiency called pellagra. Corn and beans each lack an essential amino acid (lysine and methionine, respectively); eat them together and the proper balance is restored. Similarly, a dish that combines fermented soy with rice is nutritionally balanced. As Rozin writes, ‘[C]uisines embody some of a culture’s accumulated wisdom of food.’ Often when one culture imports another’s food species without importing the associated cuisine, and its embodied wisdom, they’ve made themselves sick.” (296)

    “Perhaps because we have no such culture of food in America almost every question about eating is up for grabs. Fats or carbs? Three squares or continuous grazing? Raw or cooked? Organic or industrial? Veg or vegan? Meat or mock meat? Foods of astounding novelty fill the shelves of our supermarket, and the line between a food and a ‘nutritional supplement’ has fogged to the point where people make meals of protein bars and shakes. Consuming these neo-pseudo-foods alone in our cars, we have become a nation of antinomian eaters, each of us struggling to work out our dietary salvation on our own. Is it any wonder Americans suffer from so many eating disorders? In the absence of any lasting
    consensus about what and how and where and when to eat, the omnivore’s dilemma has returned to American with an almost atavistic force.
    This situation suits the food industry just fine, of course. The more anxious we are about eating, the more vulnerable we are to the seductions of the marketer and the expert’s advice. Food marketing in particular thrives on dietary instability and so tends to exacerbate it. Since it’s difficult to sell more food to such a well-fed population (though not, as we’re discovering, impossible), food companies put their efforts into grabbing market share by introducing new kinds of highly processed foods, which have the virtue of being both highly profitable and infinitely adaptable. Sold under the banner of ‘convenience,’ these processed foods are frequently designed to create whole new eating occasions, such as in the bus on the way to school (the protein bar or Pop-Tart) or in the car on the way to work (Campbell’s recently introduced a one-handed microwaveable microchunked soup in a container designed to fit car’s cup holder).” (301)

    “To think of domestication as a form of slavery or even exploitation is to misconstrue that whole relationship-to project a human idea of power onto what is in fact an example of mutualism or symbiosis between species.” (320)

    “But however it may appear to those of us living at such a remove from the natural world, predation is not a matter or morality or of politics; it, too, is a matter of symbiosis. Brutal as the wolf may be to the individual deer, the herd depends on him for its well-being. Without predators to cull the herd deer overrun their habitat and starve-all suffer, and not only the deer but the plants they browse and every other species that depends on these plants. In a sense, the ‘good life’ for deer, and even their creaturely character, which has been forged in the crucible of predation, depends on the existence of the wolf. In a similar way chickens depend for their well-being on the existence of their human predators. Not the individual chicken, perhaps, but Chicken-the species. The surest way to achieve the extinction of the species would be to grant chickens a right to life.” (322)

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