Monday, January 19, 2009

Reading Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
(Image courtesy of Michael Pollan)

What should we have for dinner?

Michael Pollan opens The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) with this question, a question we've all asked ourselves more times than we can probably count. While the question has remained the same over the centuries, the answers we provide have changed dramatically and may ultimately affect our survival as a species. In choosing what to eat for dinner, we may opt to stop by one of the many fast food restaurants out there to pick up a quick meal. Or we may reach for any number of prepared foods available to us in the frozen food department of our grocery store. We may choose meat that is "grass-fed" or chickens that were raised in "cage-free" environments or produce that's "organic." We may even attempt to hunt and grow our own food, freeing ourselves from a dependency on the industrial food system. Pollan illustrates that answering the question "What should we have for dinner?" should involve more. Stopping to consider exactly how a particular food wound up on our dinner tables will help us all make better informed decisions and will help us understand how what we eat affects our bodies.

Before I read The Omnivore's Dilemma for Book Club this month, I considered grocery shopping one of my favorite things to do. It relaxed me. Yet, I noticed a shift in that love for grocery shopping the first time I stepped into the store after finishing the book. I began to look more closely at the ingredient labels to see how much corn or corn by-products were in the food. I began to question everything that was labeled "organic." I wondered whether the chicken for sale really was "free-range." And it took me fifteen minutes to decide on which milk to buy because I was skeptical of all of the cartons that showed a happy farmer and his cow standing next to a bright red barn. By the time I left the store, my head hurt and I never wanted to shop for food again.

Pollan's book got to me. As a self-proclaimed foodie, I'm constantly thinking about food and cooking. But The Omnivore's Dilemma made me think about (and forced me to become more aware of) what goes into the food I'm putting into my body - from what the animals I consume have eaten to the various ingredients that go into, say, the muffin I ate for breakfast. There are habits I know I'm going to have to break and there are changes I'd that are going to require tweaking my household budget, but I know those changes will be for the better. Those changes will be worth it.

If you haven't read The Omnivore's Dilemma yet, I highly recommend it. Parts of it are tough to get through, whether because of the heaviness of the subject or the graphic descriptions of certain aspects of the industrial food system we don't normally think about, but give the book a try. You'll definitely learn something!

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6 comments:

gastroanthropologist said...

I've enjoyed Pollan's books and his contributions to the NY Times. He does help to make aware the "hidden" aspects of the food system. I try to avoid packaged foods at all costs and become more aware of where my food is coming from. It's amazing how little thought and how much trust we put in others (food companies, grocery stores, the Government!) with things that we ingest into our bodies every single day.
You may also be interested in Food Politics by Marion Nestle.

Michelle said...

gastroanthropologist - With everything I learned from reading Pollan's book, one thing I realized was my frustration at how foods are priced today. The "better" for you, the more expensive the food is, putting the "better" food out of reach of those who can't afford it. So those who fall shy of a certain income bracket doesn't necessarily have access to the "better" foods and are forced to go with the convenient fast food meal or the foods that are packed with chemically engineered ingredients and/or byproducts. It's any wonder health issues result! Even if you are taking the time to think about the food you're eating and you are questioning the integrity of labels.... it's harder to do what's best for you and your health because of the financial factor! Most people think more about the immediate effect of spending money than they do about the long-term effects of eating food that's overly processed.

Thanks for the book recommendation! I haven't read Food Politics yet, but I'll put it on my list of books "to read"!

gastroanthropologist said...

Michelle - Absolutely agree with food pricing. And some living in lower socio-economic areas don't even have access (not just because of the cost, but no access to a proper grocery store) to fresh fruits and veg. And if you've got two jobs and kids and trying to make ends meet - who says you have time to cook a meal with fresh ingredients?

Have you heard of Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food in the UK? He did this reality show where he went into a low income neighborhood and thought if he taught them how to cook they would avoid fast food and eat healthier. He didn't realize the people living in this area 1. Didn't have time to cook, 2. Couldn't afford the fresh foods he suggested, and 3. Couldn't afford the gas and electricity it cost to fire up the range and oven!

...I'll stop now...I could go on forever about issues with food...

Michelle said...

gastroanthropologist - Don't stop now! We have very similar opinions about the topic, and I appreciate being able to discuss the issues with you.

I heard a bit about Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food. I don't know if I'll be able to check out the show (since I'm in the US), but I'll take a look at his book by the same name.

Manang said...

I was in a Barnes & Nobles yesterday and this book caught my attention. Not that I do not ahve access to good food (I have free eggs from my MIL's own raised chicken layers, we got beef from our own cows, pigs we raised ourselves). I usually buy from the grocery store the fresh veggies and fruits, and I try to get the locally produced ones. We also have access to the fresh milk that is only pasteurized (not homogenized). During summer I plant some, and can/process my own pickles and tomatoes. It is hard to find the time to do all these, but I am lucky my in-laws grow the meat and egg sources. I guess these are the pros of living in a rural area (aside from having an ideal place to raise kids). I got the book mainly because I want to get a glimpse of how others see and procure their food, and the more I read the book, the better appreciation I get for what I have now.

Michelle said...

Manang - You are in a very fortunate situation to have fresh meat and animal products so accessible to you. I'm pleased to hear you were still able to walk away from the book with a new-found appreciation for what you have. Thank you for your comments!