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The Omnivore's Dilemma: The Existential Angst of Eating

| 12/21/2009 10:53:04 AM

A photo of Shannon SaiaI received a copy of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma as a birthday gift, and this past week I finished reading it. The book is divided into three sections, Industrial: Corn, Pastoral: Grass, and Personal: The Forest. The book led me from a farm growing industrial corn in the Midwest; in and out of feedlots; through my local Whole Foods store; to the “beyond organic” Polyface Farm near Staunton, Virginia; hunting for wild boar; and finally out to forage for wild mushrooms in California. It was a long read; not because it was difficult, but because it was like reading a complex novel with lots of characters and plots whose stories all eventually culminate into some sort of abstract epiphany. It was also a long read I think because at one point I became so dispirited by what I was reading that I finally had to take a break. This book is a disturbing call to action to take control over the foods that we eat, not only the choices we make but the nature of how that food comes into being. It’s also a fair depiction I think of our own existential helplessness.

Health is a very big concern and motivator for me. Despite my ignorance in many areas, I’ve been conscious of some of the dietary dangers out there for quite some time now. I went through my kitchen and threw out everything with “partially hydrogenated oil” on the label somewhere around 1996, and I haven’t (knowingly) bought or eaten it since, though ubiquitous as it is, I’m sure that in spite of my efforts I’ve still managed to ingest plenty of it over the years. I ditched the microwave almost a decade ago. Over the years I’ve added corn syrup, palm oil, preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, hormones and antibiotics to my list of things to avoid. I try to buy organic, and, as I’ve talked about in this blog, I’ve started growing my own food. My dietary concerns were a BIG motivator in my decision to begin gardening like I mean it.

So it came as something of a shock and dismay to realize that I, like many people, have been deceived by the lure of “organic.” The noise that’s been made over the use of antibiotics and growth hormones in the production of meat and milk has obscured the fact that these “organic” meats may not be intrinsically any healthier for us to eat if the cows (and chickens and pigs) are fattened on “organic” corn that is essentially otherwise inedible. And to find out the extent to which almost any processed food that we eat contains corn in some form or another, well, the whole thing was just downright horrifying to me.

I don’t even really like corn.

This past week I had to go out of town for the day, and on my return trip I took the long way home, down through Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In his chapter on foraging for mushrooms Pollan describes the “pop-out effect”: “When we fix in our mind some visual quality of the object we’re hoping to spot – whether it is color or pattern or shape – it will pop out of the visual field, almost as if on command.” I experienced something not unlike this phenomenon I think on my drive through the Eastern Shore farmlands, and in my case what was “popping out” was evidence that some of the most disturbing things that I had read in Pollan’s book were happening right here, in my own state, before my very own eyes; and that I was regularly grabbing it off my local supermarket shelves. Not everything I saw was disturbing. I drove past one place where a big house was situated at the top of a high hill; the front yard was a fenced pasture sloping all the way down almost from the front door to the road I was on, and grazing on that hill were a dozen or so black cows. I couldn’t really see whether there was any “managed intensive grazing” going on because the cows were way up the hill near the house. They may have been temporarily contained up there, or they may have had the run of the whole field. Either way, the sight of cows out to pasture at all was reassuring to me.

Not a quarter mile later, though, I drove past what seemed a relatively small dairy operation. There was a low-lying neutral colored building, and penned up in a small area between the building and road were groups of cows standing in a dark muckiness that looked for all the world to me like “a grayish mud that, it eventually dawns on you, isn’t mud at all.” There was a small sign out in front of the place, and I craned my neck as I drove past to see what it said. And I’m glad I did, because it was the name of a popular and ubiquitous brand of organic milk and dairy products which will remain nameless, but which I have regularly purchased – falling, no doubt for the cute cartoons and beguiling “supermarket pastoral” stories on the labels. I know that huge industrial companies contract out the work of raising animals to small farmers. But until I drove past this small operation, I had never really thought about it all. Even reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as eye-opening as it was, couldn’t bring home its truths in quite the same way that driving past this small dairy farm did, where there was an ominous lack of green grass, and the cows were up to their hooves in something that looked suspiciously like their own manure.

1/14/2010 6:29:02 PM

You should look at to find local beef in the meantime. Also, we get our milk and other dairy items delivered by Southmountain Creamery--in glass bottles. The cows free range. We love the service.

12/23/2009 11:53:24 AM

Have you seen or heard of the '100 mile Challenge'? I pulled it off the Documentary Channel I think. It is a huge dilemma in this country that even when a place may be on your way home from town and claim to be 'organic' and for all intents meet the criteria for 'organic' or healthy it is only in comparison to the worst of all possible processed and concocted mixtures that it could be considered wholesome. Until we once again find ourselves homesteaded on small acre family farms and meeting our own food needs we can only choose the best of what is available even if its not ideal. Anyway, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

12/23/2009 6:41:37 AM

Shannon, You've made me think indeed -I like you thought, if it was organic it was great. I think your solutions are good, growing more of our own food and eating more locally grown foods so that you know where they are coming from. I think that's what I'll strive for this new year. vickie

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