The Omnivore's Dilemma: The Existential Angst of Eating

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I 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.

As I have been a number of times over the years, I’m once again at a loss as a shopper. I no longer want to avoid just ultra-pasteurized and, if possible, homogenized milk products (the sale of raw milk for human consumption is illegal in Maryland); I can now no longer trust that “organic” means what I think it should mean; that I am avoiding any evils by buying “organic.” I mean, I always understood that “organic” junk food (cookies, crackers, chips, etc.) was still junk food; but I had believed that it meant something different, something more significant, in a product like, say, milk. The “omnivore’s dilemma” is explained by Pollan this way: “When you can have just about anything nature as to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety, especially when some of the potential foods on offer are liable to sicken or kill you.” Granted there’s a difference between the cumulative effects of consuming antibiotic and hormone-pumped, corn-fed, ultra-pasteurized dairy products and eating the mushroom that kills you more or less on the spot. The real dilemma, I think, is trying to eat in such a way that death as a consequence of eating food does not have to be on our radar screen at all.

I drove on. Past fields with little green and white signs along the roadside that said “organic farm; do not spray.” Past an Amish girl pedaling off down a side road on a bicycle in the direction of the coming evening gloom. Through small towns, with old houses right up on the street, that reminded me of the article in the latest issue of GRIT about how one needs to behave to get along successfully living in a small town. What would it be like to live here – in Galena (population 504) or Cecilton (population 474) – maybe all of one’s life? I can’t even imagine. I’m an army brat. Even as a child I remember having the thought that if things didn’t work out here – if I didn’t make friends, if I didn’t do well, if I wasn’t happy – it wouldn’t really matter, because in a year or two I would be somewhere else. I live in a modestly sized town now (population about 3,700), but it’s situated outside a military base and is part of the ever-expanding cloud of suburban bedroom communities outside of Washington, D.C. What struck me as I made my way South on 213, was that eating “local” – buying meat and eggs from a farmer that’s about 20 minutes away from me; accepting an invitation to participate in a cheese-making group; going to farmer’s markets – draws lines between myself and a few others that knit us together into a community that may in fact stretch across ten or twenty “small towns,” and that this community of food producers and eaters all have in common the necessity to preserve relationships almost above all else, or else the “community” that we comprise will dissolve. Eating local means meeting local. But to some extent, “local” is a relative term.

I do not eat 100 percent locally. It’s not because I don’t want to. But it’s really difficult to find all of the things that one might want or need locally. To some extent, every single product is a distinct investigational project. It’s exhausting. And the more I learn, the more changes that I want to make. I’ve done a lot this year towards getting my produce needs met out of my own back yard. And I’ve got the local egg thing worked out. Until I can get my own chickens installed, I get them from the same local farmer that’s letting my Tamworth hog get fat on foraged acorns even as we speak. I feel good about eating his eggs because I know his chickens are free range – and I don’t mean “supermarket pastoral … literary” free range; I mean that they walk up to greet me when I arrive, and I have to dodge them with my car when I leave. The yolks are orange. And a dozen eggs can contain double-yolkers, the tiny eggs of new layers, jumbo eggs and every conceivable size in between. I can also continue to get broilers from him, but no more until spring. I’m willing to try eating rabbit because he raises them for meat and because I trust that the meat of any animal that he’s producing is better for me than anything I’m liable to get in the supermarket. He’s going to start raising cows in the spring of 2010 and I want to get my grass-fed beef from him. But it’s a long time between the idea and the day that the particular cow that’s destined to fill up my freezer gets led to slaughter. Where am I supposed to get good grass-fed beef in the meantime? I used to feel like I could go to a local supermarket or to Whole Foods some 30 to 40 miles away and get a decent product for the interim. Now I’m not so sure. I’ve found a place that I can order grass-fed beef from. They’re in Arizona. Getting it shipped to me is decidedly un-“green,” and I’m reminded that the reason Michael Pollan visited Polyface Farms in the first place is because Joel Salatin refused to ship him a steak – the very concept of such a thing being against his principles. But then, my health and the health of my family is my first priority. And anyway, it’s an interim solution because I know where I can get it locally eventually. I just can’t get it locally any time in the near future. And seriously, a person can only eat so much pork.

It’s a dilemma indeed.

But every step, choice, every act in the direction of the goal counts, and I’m taking a number of steps these days, so for the moment I’m not going to beat myself up about ordering the meat. I acknowledge that it’s not the best of all possible choices. But it’s the best choice that I can dig up today.

In the end, making a move towards healthier, more sustainable eating is like making any other change. For one thing, it’s a process. It’s a series of small gestures that become something almost without one realizing it. I suspect that these small gestures matter, that the quality and composition of every mouthful that we ingest surely figures somehow into the final equations of our lives. Or maybe I have to believe this, because it seems like small gestures are all that I am able to reasonably make. I don’t know. But at the end of a day, or a week, or a month, or a year, one is either closer to one’s goals as a result of small efforts or not. The time is sure to pass, either way.