Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Book Review: Omnivore's Dilemma

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
Click the jacket to head to Amazon.
I finished this book a week ago in a marathon session. It was on my "Sunday" (which is actually a Wednesday) and I just didn't have any energy at all. I spent the entire day lounging around my apartment reading this book.

This is one of those books that Really Gets You Thinking. Well, it got me thinking at any rate. I mean, it wasn't necessarily information I didn't already know, just information I didn't know a lot about. I will admit that I have been stewing on a lot of things that were presented. I still am.

The book is divided into three main sections: I: Industrial, Corn; II: Pastoral, Grass; and III: Personal, the Forest. In each section, he follows the food chain from conception to completion. In the case of corn, he "follows" the corn to multiple places, including a feedlot in Kansas and the fillers in your Twinkie. With the second part, he discusses the industrial organic industry and spends a week on a small farm whose animals (all of them) are purely grass-fed. In the final part, he literally hunts and gathers his own meal.

I found each of the three sections to be immensely informative. In the first, it was fascinating for me to learn about how corn came to be, and moreover how it came to be such a pervasive crop in the American heartland (and on the American table, whether you are actually serving corn or not). Some of the information I already knew - like how ruminates are being fed corn despite the fact that they can't digest it in order to fatten them up quicker for slaughter. Though it angered me, it didn't surprise me to learn of the role Big Government (funded and coerced by Big Business) had in the over-abundance of the crop and how the average farmer is playing a never ending game of Head-Above-Water while two or three companies get rich off the surplus.

The second section was similarly educational - for example, the chapter on Industrial Organics opened my eyes regarding some of the brands I normally buy in my grocery store. It was a little disheartening to realize that the brands I depend on (especially in the Vermont winter) aren't necessarily all that much better than their conventional counterparts. However, the chapters on the "beyond organic" farm where everything was in tune with nature and all of the animals were grass-fed and happy gave me hope. It was truly the idyll farming scenario. The one we all convince ourselves is happening when we buy that cheap, government subsidized steak in the megalomart.

In the final section, he literally hunts and gathers and entire meal himself. We follow him on a wild boar hunting excursion, an expedition to hunt for wild mushrooms, and his toiling in the kitchen to bring an entire meal together from things he "found". There was a brief section on vegetarianism here. He felt his experiment would not be complete unless he experienced this as well, which he did for a month. The short of it was he was not keen on a vegetarian diet. He spent most of the brief chapter presenting a philosophical debate regarding the merits of eating meat, especially the grass-fed variety.

The one thing this book really opened my eyes to is how very frustrating it can be to try and eat healthy - for you and the Earth - when it seems like every last part of our food chain is determined to undermine this desire. The lower you eat on the food chain the better, but few these days have easy access to local, pure foods. And let's face it, they can be expensive. And when the "organic" food is transported thousands of miles to get to you, how organic is it? All of the good you may have done by not using pesticides is negated by all the toxic fumes let loose from the transport method.

After finishing the book, I did a search on farms in Vermont that imitated that one I read about - grass fed, small, dedicated to making things better. I was heartened to find several within the state. In fact, you can do your own search here to find farmers in your area dedicated to a better product. In fact, I recently bought a small container of "grass-fed" plain yogurt to add to a curry recipe, and damned if I couldn't taste the difference.

I must admit at this point that while the chapter on vegetarianism was small and I believe he did not give it the time, effort or interest that he gave his other experiments, I found his arguments to be intriguing. I have spent many, many hours reading books on the benefits of vegetarianism and veganism for the health and well-being of ourselves and the environment, but this is the first example I've read of someone presenting well-thought out arguments to the contrary. While the section on corn solidified my desire to stay away from anything mass-produced, ever (alas, my precious Doritos), the section on grass-feeding really gave me pause and showed me how it could and should be done.

If you are into food generally speaking (be you omni or a veghead), I would highly recommend this book. The section on corn gets a little deep, but I feel that it is very informative and worth slogging through, if only to get to the other two sections. If you are a veghead, be forewarned that he is a meat-centric individual and the section on hunting may be too graphic if you are sensitive to the matter. Personally, I grew up with a father that hunted so I already knew the intricacies of it, but you may not want to subject yourself to that. In which case, I would offer that you could skip over that and head straight to the hunting of mushrooms.

In my unending quest to Become More Informed, sometimes I feel that I was better off not knowing. Because then I wouldn't feel so trapped by the decision I'm forced to make. Like, now I know better than to buy X, but I still want X. How can I still feed and support that system when I know what I know? Being a thinking person can be rough sometimes. But this thinking person got a lot out of this book. It wasn't preachy, but it was informative and engaging. If you are a thinking person who likes to think about food too, you should read this book. Hell, if you never think about food you should really read this book.

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