Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Omnivore's Dilemma delivers a frightening message

Books now read in ’07: 22
Title: The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Author: Michael Pollan
Genre: Non-Fiction
Date Completed: 3-15
Pages: 411

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is really two books. On one level there is author Michael Pollan’s interest in food and in cooking, and his comparison of three very different meals. On another more important level is Pollan’s exploration of the industrial food network in this nation and the refreshing alternatives that have sprung up as an answer to it. It is this book that brings to mind comparisons to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

The recent national scare around tainted dog food goes to the heart of Pollan’s fears about the industrial food network – we are only a degree or two removed from a massive and dangerous food crisis in this nation. We may fear men on airliners with box cutters or bombs in their shoes, but we would be better served to look askance at the food entering our homes daily.

The final section of this book, in which Pollan prepares a meal strictly from food he has hunted or foraged, can be quickly dispensed with. It is moderately interesting, but only serves to distract from the bigger picture. That picture is the industrial food network, which in this case ends with a McDonald’s meal eaten, appropriately enough, in the Pollan family car. This meal is contrasted with a dinner Pollan prepares made from food observing more natural, and humane, methods of growing and raising the cows, chickens and pigs that go into it.

One example will serve. Pollan visits a feedlot in western Kansas. I’ve been to one of these. I used to work in one. He isn’t allowed to tour a nearby processing plant, but I have. Tours aren’t given to the public because they will seriously put you off beef. Cows in the feedlot are fed massive amounts of corn. But cows are herbivores. They do not naturally eat grain. The corn is deadly to cattle. If they weren’t slaughtered, they would die from liver failure. To counteract the corn, the cattle are also fed massive amounts of antibiotics.

Why should we care? “For one thing, the health of these animals is inextricably linked to our own by that web of relationships,” Pollan writes. “The unnaturally rich diet of corn that undermines a steer’s health fattens his flesh in a way that undermines the health of the humans who eat it. The antibiotics these animals consume with their corn at this very moment are selecting, in their gut and wherever else in the environment they end up, for new strains of resistant bacteria that will someday infect us and withstand the drugs we depend on to treat that infection. We inhabit the same microbial ecosystem as the animals we eat, and whatever happens in it also happens to us.”

And that’s not to mention the impact of the industrial food network on the environment or our waistlines.

Ultimately, Pollan concludes that each of us is indeed what we eat. And that’s a scary thought.

Books now read in ’07: 23
Title: All Aunt Hagar’s Children
Author: Edward P. Jones
Genre: Short Stories
Date Completed: 3-19
Pages: 399

I didn’t like Edward P. Jones’ award-winning novel, The Known World. I found it flat, lacking in emotional resonance. I am now onboard the bandwagon. This a fine collection of uniformly superb short stories that take us into the lives of the black men and women who inhabit Washington, D.C. Jones knows this community intimately and his knowledge is reflected in the tender affection and stark clarity of these tales.

Here’s a wonderful line: “The white woman had her ideas about what black people did with their lives, especially on weekends, and just about everything they did in her mind could lead to blindness.” Or this: “The Devil himself was the color of an everyday brown paper bag.”

Jones’ skill in executing these stories is comparable to Alice Munro. His work here is that fine.

Books now read in ’07: 24
Title: Paper Trails
Author: Pete Dexter
Genre: Non-Fiction
Date Completed: 3-21
Pages: 289

Newspaper columns don’t tend to hold up; not from one day to the next, let alone from year to another. But somehow, perhaps because of the writing, perhaps because of his compassion, this collection of Pete Dexter’s columns – largely from the Philadelphia Daily News and Sacramento Bee – not only hold up, they warrant reading, again and again.

Dexter is the author of Deadwood, Paris Trout and Train. He has a knack for writing with poetic intensity about the lives of violent men in his novels. Here, in his newspaper columns, we see another side of Dexter – his humor, his compassion, his anger at injustice.

This collection isn’t for everyone. It was – it is – for me.

Books now read in ’07: 25
Title: Saul and Patsy
Author: Charles Baxter
Genre: Fiction
Date Completed: 3-23
Pages: 317

This 2003 novel by Charles Baxter is disappointing. There are too many compelling books on the shelves of the bookstores to bother with this one.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Biblio:

    First-time poster - my uncle is a friend of yours and told me I might like this blog. And I do.

    I have not read Omnivore's Dilemma yet, though I intend to. I have read Polian's NYT Magazine articles, however, as he developed the book. I,too, have toured beef-processing plants and even spent part of my youth making sausage.

    The NYT stuff actually curtailed my red meat consumption dramatically -- not for gross-out reasons, but because he also described the vast amount of oil needed to produce a calf that becomes a cow fit for slaughter, then to move the product to your table.

    But I confess my eating habits haven't entirely caught up to Polian's arguments.