One of our New Year’s resolutions was to eat healthier. We’ve made this resolution before, with mixed results. This year we made the resolution less from a vague desire for general self-improvement and more because of a writer named Michael Pollan. His book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, made both of us drastically rethink our diets. If ignorance is bliss, Pollan is a buzzkill.
Ben, who works in a retail establishment which sells books, has always been conflicted about The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The book intrigued him, but the customers who asked about it did not. They were evangelistic about the book. They would grab Ben’s arm and insist he read it. They were generally what one might stereotype as “crunchy” or “granola” (or “crunchy granola“). They spoke of produce the way people usually speak of rapturous sexual experiences. ( “The fresh squash I ate last night was nothing short of orgasmic.” Or, “You would not believe the tomatoes I just grew in my garden. I want to make love to them.”) Ben wanted nothing to do with them. Also, the words “raw food” scare him. We’re perfectly comfortable with our packaged food, thank you very much!
If you’re brave enough to crack open The Omnivore’s Dilemma, however, chances are good that you’ll change your mind about not just packaged food, but also corn, meat, Chicken McNuggets, organic food, the FDA, food labels, mushrooms, hunting and gathering and, last but not least, your local supermarket.
About that Chicken McNugget: Do you know how many ingredients are in one? Thirty-eight. Chicken is one of them. But, as Pollan writes,
To go from the chicken (Gallus gallus) to the Chicken McNugget is to leave this world in a journey of forgetting that could hardly be more costly, not only in terms of the animal’s pain but in our pleasure, too. But forgetting, or not knowing in the first place, is what the industrial food chain is all about, the principal reason it is so opaque, for if we could see what lies on the far side of the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture, we would surely change the way we eat.
Pollan devotes himself to scaling those high walls. He goes to CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and slaughterhouses. He visits a Wendell Berry-like farmer in Virginia named Joel Salatin, who invites Pollan to slaughter chickens in the killing cones on Salatin’s land, Polyface Farms. ( “It seemed to me not too much to ask of a meat eater, which I was then and still am,” Pollan writes, “that at least once in his life he take some direct responsibility for the killing on which his meat-eating depends.”) And he spends the final third of the book learning to hunt and gather. He forages for mushrooms, shoots a wild pig and collects Bing cherries from a neighbor’s tree (which he feels no guilt about once he learns about usufruct).
Among the many things Pollan shows us along the way, several stood out:
- The word “organic” doesn’t inherently mean “better.”
- The words “free range” shouldn’t bring to mind rolling, verdant fields stretching to the horizon.
- Mad cow disease was the result of cattle being fed other cattle. We conveniently forgot and/or never learned that. (Who wouldn’t go a little mad eating your own species?)
- Americans eat one-fifth of our meals in the car.
- Farmers are fond of the saying, “There’s money to be made in food, unless you’re trying to grow it.”
- Food industry marketers are mostly evil.
- We will never, ever gut a pig.
Pollan’s follow-up to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, attempts to condense all of this wisdom into practical dietary advice. Pollan is so good at condensation he boils it down to seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” This seems disarmingly simple, but as 2009 has already taught is, simple is not easy. Take the first two words: “Eat food.” Well, we all eat food, right? Except how much of what we usually eat is actually food? What about microwave meals? Canned soups? Pop Tarts? They’re all … kind of food. But have you looked at the label? How many of those ingredients can you actually identify?
Pollan observes how these heavily processed foods are all located in the middle of the supermarket, whereas things that actually look like food — vegetables, fruit, fish, dairy — are on the periphery. So we’ve been shopping the periphery more lately, making a delicious roasted vegetable salad two, maybe three times a week, feeling pretty good about our diet until Pollan tells us that a more “radical” strategy would be to not buy food at a supermarket period, but rather at Findlay Market or directly from a farmer. Of course, the most radical strategy of all would be growing our own garden. (Just not in January.)
Erin, who has twice now been a vegetarian (her longest stint stretching from the end of college in 2002 until May of 2004 when she went to Italy and had prosciutto for the first time), has always felt a tugging at her conscience about the mistreatment and killing of animals. It wasn’t until she read The Omnivore’s Dilemma that she finally felt okay about eating animals so long as they were treated well, fed well, and killed well (i.e., with the utmost respect and reverence for the provision their lives offer). Salatin claims (and his customers testify) that his animals, which are allowed to roam freely in green fields munching on various grasses and acting like animals are meant to act instead of cooped up in an overcrowded cage, actually taste fresher and better. That means a more chickeny chicken, a beefier steak, and richer yolks for your morning eggs. Salatin and Pollan actually seem to make the case for the eating of animals to promote the cycle of life — so long as they’re the right animals coming from the right places. After Pollan, Erin is now ready to find a farm from which to buy eggs and chicken (and perhaps the occasional pork tenderloin).
As we tiptoe into food radicalism, Eat This Not That: The Supermarket Survival Guide has the virtue of meeting us where we’re at. Given that Kroger and Biggs are still our major food suppliers, we’re trying to make smarter choices about what we buy there. ETNT offers, in colorful, simplified fashion, a comparison of the good and bad (or bad and better) options in the supermarket aisles. Ben will never give up his beloved cereal. But he might give up Basic 4 now that he knows it includes partially hydrogenated oils and “a huge helping of sugar” (13 grams). The better, if more cardboard-tasting option would be Fiber One Raisin Bran Clusters, with the same amount of sugar to appease Ben’s sweet tooth but less calories and fat and three times the fiber.
We’re not sure what Michael Pollan would make of ETNT (we suspect he’d approve), but we recognize that changing your diet, like changing any habit, will be incremental. Instead of going straight from A to Z by forsaking microwave pizza for arugula, it’s more realistic to go from A to B, then B to C, until you’ve gone so far that you can’t fathom your old philistine diet but can also envision a new and increasingly healthier one.
Pollan concedes that eating healthier will cost more. But what have we sacrificed for cheap food? Our long-term health. Our connectedness to the earth. Our sense of community. (How many of us still sit down at a dinner table with friends and family anymore?) What have we lost by having the choice to pay 99 cents for a slab of beef at McDonalds (though slab implies something hearty and substantial)? “Eating industrial meat takes an almost heroic act of not knowing or, now, forgetting,” Pollan says. Our food culture, he suggests, has become heroic at not knowing.
There are many who are far ahead of us on the path away from industrialized food (what Pollan broadly calls “the Western diet”), and we recognize that we’ll never get away completely. But we’re at least at letter B, if not even C or possibly D. We think we eat healthier that the average person, but who doesn’t think that? Have we become one of “those” people Ben used to be leery of, given to waxing rhapsodically about tofu and sprouts? We’re not going to grab you by the arm, but if you, like us, are trying to eat more real actual food, we recommend (enthusiastically!) The Omnivore’s Dilemma as a great starting point.