by Michael Pollan (Penguin, 2006)
Reading the first part of this book (“Corn”) makes me thankful that I have been a semi-vegetarian (lacto/ovo/occasional seafood) for over 30 years. Pollan’s premise is interesting: to try to answer the question “What should I have for dinner?” He soon refines that to “What am I actually eating?” and “Where does it come from?” The answer is not pretty. (In fact, it’s quite off-putting.) Pollan writes, “‘You are what you eat’ is a truism hard to argue with, and yet it is, as a visit to a feedlot suggests, incomplete, for you are what what you eat eats, too.” (p. 84)
The second section of the book (“Grass”) is about the organic food industry (yes, you read that correctly). It confirms what I suspected about organic food available in my local Whole Foods: it is sometimes not quite what we think it is. But the most interesting aspect of this middle part is the description of how Virginia “grass farmer” Joel Salatin raises cattle, hogs, rabbits, chickens, and turkeys in a self-sufficient and sustainable way. By rotating his cattle through different pastures and following the cattle with chickens that “sanitize” and fertilize the pasture, Salatin uses his animals to “do most of the work” on the farm. The animals keep the grass healthy, and the grass in turn feeds the animals, which then feed the humans. This is farming as it should be.
The final section of the book (“The Forest”) considers hunting and gathering. I agree with Pollan as to the ethics of meat-eating (basically okay as long as we can really accept the fact that what we are eating is the dead body of a once living, breathing animal), and I respect his decision to hunt and kill a wild pig in California; if you want to eat animals, I believe you should be able to kill them and clean them. (I choose not to do these things, but that is my choice, which Pollan in turn respects.) I appreciated the honesty with which Pollan describes his ambivalence about the hunt. I also learned a lot from the chapter on mushrooms.
Each section of the book culminates in a description of the meal consumed with the foods described in that section: a fast-food meal eaten in a car for “Corn”, a dinner centering around Joel Salatin’s chickens and eggs for “Grass,” and a meal consisting almost entirely of foods hunted, foraged, or grown by the author and his foraging friends for “The Forest”.
Did you know that the air around us is full of yeast spores, which we can collect by setting out a paste of flour and water and then make superb bread? I didn’t either. This is just one example of the many fascinating facts I learned from reading this extraordinary book. Moreover, the prose is elegant and funny. I finished the book in about a week and was kind of sorry it was over.
The book connects with several others I have read over the past few years: My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki; Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and family; Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser.