Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver examine what's on our plates, and how it got there.
Michael Pollan has emerged as one of the most influential agrarian/botanical voices in the country. He writes for the New York Times magazine, teaches journalism at UC Berkeley, and is the author of three previous books, including the highly readable The Botany of Desire (plus his sister Tracy is married to Michael J. Fox, which makes him Marty McFly's brother-in-law). The dilemma of the title of Pollan's latest book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, is this: if you can eat everything, what should you eat?
The Omnivore's Dilemma is divided into three parts, each following a principal food chain: industrial, pastoral (encompassing both local and/or organic and a category Pollan calls "industrial organic," i.e. Whole Foods), and personal – a meal Pollan prepares from ingredients he hunted, gathered or grew himself.
All paths of the industrial food chain lead back to the monoculture of corn, a yield-first capitalist alliance of politics and agribusiness that sprung up after the conversion of ammonium nitrite from munitions to fertilizer after World War II. Huge quantities of subsidized corn are grown in America, and then force-fed to cattle in concentration camp settings called Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Cows are grass-eating herbivores, and feeding them corn often makes them sick, so they're given prophylactic doses of antibiotics, in addition to growth hormones. Then we eat the meat, and wonder why antibiotics are losing their efficacy and why fourth-graders are getting their periods.
The corn that isn't crammed down Bossy's throat is converted to any number of food additives, the most ubiquitous of which is high fructose corn syrup, aka Type II diabetes (which used to be called adult-onset diabetes, back when only adults got it, instead of obese, menstruating fourth-graders). Thus, the industrial meal from McDonald's the Pollan family gamely eats in the name of journalistic fortitude is shown by a mass spectrometer to be bursting with corn: Soda (100%), milk shake (78%), salad dressing (65%), chicken nuggets (56%), cheeseburger (52%) and French fries (23%). Just try reading the ingredient labels of food at the grocery – when did corn become an ingredient for ice cream? And if you think any of this is going to change any time soon, I have two words for you: Iowa caucus.
The most interesting section of the book is the "Pastoral" chain. Big organic growers essentially function as agribusinesses that just use a different type of fertilizer, and the sheer size of the farms uses up whatever goodwill is engendered by using manure when the fuel costs of trucking all that shit to the farm is tallied up. The soft-core marketing used at places like Whole Foods (or anyplace else that sells organic food from large producers) paints a picture of bucolic chickens and cows grazing in a pasture, but the reality is that the chickens are still in a coop (albeit one with a door that leads to a tiny patch of grass they seldom visit) and the cows are merely being fed organic corn.
We're given the chance to compare the cynicism of big organics versus the likes of the self-described "Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer" Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Virginia. According to Salatin, the only thing he grows is grass – on which he conducts a symbiotic samba of rotated grazing with cattle, chicken, turkeys, rabbits and pigs. Although they end up as food (Pollan even participates in slaughtering chickens), the animals get to live their lives with a measure of native happiness completely missing from industrial protein production. There is a striking passage in which Pollan describes watching the corkscrew tails of Salatin's pigs as they joyously assist in the aerobic decomposition of a pile of cow manure by rooting for fermented corn kernels, contrasted with the tail-docking performed with a pair of pliers and no anesthetic in CAFO hog production, because CAFO pigs are prematurely weaned and left with a craving to suck and chew that has no outlet other than the pig in front of them, a pig that's so depressed it allows its tail to be chewed to the point of infection, at which point it is clubbed to death on the spot, deemed too expensive for veterinary treatment.
Pollan is a dedicated researcher and interviewer, curious without being judgmental, and willing to personally take on some philosophically and physically gruesome tasks, like killing and dismembering food in a way that most 21st century carnivores are completely divorced from. He's gifted enough to see the big picture that emerges from the mosaic on our plates. I went to hear Michael Pollan speak at the Central Library in downtown LA last spring, when the book was first published, before it was named one of the ten best books of 2006 by the New York Times and the Washington Post and went on to win the James Beard Award for best food writing. Pollan inscribed "vote with your food" in my copy, which really brought it all home.
Bringing it home is exactly what Barbara Kingsolver and her family did a few years ago, packing up from Tucson, which she aptly describes as "a space station where human sustenance is concerned," and decamping to the lush southern Appalachia of Virginia. Known primarily as a writer of fiction, including the novels The Bean Trees and book club perennial The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver and her family decided to relocate, prompted by the desire to "live in a place that could feed us: where rain falls, crops grow, and drinking water bubbles right up out of the ground."
Kingsolver's new book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, is co-authored with her husband Steven L. Hopp (an enviro studies professor at Emory), and her daughter Camille, now a student at Duke University. Hopp provides sidebars about larger food and agriculture issues, and Camille offers recipes and seasonal meal menu planners. The youngest daughter, Lily, was in charge of the chickens (and her hands hold the Christmas lima beans on the book's cover).
The main narrative flows easily from Kingsolver; she grew up in Kentucky, and her ties to agrarian life have never been erased. The family settles in for a few months, then chooses to begin their year-long experiment in a way that makes the most sense to a farmer: to begin it not with a calendar marked January 1, but with the first appearance of asparagus in late March. For the next twelve months, as readers we are reintroduced to the notion of seasonal produce and eating what's best when it's best. What they don't grow, they pick up at the local farmers' market, living la vida locavore, as it were.
The Kingsolver-Hopp clan is wildly adept at things like canning and drying tomatoes and blanching vegetables for freezing. Frankly, it's exhausting to even think about doing these things, especially in the summer heat of tomato season (the 110-degree weather of Labor Day weekend immolated the last of my potted Sun Gold cherry tomato plants anyway). As tiring as it sounded to plant, weed, harvest and cook a year's worth of meals from scratch, it seemed like the good kind of tired to be – off the agribusiness grid and living off the fat of your own land. As an apartment-dweller, I felt jealous that I miss all the real potential of land. (Harnessing the energy of the sun with plants, and eating that energy has an empowering hum to it. The land-use of cities is unreal estate by comparison.) I never felt any martyr-vibe or sanctimony from Kingsolver about what they were doing, just active curiosity and some justified pride (especially when her turkeys actually hatch poults, a touch-and-go proposition since most commercially raised turkeys are artificially inseminated and lack many reproductive instincts).
These books make you hungry in ways that are both simple and complicated. Eating food grown by sustainable methods and by actual human beings can solve the simple part. The more complicated appetite is a desire to break free of the chains of the United States of Monoculture, a system with dangerously few, but ravenously profitable, providers and even fewer meaningful oversights, political or nutritional.