I canâ€™t believe it happened to me. I never thought it would, my ego integrity being such that I thought I would never become so completely a different person. But it did happen. In the span of a few seconds I uttered words that were so alien, so not me it could have been stated by a complete stranger. I was not being ironic or funny. I didnâ€™t even realize what I said until I was finished saying it and then for a fleeting few moments I couldnâ€™t be sure it was really me thinking and saying this phrase, â€œFor Gods sake, this is a health food store, why are they selling soda? And for that matter, what the hell is organic soda?â€
As my wife pulled away from the end rack of said offending soda I suddenly had the most jolting moment of clarity in the middle of our local Natureâ€™s Harvest health food store. Despite every effort to the contrary, my wifeâ€™s newfound allergy to wheat plus our collective endeavor to lose weight and eat better had turned me into one of those obnoxious foodie types that turn up their nose to anything found at your local supermarket. Folks, this is not me. A scant year ago three square meals consisted of a cereal bar (Cocoa Puffs or Cheerios) for breakfast, Tyson breaded chicken patties for lunch, and a plentiful serving of Taco Bell for dinner.
My indulgence of Taco Bell was legendary going all the back to high school. In fact, I lunched their so often that when I went away to college in Pittsburgh for a semester, it was rumored that the local Taco Bell I frequented went out of business because I was not their to support any longer.
So how does one go from such a complete junk food junkie to obnoxious health conscious foodie so darn quickly? The answer lies in â€œBotany of Desireâ€ author and journalist for the New York Times Magazine Michael Pollanâ€™s newest masterpiece, â€œThe Omnivoreâ€™s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.â€ In this book Pollan takes great pains to show his readers how the average American meal develops and evolves from the farm to our plate. Many books these days concentrate solely on fast food and how horrible it is for you but Pollan not only tackles that well worn material, he goes above and beyond in displaying the entire military-industrial food chain that supplies every mainstream food outlet from Wal-Mart to the local bodega, from any major Supermarket to most American eateries.
When I bought this book I figured Iâ€™d be taught many things about Mad Cow Disease, pesticides and growth hormones, concentration camp-like conditions for farm animals, and most probably Franken-foods (genetically modified or cloned). Thatâ€™s all in there but it is under the most odd of headings; corn.
According to Pollan corn is THE building block of the entire non-organic, non-foraged, food chain. Thatâ€™s right, I said corn. I realize that at first glance, aside from barbeques and vegetable medleyâ€™s, one does not see corn so completely spread far and wide as Pollan insists it is. But that is what makes his book so incredible and such a pleasurable read. Pollan visits one of the biggest agribusiness farms in America and asks all of the right questions.
What we find is not only the history of how corn dominated human society by domesticating us (rather than the assumed belief that we domesticated corn) we follow Pollan on the path of corn as it finds its way into nearly every available food on the market in stores and restaurants. From the object itself, to meals fed to animals we eat (like chicken and beef), to byproducts such as high fructose corn syrup (which I swear is in nearly everything but the air we breathe) to even the heart of food policy as written by our Congress and paid for with taxpayer dollars. By the end of this section that was entirely dedicated to corn and its nightmare offspring, the quite literally named military-industrial food chain, I found myself wandering the eateries and shopping centers of Tampa crying out that everywhere lurked dreadful and unhealthy corn a la Charlton Heston of Soylent Green fame. Morgan Spurlock already had me yelling at every McDonalds that it was â€œEvil!â€ like I was a poor mans Abe â€œGrandpaâ€ Simpson, so Pollans empire of corn revelation only made my food induced hysteria oh so much worse.
Incidentally, between the aforementioned wifeâ€™s allergy and subsequent discovery that even hot dogs and hamburgers had wheat in them combined with my reading of Pollanâ€™s book and his description of corn, our car rides are peppered with the both of us screaming out of the car windows at every opportunity in banshee song, â€œWheatâ€¦cornâ€¦wheatâ€¦corn, everywhere is wheat and cornâ€¦oh woe is us, woe-is-us!â€
But Pollan does do what most anti-agribusiness people do. He doesnâ€™t rest easy on the lazy thinking that we should all blindly start shopping at organic food stores like Whole Foods Market without asking equally intrusive and instructive questions. Pollan tackles the organic food industry with as much veracity and gusto as he did with the industrial food chain. In the section simply titled, grass, we learn more about the natural order of food ecology and just how far weâ€™ve drifted from what is the natural order of eating and raising food. He also teaches the difference between organic, USDA approved organic and the even healthier but lofty local food chain. By the end of this chapter Pollan had me searching the aforementioned Natureâ€™s Harvest for foods and condiments that were produced in Tampa, FL (where I live) because now even organic wasnâ€™t good enough for me. About this time a good friend called me and when I told him of my dilemma he suggested I start working a second job to pay for my new food obsession or seek an intervention.
The last chapter, the forest, is about hunting and gathering ones own dinner. Pollan manages to write a beautiful and intelligent piece about the way we eat in modern times without the trappings of hoity, elitist language and attitude present in most writings about food and health. However, though in the end the chapter is saved by Pollans humbleness and genuine intellectual curiosity about the subject of hunting and gathering, boy does this final part of the book skate close to the edge of unrealistic. Thankfully, Pollan acknowledges that we are not about to as a society start to reverse evolution and drop agriculture in favor of returning to hunting and gathering. He only goes through with this experiment for the purposes of illustration not as a viable alternative to eating corn meals and faux organic products. His message is simply know what you are eating, make smart decisions and moderate your impulses.
â€œThe Omnivoreâ€™s Dilemma,â€ by Michael Pollan is a wonderful book. It has achieved the much-vaunted (if I do say so myself) position of one the few books I insist that everyone should read. Other books in this category include the Pulitzer Prize winning epic by Jared Diamond, â€œGuns, Germs and Steel.â€ For anyone with a serious interest in the modern food chain or simply eating healthier, you should definitely read, â€œThe Omnivoreâ€™s Dilemma,â€ by Michael Pollan. I promise it wonâ€™t make you nearly as nuts as it made me, Iâ€™m just a bit overdramatic and obsessive is all.