If you are a human being that eats food, this book is for you.
I read this book last spring during my final semester of college. I needed to know there was at least one book on my desk that wasn’t to for exams and this was an excellent choice. Subtitling the book “The Natural History of Four Meals”, author Michael Pollan takes his audience on a journey through four different ways that human beings have acquires food throughout their history: industrial, industrial organic, local organic, and hunting and gathering. He and his family start at the great institution that is McDonald’s and explores the terror of a meat processing facility (carnivores, you were warned), move their way to the deceptive shelves of Whole Foods, down next to the innovative Poly Face Farm in Virginia, and conclude with a meal that was mostly grown, hunted and gathered by Pollan himself.
Pollan says that America’s “national eating disorders” stems greatly from our disconnect to where our food comes from. People think that chicken is always chicken, and veggies are always fresh, and that once in a while a Big Mac and large Coke is okay, and sometimes this is true. But what we people don’t realize is how these items came to our tables. Sure, that chicken on your plate was once a chicken in an egg, but how many Americans could accurately tell you how it lived, how it died, and how it came to be their dinner?
Most people see this as trivial, and don’t want to be “burdened” with the time it takes to learn this or get involved with food politics or doubling their grocery bill by shopping at Whole Foods, passing it off some hippy nonsense. But the greater burden indeed is in not knowing the harm we are doing to our environment and our bodies by being ignorant of this process.
So maybe you don’t care for the environment or recycling, or don’t believe that non-organic food stuffed with pesticides can actually harm you…and that’s fine, says Pollan. But the real danger is unsustainable food practices it that is jeopardizes the food supply of this country: if we continue to product food this way NOW, we will not have food LATER. And that’s something by which everyone should be burdened.
I love this philosophy of this book. Pollan asserts that “Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds.” If we view food as as a simple transaction of paying your money and eating, and ignore all the preliminary details (growing the vegetables, raising the animals, preparing it safely), then we view our lives and our world as disposable, fleeting, and ultimately meaningless. If, on the other hand, you view your food and more than just gas in the tank and appreciate the effort it take to bring its strength and nourishment to your lips, then you will learn to appreciate deeper the complexity of your life as well.
Almost a year later, as I begin to grow my own vegetables for the first time and understand this book more personally, I find my self compelled to share this wealth of knowledge to anyone who will listen. Without a doubt, it requires work to change our food, an area of life that most people do not want to risk losing. But as Pollan explains in this book, the real risk is in not changing that will cause us to lose our way of life.
If these ideas are of interest to you I encourage you to pick up this book, but also these similar books that I’ve enjoyed and or want to read, some also by Michael Pollan but some also by others. Pollan also has a new book Cooked being released soon. As always, your suggestions on similar books are welcome!
1. The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan
2. Food, Inc., by Karl Weber (also a 2008 documentary)
3. Better Off, by Eric Brende</em
4. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver
5. Edible Schoolyard, by Alice Waters