A Natural History of Four Meals
by Michael Pollan
Find it on Bookshop
Michael Pollan, a skilled food journalist, explores firsthand the complexity of human decisionmaking regarding food. The omnivore’s dilemma is exactly this: with so much food available, how do you choose what to eat?
Should you be a vegetarian? Should you buy only organic food? What if you don’t know if a food will sicken you? The answers to these questions are much more complex than you probably think. When choosing food, there are many considerations to be made: sourcing, treatment before harvest, protection and processing after harvest, pricing, and much more. These decisions can have a large effect on your climate impact as well.
Some philosophers have argued that the very open-endedness of human appetite is responsible for both our savagery and civility, since a creature that could conceive of eating anything (including, notably, other humans) stands in particular need of ethical rules, manners, and rituals.
Ubiquity of Corn in our Food
Corn is everywhere. It comes in many forms: full ears, popcorn, high fructose corn syrup, animal feed, and much more. Pollan investigates corn’s complicated history with humanity, and relates our fascinating and evolvingrelationship. Corn became so ubiquitous because of high-yield years, when farmers supplied much more than Americans could eat. Companies had to find new ways to use corn to support the farmers and protect them from the unfortunate economic principles working against them in this situation. Corn became a commodity. This deeply rooted the plant as a base of many of our food products. Many of these food products are designed to make a person consume more calories than they otherwise would. There is a reason that livestock are fed mostly corn— it is cheap and fattens them quickly. It works that way on humans too.
There are some forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn.
Food Farming and Meat Production
Pollan’s descriptions of what goes on in farming practices really make you think about the history of the food on your plate. For instance, he tells us that workers harvesting lettuce often injure their fingers and have to wear special band-aids. The bandages are blue so that a worker can see them easily if they end up in the harvest. They also contain a metal filament so that a metal detector can find it before it ends up in someone’s salad.
Eating industrial meat takes an almost heroic act of not knowing or, now, forgetting.
When choosing milk in the supermarket, you could make a completely different decision depending on what you value on the label. Is an “organic” gallon the best choice? Or do you need to know that the cows had plenty of space and social opportunities? Or that they grazed only in green pastures? Which has the lowest climate impact? It is difficult for the average person to know what is right for them. The marketing of each product ends up having a huge influence on the consumer’s eventual decision.
Food as Regeneration
Pollan spends some quality time on the basic principles of regenerative farming. This is when a single farm raises livestock, chickens, and crops in concert such that the entire ecosystem is sustainable. These methods build up the soil quality rather than breaking it down, as happens in industrial farming. The animals are much happier and healthier than they would be in our current agricultural methods. This translates into higher quality food, and a lower climate impact. From an ecological perspective, regenerative farming makes a lot of sense. It made me wonder why we would ever farm any other way, and convinced me to look harder for local food grown with care.
To measure the efficiency of such a complex system you need to count not only all the products it produces (meat, chicken, eggs) but also all the costs it eliminates: antibiotics, wormers, paraciticides, and fertilizers. Polyface Farm is built on the efficiencies that come from mimicking relationships found in nature and layering one farm enterprise over another on the same base of land. In effect, Joel is farming in time as well as in space—in four dimensions rather than three.
Local Food- A Full Meal
The final section of the book describes Pollan’s efforts to have the most natural consumption experience possible with the three edible kingdoms: plants, animals, and fungi. His task was to obtain each from the wild, prepare, and consume them.
So though a hunter-gatherer food chain still exists here and there to one degree or another, it seems to me its chief value for us at this point is not so much economic or practical as it is didactic.
Pollan takes us along as he hunts a wild pig and chantarelles (mushrooms; yes, the word “hunt” is the proper one). Along the way, we meet the knowledgable companions who guided him, and in some cases do much of the work. The journey culminates in a singlehandedly home-prepared meal, with all his teachers in attendance. It is a poetic ending, in which every person is connected to the food and to each other.
Isn’t it curious how in so many of our pastimes and hobbies we play at supplying one or another of our fundamental creaturely needs—for food, shelter, even clothing? So some people knit, others build things or chop wood, and a great many of us “work” at feeding ourselves—by gardening or hunting, fishing or foraging. An economy organized around a complex division of labor can usually get these jobs done for a fraction of the cost, in time or money, that it takes us to do them ourselves, yet something in us apparently seeks confirmation that we still have the skills needed to provide for ourselves. You know, just in case.
Some key points to take home:
- Corn is everywhere, and that’s not a good thing
- Look for local food, preferably produced with regenerative farming practices
- Learning to hunt and gather can be a valuable educational experience
Writing this book was clearly a transformative experience for Pollan. Reading it was one for me as well. I hope you read this book, and reconsider your personal choices when it comes to the food you eat.
Want to read more? Find The Omnivore’s Dilemma here: Bookshop
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You might also like my notes on:
Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb