Thursday, November 19, 2009

Tarek's Take on The Omnivore's Dilemma

On occasion, or perhaps more often than that, I throw out reading suggestions to random people that I may or may not know very well. I have a mainstay list of must-reads that I surreptitiously slip into conversation:

'Oh you want to go to the San Fransisco zoo someday eh? That's cool, San Fran is an awesome city! You know, if you enjoy zoos, I'm sure you'd enjoy the book Ishmael. The main character is a gorilla.'

I obviously choose not to mention that the gorilla, Ishmael, communicates through telepathy with the protagonist of the novel, a young male writer who volunteers to be the gorilla's student as he searches for answers about how the world came to be as it is, and what the future might hold.

Right. Well, in any case, as of late most of my book recommendations tend to be food related and typically the first book I recommend to people on the subject is Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. There are many excellent exposes of the food industry in America out on bookshelves, but Pollan's approach offers multiple perspectives from which to view one's dinner - he basically explores four paths by which food reaches the dinner table: industrial (dominant), organic, local or closed-system agriculture, and personal (i.e. hunting/foraging). There are other books I enthusiastically recommend as well, but Pollan is a captive storyteller who has done his research, both secondary and primary, with respect to America's food systems, and The Omnivore's offers an appetizing point of entry into discovering more about how the food that ends up on your dinner plate, got to be there.

All of this is to say that back in October, over post-marathon drinks at Hunter's Ale House in Charlottetown, I *may* have suggested to newly minted friend, Tarek, that he check out both of Pollan's books. Now, I don't ALWAYS throw books suggestions at new people I'm just getting to know - first I suss them out to see if they'll be amenable to reading suggestions. I do this very subtely by saying 'Do you read?' If they indicate that they read (and don't mention 'Playboy' in their response), then I see them as fair game.

But to be honest, I never really expect anyone to take me up. Quite frankly I am always shocked when I learn that people have listened to any sort of advice or suggestions I dole out. And so it was that I found myself mildly shocked when Tarek told me that he'd actually made the effort to visit the library and pick up The Omnivore's Dilemma. I was even more surprised (pleasantly) when he began reading it and asking me questions. Woohoo - someone to have food conversations with and (possibly?) a convert! The shock of all shocks came when I discovered that Tarek had followed through with his promise to write a 'not a book report', which I happily promised to post to my blog. So, for the second time in as many months, let me warmly welcome guest blogger, Tarek Clamp.


This is not a book report. This is not a book review. This IS what I took from Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book that was highly, and repeatedly, recommended during the marathon weekend in PEI. A day after coming from home Charlottetown, my stiff legs walked my aching body into the library. I picked up the book and it has kept me company on the bus ride to & from work.

If we are what we eat, chances are we’re probably corn. That was the message I got after Pollan follows the life of a kernel from a farm to how it gets put into a Big Mac, Coca-Cola, a Swanson’s TV dinner, spaghetti sauce off the grocery store shelf, or almost anything you can think, even the Sausage McMuffin I enjoyed a few mornings a week while booting up my computer at work.

How does corn get into this food? Let’s see. Corn is used as feed for the cattle (7lbs of corn turns into a ½ lbs of edible meat). Corn is used to make a sweetener, HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup), the bun, the burger, ketchup, Coca-Coke. Fermented corn is used to make citric acid (in the Spaghetti sauce).

At no point does Pollan’s book ever turn me off from eating what I enjoy, whether it is my Sausage McMuffin, ground beef, that more than likely came from a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO, i.e. factory farm), or food from a restaurant. I am more consciously aware of what is very likely in the food I buy but he doesn’t try to gross me out or make me feel guilty about liking it. I began to catch myself looking at the labels to see if there really was corn in the food I buy. Now I know there is a very good chance that there is corn in it and, more importantly, I understand why.

Thanks to Pollan I now want to work on a farm. He romanticized the idea of working on a farm, and I have considered and continue to consider, quitting my office job. I know there’s no money in growing food, but rather, only in ‘adding value i.e. processing food. I’ve looked at internships on Joel Salatin’s farm, Polyface, and there’s a chance I could be there in 2011. I tried to convince my friend Shannon to run a farm with me... or work on a farm with me. It’s probably a good thing that she didn’t say “YES, I FOUND US A PLACE TO WORK” because I don’t know if I’d be ready to go. I’m sure I could kill a chicken. I actually wanted to help butcher the chicken my roommate received for Christmas when I was in Ghana but sadly our watchman got to it before I got home. He (the chicken) did make a good dinner.

Sure, I could do it for a week, a few months, maybe even a year, but at some point I’ll want to travel and then who is going to do my job? If I can’t work on a farm, then I want to buy my food from a place like Polyface Farm. And wouldn’t you know I just moved into a new apartment above a store that supports local agriculture. Soon my brother and I will be getting 25lbs of grass fed beef and each week a box of veggies from a local farm! I can’t wait!

I question how Salatin would kill his cows if he was allowed and how he would, or could he, be more ethical than the commercial butchers, who accept a 5% error ratio. Errors being a cow still alive after a 5” “nail” being shot into the head.

Finally Pollan decides to be hunter/gatherer, not my favourite part of the book. He learns how to hunt mushrooms and wild boar. With a lot of help he manages to make a complete meal from food he foraged, something he knows is not an option for the majority of people. Even he can’t do it, except on special occasions. He philosophizes on the ethics of hunting animals, something I have absolutely no issues with, not that I’ve done it but I would. I grew up in rural area, people hunt. They enjoy it, and if they don’t get anything, they still enjoy it. If they do get a deer, they have meat for a while! I don’t know of anyone who hunts for sport, and that, I would probably have a problem with.

So what did I get from this book? That if you want to be healthy, staying as close to source of your food is the answer. Make your meals from scratch so you know what is in your food. Try to buy locally produced items (veggies, fruit, meat, bread) and get to know where your food comes from. The more you know, the better off you are. Money that stays in the community is better for the community. Not because of this book, I’ve been doing this for a few months now already, but I’ve been buying some of my meat and most of my veggies from local farms (local to me is about 100km away) who set up shop at the Saturday market in Halifax.

And that’s it. For now.

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