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Literary Tuesday

Soylent Green is Corn! The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by
Michael Pollan

When my parents came to visit in May, it was clear that my stepfather
had Gotten Religion. “You have to read The Omnivore’s
Dilemma,” he gushed. “It has completely changed the way I eat.”

I reluctantly promised, dreading what I might find inside its pages.
You see, I’d already completely changed the way I ate. Several times.
When I was twelve, I followed my best friend into vegetarianism,
promptly fell off the wagon, and rededicated myself a year later. At
twenty-two, just out of the hospital and feeling woozy, I began to eat
meat again. Over the next several years I dove into Atkins, lapsed
into South Beach, abandoned all hope (and gained twenty-five pounds)
with McDonalds and Burger King, de-toxed (and lost twenty-five pounds)
with Whole Foods, and eventually settled into a comfortable routine I
liked to call “Not Worrying About It.” So it was with some
trepidation that I began to read.

My anxiety was well-founded. Pollan’s book traces the history of four
meals, which he calls in turn Industrial, Organic Industrial,
Grass-Fed, and The Perfect Meal. In each section, he delicately
weaves together the story of the development of modern North American
gustatory culture with his personal adventures in consumption. The
resulting picture isn’t pretty.

We are, asserts a biologist quoted in the first chapter, “corn chips
with legs.” From soda (high fructose corn syrup) to hamburgers (cattle are corn
fed, which leads to all kinds of problems) to fresh cucumbers
(corn-derived wax), Zea Mays is everywhere. The most highly
subsidized crop in the United States, an industry invested in
producing cheap, well-preserved foods would be foolish not to
use it wherever possible. The result? Pollan’s Industrial Meal, from
McDonalds, is revealed by a mass spectrometer to be made mostly of
corn – in fact, the menu item which contains the least amount
of corn is the French fry, at 23%.

The rest of the book is no more heartening. To eat well, it turns
out, is both a complicated and an expensive proposition. Whole Foods,
that paragon of Health and Nature, is revealed to be a
less-than-perfect compromise between what is good for the individual
and what is good for the planet. While foods found there may not
contain pesticides, they may well have traveled over 500 miles via
fossil-fuel-guzzling, smoke-belching vehicles in order to rest,
deceptively pristine, in a rustic-looking crate.

Pollan devotes his longest single chapter to this phenomenon, which he
terms “Big Organic.” This chapter, in fact, was my only sticking
point in the book. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of
Four Meals
, would seem, from the table of contents, to contain
only three. Its subdivisions are: Industrial/Corn,
Pastoral/Grass, and Personal/The Forest. The Big
Organic chapter reads as if it had been written after the rest of the
book, when Pollan realized that the tense marriage between Organic and
Industry would not fit neatly into any of the three sections. Thus, it
has been squeezed into the second section. Nor does the culminating
description of the Organic Industrial meal rate its own chapter, as do
the other meals, but rather is only briefly described before an
agonized debate over the ethics of Big Organic, summed up with the pat
sentence, “Oh well, at least we didn’t eat it in the car.”*

After reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I have once again changed the
way I eat, though not completely. I still shop at Whole
Foods, though I make a more concerted effort to buy local produce and
meat whenever possible. I don’t eat less processed food, but then I
ate very little before reading the book. I have not eaten red meat,
nor will I again in the foreseeable future, unless I am certain that
it is grass-fed. The biggest boon I have received from this book is
my increased awareness of the route my dinner has taken to reach my
table, and for that I am grateful to Michael Pollan. My husband may
not share my gratitude, however, as he is heartily sick of my new
mantra: “Did you know there’s corn in that, too?”

*Lest I seem overly critical, the subject of this chapter is immense,
and truly requires its own book. I hope Pollan writes that book; I
look forward to reading it.

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