What should we have for dinner?
That simple question has driven author Michael Pollan to seek out the origins of that most basic of human needs: food. He follows several types of meals that the average person eats today, including industrial (fast food), organic, and hunted/gathered food.
Pollan begins his journey by investigating the industrial food system, from which most Americans obtain their food. He makes the realization that nearly every product he tracks, the most basic of elements is corn (more on that here: https://scienceguy288.wordpress.com/2009/10/25/a-strange-system-food-too-corny/). Pollan gives political, scientific, and cultural reasons why this plant has come to dominate our agricultural system. He also delves into issues like the use of oil in fertilizing and transporting food (more here: https://scienceguy288.wordpress.com/2009/11/08/a-strange-system-food-hard-travelin-blues/).
To study organic farming, Pollan details the history of the organic food in America. He points out that while it may be better than industrial food for our health and the environment, it has become a business and lost sight of its original goals, making it a popular choice for the rich and well-off, but an impossible option for most people. Second, Pollan visits Joel Salatin’s small scale organic farm. Salatin uses nearly no external imputs, including chemical fertilizer, or pesticides. Instead, he uses the complex interactions between individual agents on a farm to create a sustainable farming system. This allows all “waste” to be reused. Farmers like these produced locally almost exclusively.
Finally, Pollan goes on a journey to create his own meal from scratch, using only animals and plants he himself has hunted and gathered. He gives a wonderful narrative of his hunt for wild pigs, search for edible wild mushrooms, and gathering greens. Pollan concludes that although this meal is not altogether practical, it certainly does better connect us to our land base and should be tried occasionally. He leaves other conclusions up to the reader, so as to allow them to make their own eating choices based on the evidence he has gathered.
Pollan’s book is a wonderful blend of investigative journalism, science, and philosophy. If nothing else, he gives deeper meanings to the questions, “What should we have for dinner,” and “If we are what are we eat, what are we?” My only criticism is that his writing is, in my mind, a bit drawn out. I would also have preferred to have some more scientific evidence interspersed with his writing. But, I may just be a bit tired of reading on the topic as I have also read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.