Opening sentence: “What should we have for dinner?”
Pollan, a journalist, wonders if he could trace the food we eat back to its source. He studies four meals: a McDonald’s take out (capable of eating with only one hand); a Whole Foods microwavable organic TV dinner (four words he never thought would be strung together) which represents industrial organic; a meal made from ingredients grown on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms, which touts itself as “beyond organic”; and finally a meal consisting of meat he hunted, mushrooms he foraged, and vegetables and fruit grown nearby.
In the opening chapters Pollan does a thorough job of explaining how we arrived to the point of massive farm subsidies and how corn is present in most of the fast foods sold. Pollan also investigates Industrial Organic and visits Earthbound Farm, which supplies Costco with organic food. In between the narrative of his travels, Pollan inserts background material and philosophical essays about the consequences individually and culturally of the food choices described.
When I got to the section about Joel Salatin and Polyface Farm (the famous disc 7) I bolted upright in my red Subaru. I’ve heard this before! A few friends have been discussing this kind of farming for years: growing cattle, chickens, pigs, rabbits, turkeys, rotating pastures and using all the animal byproducts efficiently. It all made sense and the Salatin family was portrayed as principled, winsome people.
Most entertaining for this city-girl who married into a hunting and gathering family in rural Oregon was Pollan’s tale of learning how to hunt and gather mushrooms so he could make a meal free of bar codes, totally from scratch. He is honest about both the exhilaration he feels after successfully shooting a feral pig, and the remorse he encounters later (remorse is not a factor with my hunters). He flirts with vegetarianism, debating the reasons why it is acceptable or non-acceptable to eat other animals. Pollan’s day of hunting morel mushrooms took me back to the day in May when we scored morels like nobody’s business. The picture he paints of putting a feast together singlehandedly is priceless: plans, schedules, interruptions, arrivals, and finally the food. He pronounces this meal that he’s prepared and shared with his hunting and gathering mentors “the perfect meal.” I hope you can relate to the satisfaction that comes from eating something you have had an active part in, i.e. a homegrown tomato.
Pollan doesn’t draw tight conclusions from his journey. His worldview won’t let him go where I’d like to see him go. However, he cannot avoid biblical motifs: the garden, the table, providence, feasting, communing, life from death, sacrificial giving. He writes about grace around the table, that the table is grace, but it is a truncated view of grace. Nevertheless his skill is making complex issues comprehensible is profound. He writes with clarity, honesty and beauty.
We would love to share a meal (elk backstrap, duck, bass or steelhead, sautéed veggies with basil, garden salad, homemade bread, fresh raspberries and strawberry rhubarb pie) with Michael Pollan and his family. Talk food, talk books, talk ideas. We are on opposite sides of the spectrum on many issues. But we enjoy exploring the differences, listening, understanding, exchanging. I think it would be delightful.
This is a book to share, to discuss, to thrash over, to ponder, to wonder, to evaluate, to think over for a long time.