One of my recent reads was The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a fascinating book written in the same spirit as Fast Food Nation that helps us examine how and what we eat.
The book is presented in three parts, where each part ends with a meal reflecting that section’s theme. In the first section, the author follows a bushel of corn from an Iowa cornfield to a meal at McDonald’s. In the second, he investigates “big organic,” culminating in a meal built around a “free-range” chicken from Petaluma named “Rosie,” then contrasts that with a real organic meal from a small grass-fed chicken farm managed in the true spirit of organic agriculture, recycling waste, maintaining the viability of the land, and keeping the livestock healthy and relatively happy. In the third and last section, he serves a meal composed of only those things he either killed, grew, or gathered himself. (It confused me greatly this evening that the book has only three big sections, but the subtitle is “A Natural History of Four Meals” — but then again, I read it a few weeks ago, and I eventually figured it out.)
I think the greatest lessons I brought home from this book are:
- Our agricultural economy is a government-subsidized economy of corn to a much greater extent than I was aware. It surprised me a few years ago when I visited my only Iowa farmer relative, Uncle Junior, that he said that the biggest consumer of corn was Coca Cola. According to this book, they switched from sugar to high fructose corn syrup when it was invented in 1980 (“Classic Coke” my ass…). If you take all this to heart and start looking around, it’s truly scary where corn actually shows up – the main ingredient in both Cheetos™ and Meow Mix™ is, yes, gosh you catch on quick, yes, it’s corn.
As an Iowa non-farm boy, I also grew up believing that corn-fed beef was the best beef money could buy, but it turns out that cows evolved to digest grass, so in order to fatten them up quickly on surplus corn in vastly overcrowded CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations), they have to keep them on antibiotics and nurse them along on hay whenever they get too sick to keep eating the corn. Not to mention the sewage problems.
- In order to call a chicken “organic free-range” there is a requirement that they don’t use cages, and there has to be a door in the enclosure that opens to the outside. Unfortunately, they pack the poor birds into Quonset huts as tightly as possible without cages, red contacts, and de-beaking, and that open door is only opened when they are five weeks old (to prevent infection), but they slaughter the chickens at seven weeks. It goes on…
- Wild is good and natural, but who has the time? This author guy, Michael Pollan, spends like, three or four weeks hunting mushrooms — hey, this blog guy’s got to eat. Meat. Now.
Bottom line is he has a meal he cooks himself of meat from a wild boar that he shot (turns out Northern California has them, let loose to forage by the Spanish settlers), cherries from a neighborhood tree, mushrooms from a fresh burn in the high Sierra pines, lettuce from his garden, etc.
I just had wild boar in his honor at a local restaurant in Lotus, CA a couple of weeks ago when The Lady Janet and I went out for our 14th anniversary, and it was interesting, but not that special, as opposed to say, rabbit, when it’s done so that it doesn’t just taste like chicken, free range or otherwise.
I am not a huge worrier about foodstuffs – I’ll pretty much stick anything in my face that tastes good. But if you want to worry about food, my advice is simple: try to eat as low on the food chain as possible and don’t eat anything unless you take the time to learn what it’s made of — see, it turns out that Soylent Green™ is actually corn! Co-o-rn! (Yes, thank you very much, Mr. Heston.)