Michael Pollan redeems himself

You probably wouldn’t know it from reading our blog, but Michael Pollan’s 2006 best-seller The Omnivore’s Dilemma kind of ticked me off. Why? Pollan’s previous works, including The Botany of Desire and Second Nature rank in my favorite 50 books of all time (I read a lot so that’s a pretty high ranking). I have enjoyed his nature-based essays for many years. Pollan has a rare appreciation for the small details in our environment that (though we may not be aware of it) rule our lives as humans. And he writes about them really, really well.

So, why my negative reaction to Omnivore? I felt like it was a book written primarily to be a book. That is, I thought that Pollan’s desire for a rhetorically useful structure (and furthermore rhetorically useful examples) ruled the book itself — as opposed to the content ruling the structure. This is probably a criticism made possible because I have a degree in writing, I’m sure (graduate school gives the language to talk about ‘rhetorical structures’), but the emotion comes from being a farmer who is very concerned about our food culture in America.

To put this in laymen’s terms: I think Pollan had a real opportunity to make significant points about food and subsequently missed the mark. The book was a tome. It was enormous and full of good writing that was highly self-indulgent and weighed down the book with excess baggage so that I doubt anyone not already literarily-inclined could ever make it through to the admittedly beautiful end paragraph. Myself a committed reader and Pollan fan had to slog through some scenes, including the embarrassing coming-of-masculine-age-style account of Pollan’s boar hunt (I’m sorry, but give me a break).

As a small-scale organic farmer, I was also disturbed by the inclusion of only two farms: Earthbound (portrayed as Goliath) and Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm (playing David of course). The over-simplified binary here quite honestly pissed me off, because 1. Earthbound is a certified organic farm that has stepped up to the challenge of providing fresh organic food to consumers in places where organic farms haven’t yet started or where farming is not viable (cities, certain parts of the country). They’re not perfect, but … 2. Neither is Joel Salatin. In fact, Salatin is more and more gaining a reputation among small farmers as being a notorious ‘talker.’ His books tend to dangerously over-simplify livestock production and his claims about his own farm seem over-inflated when you realize that he compromises too (for example, as Pollan points out, Salatin buys corn sprayed with atrazine, a substance prohibited by organic standards and decried by Pollan elsewhere in Omnivore). In Pollan’s comparisons of the two farms, I kept asking two questions: ‘Where are all the other farmers?’ and ‘But isn’t most of America’s food coming from outside the organic system still anyway?’ (Plus, Pollan bought in wholesale to Salatin’s ‘beyond organic’ claims, which is a loaded term within alternative ag right now as certified and non-certified farmers are starting to feel tension and figure out how we all plan to get along even when we make different choices. Using the phrase casually and without analysis was a bit naïve, I thought.)

And maybe the personal indulgences and over-simplified binaries were part of Pollan’s project and I am the one missing the point. Probably. But, even with that in mind, I was disappointed, because this country needs a best-selling, accessible, interesting book about the current state of food. And I just didn’t think Pollan met that need with Omnivore, even though I would have previously voted him mostly likely to succeed at such a project.

Enter In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. A wonderful, delightfully concise little book that goes straight to the heart of the American diet. Stripped bare of any personal adventures or anecdotes, Defense retains Pollan’s comfortable, friendly persona as he carefully guides the reader through three sections, each entirely pertinent to how we eat today and why it’s not the best option for human or environmental health.

Part one addresses the problems of ‘Nutritionism,’ an ideology that Pollan claims rules the way Americans think about food and health. He creates an interesting narrative out of the last century’s scientific research, policy decisions and the food production that followed. And I was glad that — in true Pollan form — anytime the subject began to get weighty or long, Pollan reined the reader back in with helpful narrative devices, continually helping us see the significance of what he’s saying and how it all connects to his larger thesis and purpose.

Part two continues to explore the concept of the ‘Western Diet’ and how it isn’t as necessary or good as we might assume by being immersed in it. He names what he sees as five main trends in the Western Diet (here almost verging on the over-simplification ever-present in his work, but staying focused on the topic), all of which help illuminate what our diet consists of and how it might be radically different from other ways of eating. In other words, the five trends help provide further specificity to support his larger claims.

And, part three is the triumph of the book — the conclusion that he works for diligently though concisely through the first two sections: suggestions for how we should eat. His guidelines are not nutritionism-style rules but stem from a larger understanding of food and how it connects our bodies to the environment. His suggestions? ‘Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not Too Much.’ These three simple guidelines bookend In Defense and are made with reminders of how ‘we are what we eat,’ — in this case, the environment. Our health then, is necessarily connected to the environment’s health, a profound point in the current age of eating. Wendell Berry, whom Pollan frequently cites and thanks in the acknowledgements, would be very proud.

Anyhow, I’ve left out many juicy and exciting details from the book on purpose, because I think everyone should read In Defense of Food. It is accessible, in content, style and length for almost anyone who is committed enough to finish a short book. As Pollan says in the subtitle, it is a manifesto — an extended essay dedicated to a topic dear to our hearts here at Oakhill Organics: how we eat and just how important that is for everything. Michael Pollan, thank you for this gem of a book.

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4 Responses to Michael Pollan redeems himself

  1. Meg says:

    Wonderful analysis. I have pretty much the exact same criticisms as you do about The Omnivore’s Dilemma; while I enjoyed the book and learned some really interesting things from it, I felt that Pollan cut some corners and oversimplified for the sake of cramming everything into the structure he’d set up. And I wanted to see a small organic farm more akin to yours–where were the vegetables?! I appreciated the information about (mostly) organic meat production, but small produce farmers were completely left out of the picture.

    Anyway. I’m glad to hear that you think he redeemed himself with the new book. I must admit that I just barely skimmed your review of it, as I haven’t read it yet and want to remain a little unspoiled, if that’s still possible after all I’ve read and heard about it. My husband and I were lucky enough to see Pollan talk and give a reading from the new book at the Philadelphia Free Library last week, and it was such a great experience. He came across as very knowledgeable and sincere–and that impressed me because, like you, I felt that he was becoming a bit full of himself in Omnivore’s Dilemma.

  2. I actually really liked Omnivore’s Dilemma, but I was wondering what somebody in the organic food business would think of it, because I am not right in the middle of it, except as a consumer. I am going to see if In Defense of Food is in our library system. I actually thought that Pollan was more readable in Dilemma than Botany of Desire.

  3. Rosina Morgan says:

    I thought the Omnivore..was a bit like the story of the man hitting his mule with a plank “to get his attention”. and for that reason alone it was a useful book for the general readers. I have the new book on hold in the Library – 17 ahead of me!

  4. Nita says:

    I keep up with your blog when time allows. All summer long I couldn’t wait for Tuesday evening so I could relax and read what had transpired during the week at your farm. I agree with your review of Omnivore, but if it gets the general public to wake up about the food sitiuation, then I’ll take it and hope something better comes along. I have read and heard quite a bit about Joel Salatin lately. Personally, I don’t think his books make livestock production seem any simpler than Elliot Coleman does market gardening, or Lynn Miller does farming with draft horses. I have had the good fortune to be raised on a livestock farm and have had cattle my whole life. We have farmed “Salatin Style” for more than 10 years and have had to quit offering as many products because of health issues and our personal feeling about chicken farming on our farm and on the West Coast. It’s been a relief to not have to worry about the price and procurement of grains this winter. It was quite seductive to sell to fine restaurants in Portland, but the chefs get quite a bit of press for using seasonal ingredients, but our experience has been that is just talk, too. They want eggs and fresh broiler chicken each week of the year and really those products should only be produced seasonally. You could offer tomatoes from your farm in winter, but should you? Thank goodness, you don’t. However, some of Salatins early books spoke to us, in regards to how we feel about becoming “native to our place.” Our 14 year daughter now has ties to our land that she probably wouldn’t have if we hadn’t been self-employed on our farm. We have spent countless hours with people who think that they want to raise livestock, and usually that’s because they don’t want the drudge work of growing and marketing vegetables. I think if half the people we have had come to our farm after reading Salatins books had went about the project like you (working on a livestock farm for at least one if not two seasons ) there would not be so much disappointment. Livestock husbandry is hard and heartbreaking! All the spread sheets, seminars and books you can read will not prepare you for heartbreak of predator losses, weather related illness and hardships, etc.
    The sadness I felt about having to finish the job on a newborn calf that a young inexperienced cougar couldn’t, far outweighs my disappointment that deer ate all my January King cabbage this winter. I attended a Heifer project poultry symposium some years ago at Salatins farm and at Andy Lees farm. It was late August and the mid-Atlantic region was in the middle of a drought and Salatins had grass where the other farms we drove by looked like eastern Oregon, complete with hungry cattle. I was impressed. They have no fancy infrastructure, new cars etc, just an old Civil War era farmhouse and a 1950’s pole barn. Since that time they have put up a few greenhouses and built portable structures for their chickens. I’m glad I was exposed to Salatins books, some of the biggest mistakes we made with chickens, were because we didn’t follow the advice in his books. Hindsight is always very clear – sorry about the rant. I like your blog the best out of the farm blogs I read. It comes from the heart and I’m sure you can inspire more young farmers. That’s what we all need
    Thanks!

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