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.