Monday, March 19, 2007

Do you dare eat mindfully?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, food, farming, hunting, gathering, cooking, industrial agriculture, organic agriculture, polemics

When I can't easily categorize a book, I know I am on to something good. The library classification is (DD) 394.12: Culture:Food:History, which goes to show how much they know.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals" by Michael Pollan is chronicle, psychological journal, history, exposé, and thanksgiving paean all in one.

What is the omnivore's dilemma? In two parts: "What shall I eat (given I can eat almost anything)?" and "What must I avoid eating?" A large chunk of our overlarge brains is devoted to the latter question: a powerful recognition and memory organ. Once that question is answered, the first is easy: "Whatever yields the most nutrition for the least effort."

In a sense, you could make a decision tree: Fruits first (fast calories), then fat (dense calories), then starch (calories to store plus protein), finally meat (protein plus fat). Why fruit before fat? Fat has twice the calories per gram. However, fat is slower and usually a small proportion of a food, whether you're eating it from plant, fish, fowl, or mammal.

The dilemma today is, in the West and America in particular, there's so much food the farmers are going broke because we can't eat it all, so prices are low, lower than the cost of farming. Thus, Pollan pursues the matter in three stages: the Industrial Agriculture establishment, the "beyond organic" end of the "organic foods" spectrum, and the hunter-gatherer opportunities that still exist on the margins of Western society.

Most foods eaten by most Americans are produced from corn grown on mega-farms. Much of this (2/3 or more) is fed to cattle—which don't do well on a corn diet, thus the need for humongous amounts of antibiotics and supplements. Of the rest, a little actually is found in the produce section of your local grocery, or in cans in the canned foods section. Most is "refined" and "processed" to make corn syrup, "high fructose" corn syrup (HFCS, that gets into almost everything in some amount), and tens of thousands of "additives" such as xanthan gum (a thickener) and the wax that makes apples shiny. A small amount is made into ethanol, for fuel or for tippling, or as a chemical feedstock. Chapter 1 tells the story: "Corn's Conquest".

The author's growing disgust with this phenomenon is clear in the seven chapters devoted to it. I recalled the summer I worked at a slaughterhouse. I was a night worker, one who gathered scraps and bones for the hasher. The "hash" was rendered into a food supplement to be fed back to cattle in the corn-driven feedlots. This is the source of Mad Cow Disease, though nobody knew that thirty years ago.

One night, I got there early, and wandered over to the killing floor. Things have changed since, and the modern process is well described in Pollan's book. What I saw was this: animal after animal brought into the squeezer through a door that dropped behind him or her. A Killer (that's the title) with an air-powered stunner (8" rod, 3/4" diameter) "stuns" each animal, right between the eyes. It drops, a Hooker loops a metal chain about a rear ankle, and the animal is hoisted overhead. A Slitter takes a long knife and cuts the top of the aorta, releasing the blood, which sluices into a floor drain. The blood empties in seconds, and the overhead conveyor swings the animal to be skinned, and so on through the process. In ten minutes, two new "sides" are in the cooler, any desired bits of offal (mainly heart and tongue) are packaged for their particular use, and the rest goes into a hash hopper: head, guts, tail, hooves, and extra fat.

One animal didn't drop right away. The Killer had missed. A backup Killer shot the animal with a .30-cal rifle, but only after a third backup fellow had hit it a couple times with an electric prod to shock it to momentary stillness. I didn't eat beef again until a few weeks after I left that job.

Since it began thirty years ago or so, the "organic" movement has become industrialized also. A few farms have resisted becoming quasi-"inorganic", and are showing the way one may build a farm economy on grass rather than corn. Few people realize that mixed grazing grasses yield quite a bit more calories per acre for animal feed than corn does. But you need to manage it differently. One place that is doing so, in the East at least is Polyface Farm in virginia.

The author really throws himself into his subject. In the first section, he bought a calf and paid for it to be fed, first on a grass farm, then in a feedlot in Kansas. He visited it in the feedlot, and did his best to track the various branches of the river of corn that the beef, pork, and chicken industries rely on. Company secrecy prevented that.

For the second part, he worked a week at Polyface Farm, and learned what he could in that time of their ways. The grass there is part of a rotation that feeds cattle, fowl, and swine, so that each animal plays its part in both eating, feeding (with its manure), and cleaning up the pastures (by eating pests, for example). Sure, a Polyface chicken, egg, or steak costs more, but the author finds it is worth it.

It made me wonder: do we have farm-loving manpower enough to run a large portion of our agriculture that way? I feel lucky to live near a "farmer's market" that contains many booths with Amish providers and workers. I can visit an Amish farm and see how the animals and crops are grown.

For each section, he prepared—and served to himself and others—a meal based on that "industry". For the first, the "preparation" consisted of hitting a McDonald's with his family. For the second, he cooked "industrial-organic" foods for one meal, and grass-fed Polyface chicken, eggs, and beef for another. They were, he relates, both superior to even good restaurant food from the Corn-based agricultural industry.

For the third section, Pollan had to learn to shoot and hunt. He was determined to prepare a meal that contained (nearly) nothing he'd bought. In monetary terms, this probably cost him the most. Not a penny to a Wal-Mart, Safeway, or even a farmer's market. But guns aren't cheap, and neither is the 16-week course you must take to obtain a hunting license in California. Neither is the travel to this mountain range to hunt morels on a "burn", nor to another to hunt boar. And, he reports, the emotional costs to this formerly non-hunter, almost anti-gun fellow.

In his "hunter-gatherer" persona, he reminded me a bit of Blanche duBois, who reported she "benefited from the kindness of strangers." He was much blessed to garner the expertise of several infinitely patient mentors in the art of usufruct, of taking what the land freely offers, including a cherry tree overhanging a relative's fence.

I remember fondly the days my wife and I could wander the Black Hills, gathering fruit: chokecherries, "sarvis"berries, and wild plums for jelly or jam; and dolgo crab or feral Jonathan apples for pies and cobblers. To this day, there's nothing like chokecherry jelly. And I am happy to have a pippin apple tree (grown from a root sucker that overtook a "name" variety), source of pies and apple butter aplenty. The local supermarket planted serviceberry bushes in their parking lot one year. With their permission, I gathered fruit and made jelly. Inferior: too much pollution, I suppose. Now the fruit does little more than stain the parking lot and make wasps drunk.

In the early part of the third section, the author relates how the arguments to be found in some pro-Animal books temporarily converted him to vegetarianism. But he came to his senses. The entire argument founders on one salient fact: rights were invented by people, for people. "Animal rights" is an oxymoron.

To be moral, we must be as civil as we can to the animals we kill to eat. Industrial agriculture is founded on the cruelty of indifference...if you think you have become "just a number," consider yourself lucky to be at least accorded some small measure of freedom, particularly to choose some of what you eat, and where to walk. "Beyond organic" methods are based on growing crops and stock according to their nature—and remember, the modern Cow or Pig or Chicken is no more a "natural" creature than you are; they would not exist without many centuries of human breeding and culture. They are as much an artifact as is a brick. As brick to stone, so Pig to Boar...and so forth.

There is much to think of in this book.

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