Monday, March 26, 2007


I recently listened to Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” (I was driving up the Oregon/Washington coast, a beautiful landscape, which was somehow appropriate.) At times this book is overwrought. But overall, the book dipped down into my own history with food.

I grew up on a farm. My parents had an amazing garden. We lived off the garden in the summer, canned the abundance, and lived off that in the winter. I remember killing chickens. I remember knowing the calf you ate during the winter. My grandfather had chickens. I know about feisty, nasty Banty roosters. And I have gathered eggs.

And I have a personal rivulet into hippy dreams of utopia, imagining we might live in a happy group and grow foods. In the seventies, I gardened, made food from scratch (bread from wheat, and ricotta and cottage cheese from milk). In other words, I have a pretty good sense of where “real” food comes from. I had an aesthetic that said natural is good and so on. I have gardened, frozen foods, canned foods. . . . . .

Fast forward. In the middle years I’ve bought food, tried to keep my life engaged with something real, not always successfully. I can never resist potato chips. I go through this pass down memory lane to establish why I would respond to Pollan’s book.

A guilty pleasure and a continuing link to my more basic connection with food: i buy cookbooks. I love the idea of great food. Though I don’t always get around to cooking that great food. I understand the difference between food as at least a craft, often an art. And I have a sense of food that diminishes. of food that somehow taps into what is basic, beautiful, important.

So here are my current rules about food:

1. At the very least try avoid processed food. Eat food that looks like food. Vegetables, meat, lentils, bread, grain. You should know the history of a good before you eat it--grow it, raise it and kill it, harvest or gather the food from a living being.
2. Organic is expensive, easily bamboozles, but overall still gains something. Compost instead of chemical, no pesticides. You can still have processed, horrific food. But even then, you’ve probably helped the environment. I’d still go for recognized food over processed food. (Though I do love potato chips.)
3. You can grow your own and buy from local vendors. At least then, you have some sense of where your food comes from. I love farmers markets and have my favorite in Sacramento, and in Seattle (mostly the U-distict). If you can’t grow it, know who did.
4. Pollan’s book gave me some tools for making additional distinctions. That is what I admire about the book (despite it’s limits). Grass fed versus corn fed. That was a useful distinction. I also loved his descriptions of the genre of idyllic food, encouraged a skeptical way to read the brochures, the cartons on the food. That was one of the most useful contributions of his book--encouraging me to bring my lit crit background to food collateral. These skills have informed my decisions about what I bought this past weekend. Be skeptical. Natural.

Bottom line. I’m back to thinking about my childhood experiences (when I knew where food came from and what it cost) and back to my idyllic dreams of young adulthood (close to nature, what I think of as my earth mother phase). In those moments, i was thinking about food with a history I could describe. The farm is sometimes cruel, but at least it is open to view. Food probably should take time. What is more basic?


SusanS said...

And this is all, no doubt, a fantasy. I am a very weak person. . . . . .

Lisa B. said...

food has become something of an obsession with me in many of the ways that you and Pollan talk about. (I do think he can be a good writer, by the way--the piece about hunting the boar was in NYTimes Mag, and I found it amazing.) We bought a share from a local organic farmer, buy local produce in the winter (there's a guy)--generally try for organic where we can't buy local organic.

It's hard to give up the idea of purity (being a purist, I mean), even when you completely disavow it. I think of this as part of my Mormon heritage, which of course is just a part of another, bigger heritage in love with perfection.

Also, I constantly crave bacon.