The Omnivore's Dilemma

Michael Pollan

The Omnivore's Dilemma.

“Humans also learned to overcome plant defenses by cooking or otherwise processing foods to remove their bitter toxins. Native Americans, for example, figured out that if they ground, soaked, and roasted acorns they could unlock the rich source of nutrients in the bitter nuts. Humans also discovered that the roots of the cassava, which effectively defends itself against most eaters by producing cyanide, could be made edible by cooking. By learning to cook cassava humans unlocked a fabulously rich source of carbohydrate energy, one that, just as important, they had all to themselves, since locusts, pigs, porcupines, and all the other potential cassava eaters haven't yet figured out how to overcome the plant's defenses.

Cooking, one of the omnivore's cleverest tools, opened up whole new vistas of edibility. Indeed, in doing so it probably made us who we are. By making these foods more digestible, cooking plants and animal flesh vastly increased the amount of energy available to early humans, and some anthropologists believe this boon accounts for the dramatic increase in the size of the hominid brain about 1.9 million years ago. (Around the same time our ancestors' teeth, jaws, and gut slimmed down to their present proportions, since they were no longer needed to process large quantities of raw food.) By improving digestibility cooking also cut down on the time we had to spend foraging for plants and simply chewing raw meat, freeing that time and energy for other pursuits.”

The perceptive reader may have noticed a trend here between last month's literary selection and this one. That's right – they're both concerned with food! A topic of interest to anyone, obviously, and particularly to your writers since we have embarked upon our adventure in local eating. The book from which the passage above comes is The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. Subtitled “A Natural History of Four Meals”, it's a fascinating look at the differences between industrial food, organic or alternative food, and food that humans forage for themselves (yes, even in 21st century America, it's possible to forage for food in relatively urban spaces).

In a section of the book titled “America's National Eating Disorder”, the author writes:

“This seems to me precisely the predicament we find ourselves in today as eaters, particularly in America. America has never had a stable national cuisine; each immigrant population has brought its own foodways to the American table, but none has ever been powerful enough to hold the national diet very steady. We seem bent on reinventing the American way of eating every generation, in great paroxysms of neophilia and neophobia. That might explain why Americans have been such easy marks for food fads and diets of every description.

This is the country, after all, where at the turn of the last century Dr. John Harvey Kellogg persuaded great numbers of the country's most affluent and best educated to pay good money to sign themselves into his legendarily nutty sanitarium at Battle Creek, Michigan, where they submitted to a regime that included all-grape diets and almost hourly enemas. Around the same time millions of Americans succumbed to the vogue for “Fletcherizing” – chewing each bite of food as may as one hundred times – introduced by Horace Fletcher, also known as the Great Masticator.”

Another passage has more to say about this country's diet:

“Perhaps because we have no such food culture in America almost every question about eating is up for grabs. Fat or carbs? Three squares or continuous grazing? Raw or cooked? Organic or industrial? Veg or vegan? Meat or mock meat? Foods of astounding novelty fill the shelves of our supermarket, and the line between food and a “nutritional supplement” has fogged to the point where people make meals of protein bars and shakes. Consuming these neo-pseudo- foods alone in our cars, we have become a nation of antinomian eaters, each of us struggling to work out our dietary salvation on our own. Is it any wonder that Americans suffer from so many eating disorders? In the absence of any lasting consensus about what and how and where and when to eat, the omnivore's dilemma has returned to America with an almost atavistic force.”

The Omnivore's Dilemma is an eye-opening work of writing, and in it Michael Pollan truly brings home the notion that “you are what you eat.” Be sure to read all about it!

Copyright © 2007, S. Halversen.
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