This happens to be the book that finally taught me how to spell dilemma.
We have, Pollan says, a crisis of food in this country–where diet books are bestsellers and no one ever loses any weight, where we can eat anything we want and no one knows what to eat. Butter’s bad for you, eat margarine! No, margarine’s bad for you, eat butter! Meat’s bad for you, eat fish! Wait, fish has mercury in it! And, more than that, we don’t know where our food comes from. Or, we do: it comes from Food Lion, in a box. And before that? Well.
So Pollan goes on a quest to eat trace four meals from their origins to the table: fast food, ‘industrial organic,’ ‘beyond organic,’ and hunter-gatherer.
The meat of this book is Pollan’s look at the industrial-agricultural complex, which is built on a foundation of corn; which is itself built on a foundation of government subsidies, and chemical fertilizers, and ultimately, a whole lot of fossil fuel. You think a Hummer is bad? What about a Big Mac, or asparagus in January?
It’s a seriously scary book, beautifully written, thought-provoking, knowledgeable, tracing connections between things you’d never have thought to connect. But I’m ultimately a little disappointed that Pollan’s handwringing can’t move beyond personal action. The problems of industrial agriculture and fast food and food culture are not (as Pollan totally acknowledges!) personal moral problems. They are systemic problems. Yet Pollan denounces the system without seeing any way to change it – besides growing and gathering your own food, something that’s a little beyond most of us.
That’s a small thing. It’s a fantastic book, and almost a necessary one.