When I moved to Boulder, Colorado in the late 80s, after being raised primarily in Minnesota, Boulder felt like vacation-land, an artificially “fun” place, filled with pretty people with nothing much to do except exercise, drink coffee, and pursue their inner selves; there’s plenty of money in Boulder and almost nothing old. Yet, after three or four years, though I was aware of the issues and could notice Boulder’s world-unto-itself quality, I began to feel pretty much at home.
When, in 2001, I moved to the Bay Area, I felt predictably out of place, once again; Oakland and San Francisco don’t have the same feeling of artificial newness as Boulder, but after eight years I’m still not quite comfortable identifying as a Californian. There are times when I forget and just live here unselfconsciously, but most of the time I’m very aware of the ways that California is a little bit different than other places—often for the good and sometimes not. Maybe I’m too old to fully adopt a new place. Whatever the case, I was reminded powerfully of my displacement while reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s epic of four meals and their origins, because I don’t think the book could have been written or conceived anywhere except California, and probably, more specifically, it could not have been written outside the Bay Area.
Pollan traces the four meals through their very different supply chains (industrial, industrial-organic, beyond organic, and hunter-gatherer) in a well-researched story of economics, biology, cuisine, and culture. He talks to farmers, manufacturers, industry experts, professors, cooks, food enthusiasts, and his own wife and son. He learns to fire a rifle for the first time in his life and spends time working on farms in Iowa and Virginia. He buys a steer and at least attempts to follow it from birth to death. He gets up early and stays up late, trying to learn something about his food and why he eats it. It is ultimately this focus on himself and his process that makes the book compelling; the self-focus is also part of what makes the book so uniquely a product of Berkeley, California, a center of self-involved, self-motivated culture (witness Berkeley’s neo-hippies and, need I say more, Dave Eggers).
Berkeley is arguably the birthplace of the modern organic food movement in the United States, is definitely the location of visionary Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse (which if you don’t know was one of the first, most locally-sourced restaurants in the U.S.), and is most definitely the home of the University of California, Berkeley, a prestigious, some would say pretentious, institution, at which Pollan happens to be employed. With this kind of background, one can understand why Pollan, in addition to telling a story of food and his relationship to it, is trying to teach us some things: he feels like an expert, with access to more experts, and he’s used to teaching.
One of the most important things he’s trying to teach is that we don’t understand all the ways that food nourishes us; more generally, we don’t understand all the ways that ecologies work synergistically for the benefit of all the organisms in them. For example, in the 19th century, western science discovered the importance of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) for growing plants, knowledge that is the foundational concept for modern fertilizer. As science has advanced, we have begun to see that organisms and microorganisms in the soil contribute to plant growth and health in a synergistic harmony that is way beyond NPK and that we are still struggling to comprehend fully. Similarly, our understanding of the requirements of human nutrition continues to evolve: from carbs, protein, and fats to vitamins to the importance of micro-nutrients and other factors of which we are not yet aware. Our food evolved with us and supports our health in ways we don’t understand, which is why fortifying food with vitamins is not at good as eating food with those nutrients occurring naturally in them.
Another lesson Pollan wants to teach is that it’s important to examine what we eat and why. Part of his personal answers to these questions includes an interrogation of meat eating. In a thoughtful chapter on the ethics of eating meat, he argues for transparency—for knowing more about how the animals we eat are raised, killed, and prepared for our consumption. Underlying that logic, and the book’s very title, is the idea that humans are evolved to be omnivorous and that eating other animals is a part of that legacy. That is, unless I mistaking his argument, it boils down to the idea that humans are part of nature and that eating meat—albeit responsibly, respectfully, and moderately—is natural and good. This idea is the basis for most of his answers to the question of what to eat and why: we should eat natural food because we and the food evolved together for our mutual benefit.
Whether or not you buy his reasoning—and his uniquely Californian perspective may be off-putting to some—Pollan’s addition to the national food dialog is welcome. I knew a lot of what he’s sharing, but not all, and he has an undeniable ability to make potentially boring subjects come alive. The book didn’t make me more comfortable in the Bay Area, but it did help me see I’m part of its culture more than I knew: Bay Area denizens generally like to think and talk about food quite a lot and I’m no exception.