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January 18th, 2008

Michael Pollan, _The Omnivore's Dilemma_

I'll make this quick:

(a) I'm fascinated by the local foods movement, particularly Joel Salatin.
(b) I don't like Michael Pollan, based on previous unsuccessful attempts to read _Botany of Desire_.

I read this book primarily because I felt it was important that I figure out _why_ I don't like Michael Pollan.

Note: for purposes of book reviews, if I say I don't like an author, it's shorthand for, I don't like that author's authorial voice. They may be a fine person in person; I don't care for the way I perceive them in print.

So, did I find out? Yup.

Michael Pollan does a fabulous job telling a story of going out to get answers to questions, learn things, have new experiences. This aspect of Pollan I like. A lot -- I mean, this is the kind of thing I like. That's why this was such a difficult mystery. I _should_ like this guy's work. But I don't, because. . .

He's got just about the worst kind of analysis out there. Throw the book against the wall, buttonhole him in public and dress him down, defame him at every opportunity bad analysis. He gets all abstract and hortatory about stuff, and then in the next paragraph takes it all back. He gives completely specious arguments. And he presents as "everyone" or "human" (at least he doesn't say "Mankind" -- I would have stopped if he had done that) something that is either specific to him, his group, or a particularly obnoxious slice of our culture -- apparently totally unaware that other people think differently (like, he doesn't seem to really believe there are human people out there who think that they aren't not-animal or that animals aren't people or something like that). It'd be one thing if this were in passing, but it's not. It's quite central to his whole theme that, for example, people have culture and can compare What's Good to Eat and, for example, Rats do not/cannot.

This from the guy who didn't think to sample the probable-chanterelle and see what happened.

Whatever.

The themes that metastasized the local foods movement are mostly here, altho they are mostly vestigial. It seems clear, from a variety of Twinkie remarks, that one of the inspirations for _Twinkie, Deconstructed_ might well have been this book (the author of whom may even have mentioned this book, but I do not currently recall). Pollan is so focused on an existential angst -- oh, geez, what should we eat? -- that he gives short shrift to things like the probable global warming/Peak Oil impact on cost savings by shipping everything hither and yon. There is a lot of information buried in this book. As long as you stick to the detailed descriptions of what he researched, and stick your fingers firmly in your ears and go "I can't hear you nyah nyah nyah" when he wanders off into the rhetorical puckerbrush, you could probably get something out of this book.

Can't say that I recommend you bother, but at least it's out in paperback now. At least I can now articulate what pisses me off about him.

Oh, and another thing. Get this -- he says that if we all became vegetarian, we'd have to plant more ground and it would be damaging since grass-fed beef are somehow the best, oh, never mind. I mean, come on. I get there is land that is appropriately used for pasture (or timber, or something other than cultivated plots or fields). I'll even grant that horticulture and agriculture in general work best in conjunction with animals (using the term to include fish, birds, etc.). But it's a _massive_ leap to go from those observations to thinking we should be eating animal flesh, especially in any significant quantity. Wool and other animal fibers? Milk? Eggs? Blood? Hey, not my thing, but:

http://www.congocookbook.com/other_recipes/cow_blood.html

I mean, your life can completely revolve around your grazing animals and _still_ not involve eating much animal flesh.

I realize this makes me sound like a crazy vegan/vegetarian/animal rights person, and certainly I like and am sympathetic to their point of view altho I do not choose to live my life in that way. But as amusing and appealing as Salatin is, dude is a nutjob -- way too deep a focus on animal products. And Pollan, based on his meal descriptions, a lot like him. I know I say this while heading far out into the beans (I made Hoppin' John Fritters last night. Yum.), but I would have said it even at my meat-eatingest (which, to be honest, wasn't particularly meaty).

Enough. I can drop this. Maybe I'll read _Animal, Vegetable, Miracle_ next.
I recognize that this particular whinge is an artifact of having been a Jehovah's Witness until I was 25. I get that. I still occasionally sit down and read chunks of a bible periodically, to check out a new translation, or, for example, to remind myself what was in the book of Malachi. I've read other holy books as well; I'm not completely myopic.

But sometimes, I just have to shake my head and go, you cultural illiterate. The most recent example was Pollan's response to Singer-and-company (the animal rights crowd who feed their companion animals a vegetarian or near vegetarian diet).

(1) There _is_ a bunch of stuff in the Bible (and I don't care if Pollan's personal cultural and ethnic background is Xtian or Jewish -- this is Jewish Bible/OT stuff), specifically in Isaiah, about the lion lying down with the lamb. So for Pollan to treat this is as some or weird/new ethical/whatever idea is just loopy. People have been presenting predators (human and otherwise) as an example of the Fall from Grace and/or post Flood reality for thousands of years.

(2) A properly literal translation of OT passages, but especially in Genesis, makes it quite clear: humans and animals alike _are_ souls. Not _have_ souls. Are souls: living, breathing creatures. No difference. (Nephesh, if you want to dig on this. I'm not going to get into the whole immortal soul thing, because, well, good luck finding much basis for that in the OT anyway.)

For Pollan to somehow be surprised at both people who treat animals as people AND then assert that those people are denying the animal-ness of humans is intellectually bankrupt. What -- because herbivores somehow aren't animals? Please.

Also, morally pretty shady.
In my foray into Bean World over the last few weeks, I've been cooking a lot of beans. I've tried a variety of strategies: overnight soak, several hour soak, quick soak (boil and then let it sit), microwave soak (R.'s invention) (okay, I lied: Pollan says if you sign up for a CSA, there won't be anything microwaveable. Moron. Okay, moving on. Really!), no soak. Cook it with the lid on, the lid off, in the slow cooker, in the oven. We bought a pressure cooker, but then heard that Sally Fallon thing about pressure cooking is teh evil, and so haven't used it yet. When the day comes when it's pressure cooker or beans from a can, I'm informed enough to know that _all canned beans have been through a pressure cooker already_ and will use my own.

I've cooked beans with nothing, epazote, kombu. I don't tend to salt beans, but the baked beans did have molasses and etc. in them.

I've rinsed once, rinsed more than once, and cooked in the soak water. And here are my conclusions about beans and teh flatulence:

(1) Cook the heck out of those beans. If there is any al dente left, virtually nothing will save you from the fartage.

(2) Eat beans freqently.

Nothing else seems to matter as much as those two. Kombu and epazote seem to help somewhere, but those are what really matter.

I've been noticing that my usual affection for greens (fresh herbs such as basil, thyme, cilantro, parsley, etc., and Leafy Greens such as chard, kale, etc.) has increased -- especially for the herbs. It seems like every new bean dish I make, I find a way to incorporate more and more herbs, and it seems more and more important to serve greens as a side. I'd been wondering about this, and, in parallel, trying to figure out a reasonable fatty acids strategy as well, since there was a consensus that vegetarians often wind up with a more extreme omega-6/omega-3 ratio than Standard American diet. Lo and behold, Pollan offered up an in passing summary that perfectly captures what I had been laboriously cobbling together: the omega-6s are in the seeds and the omega-3s are in the leaves.

Gotta have both -- eat your greens with your beans (and grains).