Monday, January 08, 2007

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

With the new year the diet industry goes into high gear as folks look back at their holiday feasting with guilt. But instead of the negative resolve to “cut back” or “eat less” how about a positive resolution to eat better? More veggies. More fibre. Less processed food. More local produce. More organic. More food from outside one’s ethno-cultural group!

One book that was on many 2006 Best Of lists takes a close look at what we eat: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. Pollan traces four meals, including a McDonald’s lunch and an organic chicken dinner, back to their origins. Pollan discovers that if we are what we eat, then we’re corn, as more than a quarter of the items in a supermarket contain corn.

An international organization in tune with the idea that we need to think about what we eat is the “Slow Food” movement. Slow Food began in Italy, “founded in 1989 to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world”.

Mary Bailey, publisher of the Edmonton food magazine, City Palate, is a force behind Slow Food’s Edmonton chapter (or “convivium”). Her two-volume book, The Food Lover’s Trail Guide to Alberta, is a great place to start if you want to know where to go in Alberta to buy local food.

Another good book from 2006 associated with Slow Food is Piano, Piano, Pieno: Authentic Food from a Tuscan Farm by Susan McKenna Grant. The title is an Italian phrase that means “slowly, slowly, full”, and describes the idea of this cookbook – cooking thoughtfully and with purpose. Grant is a Canadian who bought and restored a Tuscan farm and now operates it as an agriturismo (an agriculturally-based inn).

**Update January 9th. John Allemang reviews The Omnivore's Dilemma in his Book-a-Day ($) column in the Globe & Mail today:

"The omnivore's greatest dilemma these days? To cook or to read.

Michael Pollan's big book about the perils of modern eating is the latest attempt to make us think harder about where our food comes from .... for Pollan, the pleasures of eating must begin with the dilemmas of full disclosure.

.... It's worth sidelining the slow-food dinners long enough to agonize with Pollan as he shows how our supply lines have been compromised. We humans can eat pretty well anything ... -- given a luxury of choice, we've abandoned what he calls "the stable culture of food," the deeply rooted traditions that bind us to the natural world, and taken up with an industrial model that values efficiency and cheapness above all.

At what cost, Pollan asks over and over again. His main target is the production-line technique of agribusiness, "what capitalism is capable of in the absence of any moral or regulatory constraint." ....

Pollan is utopian, but he's not naive. He surveys the organic-food trade with the same doubts he brings to massive Midwest feedlots. .... The solutions that make him happiest ... are wildly impractical models to say the least -- putting a bullet through a wild Sonoma County pig or joining free-range hens as they root through manure .... And yet compared with what passes for normal, they begin to make sense."


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