My Omnivore's Dilemma

I love food, I really do. I love how the mixtures of different foods bring out interesting and complex new flavors, and I love to cook. I will easily admit I'm not the most daring person when it comes to trying new foods - sweetbreads and other offal are things I just don't think I'll ever be able to get my mind around putting in my mouth. But meats, fruits, vegetables...I'm willing to try anything once. Even mushrooms, I guess.

It's funny, when I was growing up there were so many things I simply wouldn't touch. Onions. Tomatoes (unless it was pasta sauce or pizza). Mushrooms. Any vegetable that wasn't carrot or lettuce. Fish. Mexican food. I could probably go on and on (and if you ask Mom I'm sure she will remember a list 10 times as long as mine).

But as we all eventually find out, sometime after your college years, after life has given you a sedentary job and you find yourself happy with sedentary pursuits, you simply can't eat like you used to. Your metabolism slows down and depending on how fast you figure this out you may - like I did - find yourself a few extra pounds overweight. Or 40. Something like that.

At this point, for me, I decided I needed to eat a little better. I needed to expand my horizons. I needed to educate myself. I needed to figure out what would and would not work for me, and figure out what was going to make me healthy in the long-term.

(Heaven forbid they actually teach you important shit like this at school. Nooo...instead I learned really important crap about economics. Look, I get the fact schools are limited...but maybe teaching students about things that will kill them - like high fructose corn syrup and margarine - would be a good idea. Maybe that's just me. I have no idea. Fodder for another blog post - or maybe a series of them...)

So over the past few years Wifey and I have learned little things here and there, tidbits about protein, fatty acids, and all sorts of nutritional factuals that, presumably, knowing will make us healthier people. We exercise, too, which seems to be a common thread throughout all weight loss info (I know, who would have guessed that, right?!).

A couple years back we saw Super Size Me. We didn't eat much fast food at the time, but it was still eye-opening. Then we read Fast Food Nation, which was a similar story with many more details. All of it was nasueating, but the thing that really struck me was how none of it was actually surprising to me. What? Fast food is low quality and will kill you? Really? I mean, it's not like I need a degree in advanced biology to figure that out.

So going along, trying to get my diet in order, there was something tugging at the back of my mind. I couldn't put it into words, but it was something about the fruitlessness of what I was doing. I mean, did it make sense for me to change my diet based on every new tidbit of nutritional information? It's not like I can identify exactly what polyphenols and how much of them I really should be eating. Sure, it's good to know things are good for me, but if it's anything smaller than a mouthful, I can't confess to caring a whole ton, no matter how good it is. If I can't see it or measure it, it's great to know but what's the point?

So here I am, following this stuff but not really feeling in my core it's necessarily the right thing to do. It feels like it should be, but something is bugging me.

Then I read a couple books by Michael Pollan, and I think I finally figured it out. The first one was The Omnivore's Dilemma and really dealt with food lifestyles. He spent time following where the foods came from for a few different meals - fast food, industrial organic, farmed, and hunted and gathered - and did copious amounts of research into the science of what makes up these foods. The second book was In Defense of Food, where he talked about America's culture of nutritionism - the way our public view of food seems to bend on every new discovery science makes - and he talks a little about the things that actually may be best for you to eat.

Without giving too much away - see, this is the kind of things kids should be reading, not the damn Scarlet Letter - what it came down is the best food is really the kind that gets the best inputs. The best vegetables have the best soils. The best cows have the best grasses to eat (not corn - cows don't naturally eat corn, so this whole being happy about corn-fed beef thing is a complete joke). The best chicken eggs come from chickens with the best variety of grasses and bugs to eat.

Really, the answer could be simply to eat like people did 150 years ago. Fresh foods, naturally grown, sustainable, and stay away from as many ingredients you can't pronounce as possible.

I'm not trying to be preachy here, but this is what clicked for me. This is what I couldn't put words to in my own head, this is the gut feeling I had. Theoretically it just feels right that the more natural the things I eat, the healthier I will be.

So yes, that means free-range chickens (and their eggs), pastured beef, and local fruits and vegetables. And yes, that means it's a concious choice you have to make, because this stuff will cost you more money. One of the things that struck me was a number that American's spend a lower percentage of their incomes on food than just about anyone. Part of that could be the literal reason of having more money, but it also has to do with cultural choices, which I don't necessarily feel a need to get into; people can spend their money however they like. That's part of our society - free will.

Our choice has become one of FLOSS now (Fresh, Local, Organic, Sustainable, Seasonal foods - and the Organic one is up for interpretation since it really means natural, not necessarily certified organic). We joined a couple Community Supported Agriculture programs, one a year-round CSA from Hood River (couldn't find one closer and they have an exisiting delivery route in Portland) and another that will kick in this summer from a farm west of Hillsboro.

So far, it's actually been quite eye-opening. I've eaten a ton of things I never had before and it's only been a few weeks: parsnips, turnips, celeriac, cremini mushrooms, portobello mushrooms, chioggia beets, thumbelina carrots, white carrots, new varieties of apples and pears... Crazy all these yummy things I just hadn't tried before. Hell, we even pre-ordered a turkey from the farm we won't get until just before Thanksgiving (you know, because she has to be hatched and grown and all that). I'm overly excited about chicken eggs with orange yolks because that means they get a lot of beta carotene, a side effect of a good free-range diet with a good variety of grasses and the like. We're thinking of ordering a part of a pasture-raised cow, if we can just find the room in the freezer. We've taken to buying whole milk from a dairy in the Willamette Valley that raises Jersey cows, because it's a heck of a lot yummier (it's pasteurized).

And you know what? I think we are getting healthier. Perhaps that's the mind wanting to believe in the choices - can you ever really know? - but at the same time the foods coming out of our kitchen seem more flavorful.

You can't completely discount nutritionism. It's good to know these things science is finding, you just have to consider the source. Is the source a true scientist doing research into what makes the body work? Or is the scientist employed or funded by a food corporation trying to take advantage of the next big thing?

This might sound a like crackpot-like, like someone on the edge of going off the grid. That's not going to happen - not sure what I'd do without the wonders of the internet and my Blu Ray player - but it may be something worth thinking about. Even if you don't necessarily agree with the conclusions in the book or even here, it's worth reading just to find out something you didn't know before.

Of course, we will still be eating our way through Portland. Sometimes - and in moderation (which is still something I struggle with) - good food is just good food, no matter where it comes from. And sometimes you just don't want to cook.

Now, excuse me while I try and find room in my freezer for a quarter of a cow...


  1. mmmm sweetbreads. I have to say I've never met a food I didn't like. But we try to eat healthy too and local. I'm still trying to find a CSA near by or at least one I can do a pick up and drop off at the farmers market. Soon as I get over this walking pneumonia I'm going to try to make my own butter!

  2. Butter? Very cool...we want to do that sometime. Wifey is looking for a mayo recipe too.