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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"King Corn" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma"

Once in a while (?), I feel like I should just put something out there that I don’t know anything about. Sometimes you just get the feeling that something you’ve read about is important, and that you want everyone to have the same information so that we can make enlightened decisions about our lives, and not just live in the bliss of ignorance. Since we Catholics celebrate the solemnity of the Body and Blood of The Lord ("Corpus Christi") this weekend, we're already thinking about the relationship between food and truth and life, so these thoughts may have some theological weight, too. Though he doesn't really cross the bridge into explicitly theological territory, nevertheless, Michael Pollan has a sense of the socially "sacred ground" upon which meals are made and shared, and translates his instinct about that into advocacy for best practices in the growing, preparation, and eating of food.

A few years ago, I became a big fan of New York Times food writer Michael Pollan when I add his book The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals to my list, for listening while I go walking or running. The Omnivore’s Dilemma purports to be “a natural history of four meals,” a sort of culinary journal in which the Pollan looks toward the origins and results of four meals: a McDonald’s meal with his family, a meal made from industrial organic foods (think of supermarket organics, like Earthbound Farms and Wild Harvest), a meal made from vegetables grown and meat raised by means of sustainable farming, and a meal made from food grown, hunted, or gathered by the author and friends. It’s an eye-opening tale from beginning to end, and you get the sense that you learn with the author as he researches the history of his meals, following the trail of his food from the parking lot at McDonald’s to the corn fields of the Midwest and the CAFOs (commercial animal feeding operation) of Colorado and Texas and elsewhere.) This history is at turns fascinating and stomach-turning, but nowhere is it more engaging and revelatory than when it turns to the history of corn and its symbiotic relationship to and genetic manipulation by U.S. agriculture. Using techniques of molecular spectography, Pollan discovers that the carbon in the average American comes, in high percentage, from corn. This leads to his trek to Iowa and interviews with farmers and ecoscientists. It documents the role that the US government has played, since the time of Earl Butz in the Reagan administration, in supporting the overproduction of corn by farm bill subsidies which keep prices artificially low. At every turn, this book is riveting in unexpected ways about topics I’d never have thought of reading about, and I think I’m a smarter eater and shopper than I was before I read it.

Then I discovered that two young college graduates from New England were also inspired by Pollan and his research, and after graduation moved to Iowa in order to become corn farmers and follow their corn through the food chain. They document their journey in the extraordinary movie King Corn [HD] , which both bubbles with their youthful enthusiasm and wonder and gradually darkens as they awaken to the reality of the strange world of overproduction and waste of which they’ve become a part. Particularly interesting are their interviews with researchers looking into the digestive diseases of cattle being fed corn, which they aren’t properly evolved to digest, and with a Brooklyn cab driver who lost 100 pounds when he quit drinking soft drinks sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. Along the way, we discover that 1 in 8 Brooklynites is diabetic, and that one of the main causes of diabetes is the consumption of products with high fructose corn syrup (and other sugars, of course), which somehow bypasses the “stop” triggers that the brain has for food consumption.

Since ingesting Dilemma, I've become a huge fan of Pollan and read everything I could get my hands on, and was never disappointed or felt like he was repeating himself. From The Botany of Desire to his most recent Cooked, he treats us to the natural history of food and the human relationship to food and our symbiotic relationship to the organisms we consume. He is not an advocate for vegetarianism (he's not a vegetarian himself) but reading his work pretty much convinced me that vegetarianism was possible for me, and Terry and I jumped into it three years ago or so and haven't looked back. Well, Terry hasn't looked back. I often look back at bacon, pork chops, and veal saltimbocca, but that's just me. I'm a serial recidivist passing as a cereal recidivist. So far, though, I've managed to ingest meat only by accident. Wonderful, delicious, accident.

If you don't know the outline of Pollan's philosophy of food, well, it's everywhere, and he's thrown his support to the effort of forcing big food to label products containing GMOs, among other things. WebMD has a good synopsis of his radically simple philosophy of eating, which can be stated succinctly in just seven words: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." WebMD goes on to clarify that "eat food" means to eat real food -- vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and, yes, fish and meat -- and to avoid what Pollan calls "edible food-like substances."
Here's how:
  1. Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food. "When you pick up that box of portable yogurt tubes, or eat something with 15 ingredients you can't pronounce, ask yourself, "What are those things doing there?" Pollan says.
  2. Don’t eat anything with more than five ingredients, or ingredients you can't pronounce.
  3. Stay out of the middle of the supermarket; shop on the perimeter of the store. Real food tends to be on the outer edge of the store near the loading docks, where it can be replaced with fresh foods when it goes bad.
  4.  Don't eat anything that won't eventually rot. "There are exceptions -- honey -- but as a rule, things like Twinkies that never go bad aren't food," Pollan says.
  5. It is not just what you eat but how you eat. "Always leave the table a little hungry," Pollan says. "Many cultures have rules that you stop eating before you are full. In Japan, they say eat until you are four-fifths full. Islamic culture has a similar rule, and in German culture they say, 'Tie off the sack before it's full.'"
  6. Families traditionally ate together, around a table and not a TV, at regular meal times. It's a good tradition. Enjoy meals with the people you love. "Remember when eating between meals felt wrong?" Pollan asks.
  7. Don't buy food where you buy your gasoline. In the U.S., 20% of food is eaten in the car.

I just wanted to make you aware of these two fascinating diversions if you hadn’t seen them, both the Pollan book (available at as well) and the movie King Corn (available to rent from You’ll enjoy yourself and you might learn something. Beyond that, it’s the question of whether knowledge is power, or just possibility, for change.

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