“I’d like your help gathering some rules for eating well. My premise is that culture has a lot to teach us about how to choose, prepare and eat food, and that this wisdom is worth collecting and preserving before it disappears… Will you send me a food rule you try to live by? Something perhaps passed down by your parents or grandparents? Or something you’ve come up with to tell your children — or yourself?”
As someone whose mother regularly sent her to a suburban New York elementary school’s cafeteria with bamiya, mejadara and bulgur pilaf in her Strawberry Shortcake lunchbox, I particularly like rule number seven, “Don’t yuck someone’s yum.” Did I mention that I grew up in the eighties, before Pad Thai was a regular feature on our dinner plates? In a lunchroom full of PB and Js, baloney sandwiches and rectangular pizzas, my thermos and I were an easy target — not that I’m bitter or anything. To this day, though, my hairs rise when my eating habits are mocked. So back off, people. (Kidding!)
Number two was a rule in my house too, but that’s not nearly as sensitive a topic. Or is it?
I had read excerpts of Michael Pollan’s book before, but only now had gotten around to sitting down with the complete work. I feel a little behind the times for taking so long to get to it, considering that it was published in 2006, but the small amount of time that has elapsed since then doesn’t make The Omnivore’s Dilemma any less relevant. As a society we still rely heavily on corn and corn-based products, we still have a dependency on processed foods, we still do not maintain sustainable eating habits, we still have not fixed any of the problems with the agriculture industry.
Not much — if anything — has changed since in the past two years, least of all the sheer readability of Pollan’s writing. Could anyone else describe corn farming in as mesmerizing a manner? Is there a writer out there capable of putting into words the numbing effect experienced after killing so many chickens? What about the excitement of foraging for mushrooms with an expat Italian? Pollan writes with confidence about these topics and more.
My favorite parts of The Omnivore’s Dilemma are those which cover Polyface Farm and the entirety of section four, about gathering entirely from the natural world outside of the Bay Area the foodstuffs required to make a meal. (This may or may not have to do with my absolute love of Steve Rinella’s 2007 book The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine, in which Rinella spends a year hunting across America for the ingredients he needs to prepare not just a Thanksgiving Day meal, but a highly ornate multi-course spread taken directly from Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire.)
These portions of Pollan’s food tour are similar in the sense that they are about people as much as they are about what people eat. Granted, humanity is present in the corn industry and in farming; in his writing about Polyface’s Joel Salatin and in his depiction of his own experiences in the wilds of San Francisco, The Omnivore’s Dilemma becomes something beyond simply a book following our food. It becomes a book about the lengths we will go to follow the course that we have set out, whether it is to create an entirely sustainable farm with healthy and happy animals or to assemble the components of a meal from boar to berry without once stepping into a supermarket. And it is those lengths exactly which fascinate me the most.
Here’s a photo of the books I’ve currently got waiting in the wings, in no particular order. They are all for pleasure, except for The Poet and the Murderer, which is for book club. That’s not say, of course, that the books my friends and I pick to read together aren’t pleasurable — the difference is that I chose the six others for myself, and for no reason other than just plain wanting to read them.
Excluding The Omnivore’s Dilemma and, again, The Poet and the Murderer, I purchased these books this past weekend at the Muse and the Marketplace. I attended a lectures by both Jennifer Haigh and Lois Lowry (big surprise, that), chatted with Michael Lowenthal at lunch on Saturday and attended the keynote brunch the following day with Jonathan Franzen. There were several books to be purchased at conference, but I went with these not only because these were the writers who impressed me the most, but also because I had a very limited amount of room in my bag.
Do I really need to say anything more about my great affection for Lois Lowry?
Jonathan Franzen read excerpts from his most recent book, The Discomfort Zone, and answered many questions on what I can’t help but think of as The Oprah Incident. He also discussed the German language, his unsuccessful pursuit of girls and the contemporary North American writers whose work he enjoys reading. I should also mention that Mr. Franzen’s voice is absolutely lovely to listen to. Immediately afterwards, I went to a seminar with John Sedgwick, who wondered how a voice like that could be attained. Nicotine, he concluded.
Jennifer Haigh’s workshop on how to get a novel started was undoubtedly one of the most helpful, and not to mention exciting. In clear, concise words, Ms. Haigh spoke about some of her writing tricks; I know that I’m going to use them myself from here on in, with the hopes of being even a quarter as successful.
Michael Lowenthal was a funny and friendly lunch companion — though our eating together was pure happenstance. I nervously sat down at a table, and found myself with published, acclaimed writers and a charming, witty agent. I’ve never felt like such a fraud before in my life. Mr. Lowenthal was easy to talk to, and had so many fascinating things to say about his recent time at the Instituto Sacatar, an artists’ colony in Brazil.