In my former life as a person who ate green vegetables, I was all about the local thing. Charlottesville, where I went to college, kind of grooms you that way: there’s a farm profiled extensively in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that supplies all the good restaurants in town, there’s a restaurant called The Local, the only grocery store within walking distance from me was a vegetarian store called Integral Yoga, and, of course, the food’s just fucking amazing so in the end I got hooked on the taste as well as the ideas. And it’s obviously catching on if it’s made its way to Houston—there are not too many local or organic places in town, but Jesus, there’s this one drink they make at the best place that has tequila and lavender and a jalapeno-infused simple syrup ice cube… oh God.
I think Michael Pollan is a fantastic nonfiction writer and The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an absolutely readable, informative and fascinating book about the contortions our food economy has gone through to become the industrial monster that it is today. The details are best told, well, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and I think the whole White House-vegetable-garden-trend-piece media season has educated the public well enough about the issues at stake. But in case you didn’t know, a Chicken McNugget has thirty-eight ingredients, including butane, and the farm industry is kind of disgustingly wasteful, and it takes 1.3 gallons of oil to produce 4,500 calories of fast food, and most of we eat is reconstituted corn. Etc etc. Here’s the thing. I’ve never needed much to make me a food believer. Although I am not overly watchful of my health, and for example once found both a day-old Egg McMuffin and a PBR in my purse during class, this issue seems really simple to me: real food tastes better.
Until I started climbing up the Ultimate Local Agro Crag in Kyrgyzstan, a challenge in which I start every meal by pulling something out of the ground, the maximum number of ingredients in my food is usually about four, and I’m currently existing on oatmeal, yogurt, and butter because eating seasonally is a lot less fancy in a Central Asian winter. I have certainly enjoyed this opportunity to learn how to cook completely from scratch, and the produce itself (when available) is unmatchable. But many things are ironic about this situation, including the price issue. In America, a lot of debate centers on how local and organic food is expensive; here, it’s the opposite. There is only one grocery store in country as big as your average Kroger, and very few people (or volunteers) have the access or the money to buy these glamorous, transport mile-laden products. Michael Pollan talks a lot about the “true cost” of industrial food products, and I agree with him, but you see an infinitely more basic idea of “true cost” when you live with a family that can’t afford anything that comes in a package.
I have also learned an interesting lesson about eating meat thoughtfully, which I will admit I absolutely never did in the States. Kyrgyzstan is all about sheep slaughtering for special occasions. They make this dish called “besh barmak” (translated, “five fingers”)—it’s a boiled sheep with salt and mush noodles, over which melted sheep fat broth is poured, and everyone eats it with their hands out of a communal bowl. The taste is both foul and boring, but it’s a very honored, traditional dish here, and I really respect the knowledge that Kyrgyz people have of the death of an animal. So when I read the sentence in Pollan’s book—“Now it was all a matter of doing well by the animal, which meant making the best use of its meat by preparing it thoughtfully and feeding it to people who would appreciate it—“ I had to pause. I’m going to give this one to you, Kyrgyzstan. I hate on your food culture all the time because so much of it involves congealed sheep fat in my face all the time, but you really do justice to the animal here—in every way except for taste.
So I think The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an extremely important and relevant book to anyone taking part in the American food system. However, as I am currently not doing so, I will be content respecting America for what its dominance and greed brings to my pantry, fantasizing about arugula and brie and considering how many years of my life I would give up for a Chipotle carnitas burrito to appear on my desk (the answer is… many).