Creaturely Needs

Today I finished reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, which, if you can get past the occasional gratuitous nostalgia, is a well-written, impeccably-researched, and tremendously entertaining book. In it, Pollan follows three different food chains from beginning to end: industrial, pastoral (referring to organic and farmstead/local food chains), and personal (hunting & gathering). The industrial food chain, not surprisingly, is almost entirely dictated by the ubiquity of cheap corn, while the pastoral food chain has its foundations in the cultivation of grass pasture, and the personal in the bounties that spring forth from trees (or, more generally, forests).

One of the sections that resonated most personally was one in which Pollan theorizes why many people today fill their lives with activities that draw on ancient or ancestral ways, especially certain food-related activities such as baking bread or making homemade preserves. He proposes that this is largely because we are so distantly separated from the origins of our food. I think this accurately points to my fascination with making cheese, since for me cheese represents a fundamentally "human" food, a provision we have been making and eating for many thousands of years. The following paragraph, from the beginning of Chapter 19 (p. 364), will illustrate what I'm referring to:

Isn't it curious how in so many of our pastimes and hobbies we play at supplying one or another of our fundamental creaturely needs--for food, shelter, even clothing? So some people knit, others build things or chop wood, and a great many of us "work" at feeding ourselves--by gardening or hunting, fishing or foraging. An economy organized around a complex division of labor can usually get these jobs done for a fraction of the cost, in time or money, that it takes us to do them ourselves, yet something in us apparently seeks confirmation that we still have the skills needed to provide for ourselves. You know, just in case. Evidently we want to be reminded how the fundamental processes that sustain us, by now hidden behind a globe-spanning scrim of economic complexity, actually work. It may be little more than a conceit at this point, but we like to think of ourselves as self-reliant, even if only for a few hours on the weekend, even when growing the stuff yourself winds up costing twice as much as it would to buy it at the store.

Pollan is particularly adept at observing patterns in the world, and synthesizing theories from those observations. He is also a skilled researcher, and backs up a lot of his theories with hard evidence. The Omnivore's Dilemma is a great book in a lot of ways, and it is certain to change some of your fundamental ideas about food.

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