Once upon a time some friends formed a neighborhood reading salon. One night they slogged through the snow to sit by a fire together and discuss a book Michael Pollan wrote nearly 10 years ago — The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Pollan’s story lifts the blinders to show where our food comes from, just as deftly as if he wrote it, well, yesterday.
We chowed down on four kinds of crackers offered by industry’s paragons in the world 0f processed foods. I served them with two organic raw-milk cheeses from Whole Foods, as we waited for our cherry clafouti to bake. I made the clafouti with local eggs and imported French cherries, and served it with red currant couli from berries I foraged off a bush at the end of our hedge.
Our meal illustrated some of Pollan’s points. He explained how corn is now the basis of the North American diet. Half the 45,000 items in a typical grocery store come from corn or animals fed corn. As it turned out, two of the four cracker brands I served featured high-fructose corn syrup and other corn products. The cheeses came from cows and goats who most likely were fed corn, even though they are biologically meant to eat grass. Organically grown or not, corn does not digest easily in a cow’s rumen. A corn diet produces unhealthy ruminants, who need antibiotics to remain healthy.
How did corn worm its way into our food baskets? Politics, of course. Tons of ammonium sulfate left from bomb factories after the war made good fertilizer for corn. Corn became plentiful, thus cheap. Farmers couldn’t cover costs at these low prices. So the government subsidized corn. Science helped farmers figure out how to grow more corn in the same space, to up their income. More and more ways were developed to use the mountains of corn America was producing. High fructose corn syrup, for example, made a cheap sugar source. It replaced cane sugar in the soda pop industry, among others.
Organic, not Local
Whole Foods, an International organic foods purveyor, was not able to offer me any local cheeses. The closest they could come was a cheese from Quebec city, about 300 miles away, followed by a delicious raw-milk cheddar from Canada’s East coast, 1000 miles away. Pollan says economy of scale forces large chains to employ regional rather than local food distribution systems, cutting out the small local farmers.
Foraging is a romantic way to source food – free, fresh, and local. But if I had relied on foods I foraged myself, red current couli would have been the only thing my book club would have had to snack on!
Biologically, we omnivores need variety. No single food gives us all the vitamins, minerals and trace elements our bodies need to function smoothly. Foraging can’t hope to feed the world’s large population. The best we can do today is learn about the foods we eat. Read labels and ingredient lists. Learn where the animals we eat were raised, what they were fed, and how they died. Lift the blinkers we’ve been wearing into the grocery store and start looking our farmers in the eye.
Cultural food choices
In the meantime, here’s the recipe for Vinny’s cherry clafouti. The cherries were a nod to Pollan’s “perfect” meal. As well, black cherries are the fruit used traditionally in this French flan. Clafouti is amazingly easy to make. It is best served warm.
- 1 1/4 cups milk
- 1/2 cup sugar, divided
- 3 eggs
- 1 tablespoon vanilla
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1 cup canned cherries, pitted and well drained
Preheat oven to 350 F.
- Lightly butter an 8-cup baking pan and set aside. A low, wide one bakes faster.
Blend the milk, 1/3 cup of the sugar, eggs, vanilla, salt and flour in a food processor. Chill until one hour before you want to serve the clafouti.
To bake, pour a 1/4-inch layer of the blended batter into the pan. Set aside the remaining batter.
Place pan into the oven for 7-10 minutes, until the batter begins to set. Remove from oven (but don’t turn the oven off).
Distribute the pitted cherries over the lightly set batter, then sprinkle them with the remaining sugar (about 2 tablespoons). Pour the remaining batter over the cherries and sugar.
Bake for 45 to 60 minutes longer, until the clafouti is brown and firm, and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. A clafouti looks like a baked custard, not a souffle.
The perfect meal
Pollan’s hunting and gathering provided him with the perfect meal: animal, vegetable, fungi, and salt; in season; fresh, free, shared with people who helped him gather the food; and cooked by himself. Calories came from energy captured by the forest – sweetness from a cherry tree, morels from a pine tree, acorn-fed pig nourished by an oak… not to mention the wild yeast and the bread it produced. The meal was a thank you to the people who helped him on his quest.
But Pollan acknowledges foraging is impractical for most people. His analysis suggests that polyculture is the way to go. Grass farming, harvesting the sun’s energy through rotational grazing, is the least invasive, most sustainable, morally ethical, and healthiest way to grow food, he concludes.
“We eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is nothing more nor less than the body of the world.” — Michael Pollan, 2006.
- The omnivore’s dilemma: A natural history of four meals. 2006. Michael Pollan asks the question: What should we have for dinner? His answer is well worth reading.
- Eggnog grog – Michael Pollan lifts the curtain on the truth behind industrially raised chickens. Fresh eggs from hens raised close to home are best for concocting homemade eggnog for family celebrations. Try a traditional Norwegian recipe.