A Digest of The Omnivore’s Dilemma Part 6: Resolving Our Food Dilemmas
“What is the perfect meal, anyway?”
“The blessing of the omnivore is that he can eat a great many different things in nature. The curse of the omnivore is that when it comes to figuring out which of those things are safe to eat, he’s pretty much on his own.” -M.P.
Humans are able to eat so many things, and yet so much that we eat (or can eat) is also harmful. We have natural instincts that keep us from dying, like taste, disgust, and the feeling of a full belly. But we also like to refuse to listen to our body, or our mind.
The last thing Pollan does is gather mushrooms, which was more fun than it may sound to you at first. Gathering wild veggies and shrooms is like gardening, only nothing is marked and you are bravely having to choose the good from the bad. It represents the greater dilemma of what’s good and bad for us to eat. Our fear of shrooms represents our fear of eating raw nature, as if raw nature is forbidden and bad. We don’t know a lot about shrooms, but collectively we know which ones are good and bad to eat. They live between the living and the dead, and symbolize that dance of life and death that is eating.
As there are either shroom lovers and shroom fearers, Pollan discovers that there are two kinds of eaters: the neophile and the neophobe—those who take pleasure in variety, and those who take pleasure in the familiar. We all know at least one person who always tries something different and asks all kinds of curious questions at restaurants; we all know at least one person who always orders the same thing at every restaurant.
The cuisine of a culture tells you a lot about that culture. The food we eat is a cultural statement. In America we don’t really have a cuisine that is our own (except the hot dog, sort of), but instead we have taken food from other cultures and exchanged the uniqueness and flavor of each for a salt-butter-batter-fat-sugar hybrid that is geographically nonspecific to anywhere and offers a variety of food names but not a true variety of flavor, ingredients, or style. A lot of us are afraid to eat anything different, but if it’s Americanized, we’ll eat a lot of it. On the other hand, a lot of us only want to eat different things, but if it’s American, we refuse it. We have this free will of choosing what to eat that no other creature has, and we do some really weird things with that freedom.
Pollan found that the hunter/gatherer meal, while it may have been the way we once ate, is an unrealistic way for us to all adapt to permanently. Extremist foodies call for us to only hunt and gather food (or even just gather—no meat, only berries, fungi and free-growing veggies), but that is one of the dumbest conceits. It is impossible for all of society to make this adjustment.
And yet, I’ve found, as Pollan did, that these acts of going “into nature”, into creation’s place where man has hardly set his food and hunting for food (animal, mineral or vegetable) is an essential practice: we should do it often enough to learn from it and be formed by it. Whereas farm animals and farm vegetables are cultivated, shrooms and wild game live off the forest, the difference being whether we draw energy from the grass or from the trees. In forests, we are wholly meeting our food in its own territory. It gets us thinking about food, before, during, and after we eat.
At the core of this call is that we all need to do more thinking of our eating.
How can we redeem eating?
America has an eating disorder. A land of plenty starved of nutrients. A land of education ignorant of proper dieting. A land of medicinal leaps and bounds hurting for health. A land of variety opting out of diversity in favor of industrially processed food. Pollan discovered that one of the greatest ironies is that while much of our food is becoming more based on the marketing on health, we still eat unhealthy, whereas in other countries people continue a long-standing tradition of eating for pleasure and company, yet are still healthier than we are. This exists mostly because we have the conscience, but not the discipline, for eating in a way that dignifies us as a culture. We eat moderately healthy food, but in huge portions. We get small portions, but order sides, go back for seconds, and get dessert every other meal. We have healthy snacks, but graze on them all day. We eat alone too much, and when we eat with people, we don’t spend enough time preparing and cooking, take our time eating, or relax long enough to digest. I’ve realized that although I am conscious of eating healthy, I am guilty of all these mistakes. I am young, fit, and healthy, but my habits are slowly taking a toll. The diabetes and heart disease in my family is bound to reach me soon. Will I be able to change my household and spare my son the fate I am sure to inherit?
Our eating disorder is an anxiety disorder. Well, for a lot of us. For many others, it’s an apathy disorder. There are still yet some who have no disorder, who have found this balance, this discipline, this redeemed culture of eating good and eating well in a way that respects all of creation, from the land, to the animals, to us as partakers in the blessings of creation. They have much wisdom. We should listen to them. In the interest of profit, our industries are slowly poisoning the cultural foundations that make this kind of food culture possible. Do not praise these companies. Do not say with a nodding of the head, “Now there’s a man who’s made a lot of good money; he’s a smart business man.” Challenge them. Challenge ourselves.
And that challenge is difficult. It’s difficult for me. Because as I finish this I have little doubt that I will be eating nothing but industrial or “big organic” meals in the next week. It’s hard to escape what we’ve become complacent with. And it’s hard to move out of what our friends and family are settled in as well. I do not want to be a burden on people by telling them what I am and am not eating, and yet such a moral code has been a part of every religion and culture. I owe it to the people I love to educate and encourage them, just as they have educated and encouraged me. Surely there’s a way to go about this without being elitist and snooty. I grow tired of seeing people in the hospital with severe health problems brought on by a poor diet. I feel betrayed. Who brought this on us and why did we let it happen? I look around at all these fast food joints and think “how did we ever come to the conclusion that this is good for us?” It’s frustrating.
And yet it’s so convenient, it’s hard to refuse.
Pollan ends his journey with these words:
“For countless generations eating was something that took place in the steadying context of a family and a culture, where the full consciousness of what was involved did not need to be rehearsed at every meal because it was stored away, like the good silver, in a set of rituals and habits, manners and recipes.”
But are we being elitist foodie yuppies when we do all this food obsession stuff? Are we just showoffs who are saying, “I’m educated about nature, have much money, am culturally refined, and I’ve invited you all here to show you what I can do and what I know”? I think there are people who do this, and you can tell, but how else do you honor a guest in your house but by giving them the best meal you can?
I think this food consciousness can be elitist when all we do is talk about the ills of the food system, shop only at fresh markets markets, and then eat these meals in the quiet of our own bourgeois home. So there are ways to prevent the current movement back to a natural way of doing food from fading back into history yet again:
1. Buy/eat less for yourself: It’s easy for the rich to buy all the natural food they want, and then use their own budget as a model for poor families to adopt the same principles.
2. Eat with lots of people: Don’t just make this a thing for your family of four, of four your small group of enlightened, over-educated yuppies. Eat with a whole bunch of people. Change the way your church does potlock. Who knows—maybe years down the road the elders will find themselves not having to make so many hospital visits to pray for so-and-so’s kidney transplant, foot removal, or triple bypass.
3. Eat with the poor: This is a central Christian principle anyway, and we’re mostly horrible at it, but this movement is completely tainted if we don’t buy healthy food for the poor and even cook and eat it with them. This also goes back to the potluck thing. These hearty meals should not be eaten without taking in the people who need them the most, and I say this as someone who needs to hear it said.
4. Don’t judge people who don’t get it: This goes back to the poor thing too. Tell a person with food stamps they’re not doing a good job of making healthy choices and see if they don’t slap you. The people most to blame for this mess are the the heads of government institutions and corporations who betrayed the people of their land, not people who don’t have the money, knowledge, time, or corrected paradigm to know that this is important and can’t help but be attracted by low prices and corn-syrupy tastiness. Looking down on people who eat McDonald’s three times a week won’t do any good.
5. Be encouraging: This goes back to not judging. Paul warned against judging people based on man-made rules of “don’t eat, don’t taste, don’t touch”. But good stewardship comes with encouraging people and praising them for making wise choices. When someone makes a healthy meal give them extra praise. If someone is starting their own farm based on natural farming principles, support them and get the word out. Positivity helps move these principles along more than negativity. I can throw punches at McD’s all day: Talk about alternatives! And how they can be shared!
Let’s wrap up our thoughts on the whole matter of food with passages of scripture that cover the big picture of what we’ve explored in these digests. Pollan’s project of culminating with a meal of wild pig and wild shrooms reminds me of the significance of John the Baptist’s discipline of eating only locust and wild honey in the wilderness. Why was his diet so important to his role as a path-maker for Christ? I’m reminded of it’s resemblance to the manna-and-quail diet, a diet completely reliant on the wildness of creation and on what comes directly into your hands from God.
Manna from Heaven
Egypt was called the “iron furnace” (Deut. 4:20), an industrially frightening metaphor. In ancient times, slavery fed an empire’s centralized ag business, and Egypt was hard on slaves. The Jews had to build their cities, and so God would promise them that he would give them cities others had built. The plagues wreaked havoc on Egypt’s livestock and crops, and finally, her own children, for she failed to heed the Creator’s warning. By the way, industrialism thrives only if it has cheap labor, and the main thing that separates modern from old-world industrialism is the difference between slave labor and machine labor. Both are cheap, both have damaged societies. In Egypt, the government hoarded all the seed and redistributed it for planting. While the bean counters sat in the shade and the sowers sowed in Pharaoh’s fields, the poor would have to beg for seed.
The Jews long for the bountiful food of Egypt, yet forgot how horribly they were treated as slaves. Their amnesia and ungratefulness afflicted them so much that they long for their days as slaves as if they were days of roses, merely because the eating was good compared to desert food. God has to hit the reset button and build their thankfulness to him for food. He gives them what is an ultimate blessing, “bread down from heaven”, and the ultimate economic test. Their reaction to the manna from heaven will show whether they have left Egypt’s culture behind, or taken it with them. Food production and distribution must be remade in God’s eyes.
God gives them both animal (quail) and “vegetable/grain” (manna—a mystery food that was bread-like and/or fungus-like and grew like honeydew on grass). Together, the quail and manna gave them the protein and carbs they needed, and then some. The wildest, most immediate way to find animals and plants is to “hunt them”, and God takes it one step further. The quail fall from the sky and the manna grows all over the ground. His people don’t even have to go looking for the food—it’s right there! This immediate transaction demonstrates God is ultimately their provider. It’s like hunting for shroom and game, but without the hunt. Israel must be reminded that ultimately, they don’t make food, but only prepare what God has made. This leads them to respect everything about food and, more importantly, their relationship with God. They were to take only what they needed, and if they took more, it rotted the next day. This trained their stomachs and their souls for a new economy, and a deeper faith.
Everyone should have what they need, and nobody has a surplus. This is to be the basic foundation of their new economy. It’s not a scarcity of food that leads many people to starve, but a scarcity of money to buy food. If food is treated primarily as a profit commodity, starvation will eventually ensue.
Traditional farming takes a lot of faith, just as it took faith to await the falling of mana every morning and the assurance that you would be able to gather what you needed without someone else hoarding it. But the fears of traditional farming (drought, disease, locust, etc.) are outweighed by the graceful blessings.
God watches over a fertile land, and a King should serve it
Considering the new promised land, God’s people were told “it is a land of mountains and valleys. By the measure of the rain from the heavens it drinks water. It is a land which the Lord your God looks after; always the eyes of the Lord your God are on it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.” God gives his attention to the land of his people, and he has set up his creation to be healthy. When we take from the land, we can alter its landscape in a way that poisons the health. God is watching.
Said Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes, “The advantage of a land in everything is this: [even] a king is in service to a field.” If the king messes with the land, the consequences will undo him, even if he is crafty enough for a time to avoid being undone by inflicting the undoing on his own people. If this was Solomon himself speaking here, we have Israel’s wisest king realizing that he owes it to the farmers to do them right. Solomon’s reign involved much territorial and economic expansion, and Israel made much profit from her exports, much of them agricultural. It was in the eighth century that Amos and Hosea, very rural prophets, came forth and spoke out, much of their message against the crown’s injustice against farmers. Iron that could have made farming instruments instead went to make instruments of war. Farmers went into debt and put their land up as collateral, and the kings neglected Jubilee among other decrees of the Lord. The kings were not serving the land and its people.
Farmer’s wisdom vs farmer’s sloth
The book of Proverbs contains many proverbs about wise and foolish farming. The sloth, the sluggard, is not just defined as the man who is lazy, but as the man who has no sense, or does not apply sense to his work. We are slothful about producing food, choosing to factory produce it, which ironically causes us more stress, more trouble. The lack of wisdom causes destruction.
Listen to the words of Isaiah:
“When a farmer plows for planting, does he plow continually?
Does he keep on breaking up and working the soil?
When he has leveled the surface,
does he not sow caraway and scatter cumin?
Does he not plant wheat in its place,
barley in its plot,
and spelt in its field?
His God instructs him
and teaches him the right way.”
God teaches the farmer to diversify his portfolio. He plants a crop in a space that is fertile for that crop. Isaiah continues:
“Caraway is not threshed with a sledge,
nor is the wheel of a cart rolled over cumin;
caraway is beaten out with a rod,
and cumin with a stick.
Grain must be ground to make bread;
so one does not go on threshing it forever.
The wheels of a threshing cart may be rolled over it,
but one does not use horses to grind grain.
All this also comes from the Lord Almighty,
whose plan is wonderful,
whose wisdom is magnificent.”
Among the concerns of this great prophet Isaiah is the desire for God’s people to apply righteous wisdom in the form of preparing grain and spices in a sensible way.
Leviticus Eating Laws
We know that the Leviticus dietary laws aren’t all completely practical, that there is a holiness meaning attached to them. And we also know that God didn’t just pick random food items and declare clean or unclean in order to teach righteousness. It’s a mix of both that creates a unique food culture that communicates our relation to our creator and the creation (both the land and our own bodies), a relationship both hygienic and spiritual. Jews had to slaughter the animals as painlessly as possible, and the blood, the life essence, was not to be eaten, because God gave the life essence. These laws were meant to tame the eating habits of Israelites so that they would not take advantage of their land and food, that they would care for the land, its blessings and, ultimately, themselves.
These levitical laws are not binding in the new covenant, the underlying principles carried over. America’s industrial food system is designed solely for the financial benefits of the few chief producers. To the consumers, the only benefit is immediate cost of purchase, far outweighed by the numerous costs of living off such a system. How is this a food lifestyle that is grateful to God? How can it be good for us to merely “go with the flow” of the American food industry and all it signifies and reaps?
God’s local economy
Unlike any other nation, Israel’s laws focused just as much on care of the land as on sovereignty of the land, and the care of the land involved distributed sovereignty among tribes and families, not a centralized farming complex. Israel’s “agriconomy” was a system of small farms held by families in perpetuity, a system meant for subsistence and/or selling at local markets for profit.
Kings like Ahab tried to muscle out these family farms to expand their vision of a national harvesting industry in one way or another. The prophets do not speak well of them. Ahab thought he could just pay Naboth a lot of money for his vineyard as if the land was a mere commodity. Naboth only has to speak one line in this book: “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors.” (1 Kings 21:3).
The closest we get to any kind of “Big Ag” advice in scripture is for Egypt (already “industrialized” by ancient standards anyway) to build a grain reservoir for use in an expected emergency. We can see historically how dumping excess product on a smaller country damages their economy and hurts their farmers. Food is not equal to money. The local economies and farming environments of these countries have to be strengthened, not their grocery shelves. Even when Big Food acts with the good intentions of “food aid”, much damage is done.
Swords into Ploughshares
Isaiah and Joel both prophecy of a time when nations will “beat their swords into ploughshares”.
Warfare is antithetical to agriculture. The two are opposed. The prophets yearned for a time when nations would unlearn war and relearn to respect the land God gave them by wisely tending to it.
Ahab had a huge army to support and lived in two palaces, so he had to maximize his food production machine and make excess food for his household, another motive for buying/stealing Naboth’s vineyard. He only said that he wanted Naboth’s vineyard for vegetables, but it could have been for any purpose. Ahab was trying to muscle out family farms in order to make room for his military-industrial complex. I wonder how many Israelites supported Ahab—he was, after all, just trying to expand their beloved countries opulence and influence, right?
Monsanto, one of the most powerful food organizations in the world, participated in the creation of the atomic bomb and Agent Orange, weapons that destroyed cities and crops, and killed millions of people. When they left that research and production to make profit on something else, they may have used different tools and equipment, but they took their destructive, selfish world-view with them. It should be no surprise that such an organization would manipulate the genes of food, patent seeds, and use pesticides on their products. All three of these are a form of “food warfare”. As Sec. of Ag. Earl Butz said, “food is a weapon“. Not naturally, but when we choose to weaponize it. The way we do food in America does more to support the military-industrial complex than it does to support average citizens, least of all the poor. America’s industrial farming consumes high amounts of petrol (which we invade other countries to control), creates excess that is sent overseas to countries in ways that damage the local economies and poison citizens.
We must defy greedy CEOs and crooked politicians, and we cannot do so without the wisdom of natural farming, a wisdom so bountiful that Jesus drew nearly the whole of his parables from its ripe fields and fed his sheep with them.
I’m on a journey. And I have a lot to learn. I know a lot of you are on that same journey. Financial reasons keep us from making this transition more quickly, as do the number of people we love and eat with who are even earlier on this journey. We reluctantly have to get much of our groceries from Wal-Mart and Kroger, and although we cook a lot when we eat out and are invited out by others it is usually to a place that gets its meat from factory farms. Be patient with us, encourage us, and, most of all, help the poor in this journey.
You can drop loads of money on your own organic, local meals but if all you ever do is eat with your friends and family, I can’t imagine Jesus would be very impressed. In fact, one irony is that people who don’t share these food concerns sometimes to a better job of eating with the poor because they’re not wrapped up in the self-absorbed pretentiousness of bourgeois natural food culture. And don’t read Eat/Pray/Love. That will only encourage you to make this journey self-absorbed and spoiled.
I went on a journey myself as I read this book, eating different meals and more consciously comparing them. I want to eat better, and I want that to involve more than just my calorie and nutrient choices. I want to avoid poisons too, both in the food itself and in the environment from pollution due to the industrialization of food creation. I don’t want to just eat healthy—I want to eat consciously. Help me do that, and if I’m wrong, I want you to slaughter me.
Now let us give thanks for the food at our table. That’s where this begins for us.