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August 20, 2007

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Filed under: American Food,Japanese Food — Mr. Henry @ 9:43 am

From time to time Mr. Henry takes the pulse of his foodie friends. He can report that the locavore discussion seems to have hit a national nerve.images.jpg

When national nerves get hit, arguments rarely stay well-tempered and intelligent. He was especially delighted, therefore, to read this brilliant, concise defense of the local food movement from Chachaheels:

I don’t think the “100 mile” limit is meant to be imposed like law. It’s simply to get you to focus on the food that’s produced locally by local farmers who are very likely small independent farmers (or, part of a food growing co-op, or organic or drug free food producers). I’ve seen people talk about “adopting” this food lifestyle and then crying about how you can’t buy Parmigiano reggiano cheese because it comes from Parma Italy, which is thousands of miles away from Canada, where I live. They are missing the point, and it’s an important one.

I live in one of the best areas of arable land in the world, and we have farmers producing all kinds fruits and vegetables, and all manner of meats and dairy and local specialty foods wherever you turn–yet, every summer, when the fields are laden with this produce and local farmers are trying as hard as possible to sell as much as they can so they can keep farming, our supermarkets are stuffed to the rafters with fruit, vegetables, and meats from anywhere else (usually California or South America)–often exactly the same produce that local farmers are producing literally across the street from their aisles.

The “100 mile” rule is to get consumers to think about buying the fresh, ripe, well prepared foods from the people they live near (because shaming the supermarket conglomerates to sell local foods just hasn’t worked in Canada). Not only do you keep your local economy alive, the stuff just tastes so much better and is so much better for you. And you can find out exactly what your neighbour is doing when the food’s produced. Try doing that with some Monsanto-run agricorp in the US whose contracts for sales with the megalomart in your town has to honour well into the next millennium.

Then, buy the parmiggiano reggiano from Parma because even though it comes from half a world away, it’s still made a lot like it was 800 years ago. To make the local stuff taste great!OmnivoresDilemma_med.jpg

This year the novelist Barbara Kingsolver wrote Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, an entertaining chronicle of one year’s attempt to eat local products. This follows in the wake of Michael Pollan’s brilliant exegesis The Omnivore’s Dilemma. After reading the Omnivore, you can never again look at corn through the same eyes. Our national addiction to corn has transformed not only the American palate and the American waistline but the American landscape itself. Most interesting of all is the connection between fossil fuels and corn production. Nitrate fertilizers necessary for the production of such vast quantities of cheap corn come from oil and gas.

From all the good arguments presented in the discussion, the most convincing one to Mr. Henry, the one that persuades him beyond a reasonable doubt, is taste. Indeed, this is the Omnivore’s and Chachaheels’ conclusion, too.

A recent N.Y. Times op-ed piece about “food miles” neatly skewered the reduction of fossil fuel argument. In England it seems that to eat tender and toothsome New Zealand grass-fed lamb leaves a far lighter carbon footprint than to eat local grain-fed lamb. And, of course, New Zealand lamb is tastier.

The common factor here is taste. In science as in art, the simplest solution is the most elegant. Although local may trump organic, taste trumps both. Eating what tastes good makes plain good sense, an argument any three-year old would understand. In the marriage of science and art that constitutes cuisine, taste should be your unfailing guide.

Mr. Henry is wary of preachers, do-gooders, and moral arguments in the public arena. American puritanism runs deep and wide, always threatening to over-run its shallow banks. Is he paranoid to suspect that in this new food fight old-fashioned protectionist arguments may soon arise, as before, from flag-waving America-firsters?

He is reminded of the 1970’s contretemps about imported automobiles. Small, efficient, well-engineered Japanese imports had begun to steal significant market share from hulking, guzzling, Detroit road hogs. A hapless Chinese immigrant, Vincent Chin, was beaten to death by auto workers who mistakenly believed him to be Japanese.


Mr. Henry wants to state here and now that he is not willing to lay his life on the line to undermine the monopolies of American agribusiness. Should he buy local products, he will do so quietly and without claims of moral superiority. Cargill, Monsanto, and Archer Daniels Midland may now remove Mr. Henry from their list of terror suspects. He snacks on corn chips. He loves the smell of combines in the morning.


  1. I used to work in an industry associated with the produce industry. I asked a local produce manager at Big Chain Supermarket here (Memphis) one day who did the buying and whence the produce. He told me that there were regional buyers who tried to buy locally as much as possible because it reduced Big Chain’s distribution costs. He, as the produce manager, just wanted the best-tasting, lowest-priced product to keep his customers happy.

    Comment by class-factotum — August 22, 2007 @ 6:23 pm

  2. doesn’t it all come down to common sense in the end? I have a garden, shop at the farmers mkts,but I love my coffee! and my parmigiano-reggiano… the corn thing really scares me, tho. read the labels.. there is high-fructose corn syrup in so much of what we eat. thanks again, mr henry.

    Comment by lorraine — August 24, 2007 @ 4:39 pm

  3. Oh, Mr. Henry! How flattering! Thank you for your kind words.

    I’ve never read the Omnivore’s Dilemma, but it does sound like a terrific book written by a wonderful writer, Margaret Visser, called Much Depends on Dinner. The book’s about 20 years old now, and in it, she “dissects” a typical, simple meal featuring salad, corn on the cob, fried chicken, and ice cream. It was quite an eye opener for me, especially in bringing up the (then less discussed) issues of modern farming practices, food history, and the realities of marketing in creating various “mystiques” around food. The chapter on corn–which focuses some attention on the fact that it is an ingredient in every item sold in any supermarket–is fascinating. But the chapter on ice cream, and Haagen Daas in particular, is hilarious. The book really pushed me in the direction of the work I now do: I practice an alternative medicine and I augment that work with providing nutritional counselling as a means for restoring health. She made it so clear that we must know what we’re eating, and know also the importance of pleasure in consuming the foods we eat: I’ve learned in my work that no one ever becomes well again without incorporating those ideas in their dietary habits.

    Enough rambling….I encourage everyone to read Margaret Visser (and really, anything she writes is brilliant) and I’m going to go off and find a nice copy of the Omnivore’s Dilemma for my own pleasure.

    Thanks again, Mr. Henry! Your post was a lovely surprise.

    Comment by chachaheels — August 29, 2007 @ 8:36 am

  4. Oop, I just responded to the above post without seeing this one – I will vouch that the Kingsolver book is a great and inspiring read. But I think we need to stay away from the guilt factor here and stick with the taste factor, that’s a much better way to focus on the issue.

    Oh, and our local supermarket suddenly has begun advertising local vegetables! It’s only corn and squash and I’m sure most everything else is form California or Mexico but it’s really nice to see!

    Comment by Anne (in Reno) — September 5, 2007 @ 9:55 pm

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