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The Omnivore's Dilemma

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Eating, our link between nature and culture

In his introduction to The Ominvore's Dilemma, Pollan sets up some themes that he revisits throughout the book. The one that speaks to me most is his concept of eating as our most prevalent link, our portal, our most "profound engagement" to the natural world. In any food chain, energy from sunlight is harvested by plants and converted to the building blocks of food, which are then utilized by herbivores, and may then be captured by carnivores. On p. 9, he says, "At either end of any food chain you find a biological system — a patch of soil, a human body — and the health of one is connected — literally — to the health of the other." Comparisons of food chains, long and short, industrial and otherwise, is the basis of the book.

To me, the closer food is to its original state, the easier this link is to see. When raspberries are freshly picked by the gardener or forager, their warm sweetness reminds one of the sun that powered the synthesis of the sugar. Those who routinely harvest their own food, or are few steps removed from the producer, think consciously about that link. We know that the time of day of the harvest affects the flavor, and that the food is sweetest after a sunny day, before it has had time to burn up the sugar for its own growth, or convert the sugar to starch. We know that vegetables brought from the fields are still alive, and through their metabolism convert flavor components from one thing to another post-harvest. My mother heeded the adage that for the best sweet corn, one should start the water boiling before picking the corn. I remember that in early summer when she was planning dinner, Mother would sometimes call up an asparagus producer outside our small town to say she was on her way, so please cut some fresh spears for her.

On page 10, Pollan also says that "Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds." An interesting question for discussion would be how do we as individuals see this connection, via food, between nature and culture? Is it from favorite ingredients in their elemental state? Is it from the way foods are combined? To you, how important is seasonal eating in underscoring this connection? Or does a favorite dish conjure up cultural associations, perhaps of family or ethnic history, whenever it is served? I'd like to hear from you about what foods have cultural connections for you, and why. And do these foods forge a link for you to nature?