The Omnivore’s Dilemma changed how I think about food.
Until reading the now classic 2006 tome by Michael Pollan, I never noticed the extreme lack of diversity in the modern North American diet due to its evolution since World War II. Events have since conspired to show me the extent that corn, dairy and wheat join salt and sugar to form a significant part of a Canadian diet too. Often we think we are eating one thing and it turns out that we are actually eating something else.
The industrialization of our food system has separated us from natural systems while hurting our health, our planet and our soil. Despite that understanding, reversing the habit has been an ongoing struggle. As Pollan points out in his conclusion, everything in our culture encourages us to rely on the convenient, unemotional and often unrecognizable food-like products offered in bulk by giant industrial companies.
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. I wonder if it isn’t because so much of that context has been lost that I felt the need, this one time, to start again from scratch.” (p 411)
For Pollan, starting again from scratch meant travelling across America to discover the basic ingredients within four meals: a McDonald’ meal eaten in a fast car, a Whole Foods organic dinner, a Polyface Farm meal, and a foraged meal. Pollan takes readers along with him, detailing every element in each meal from start to finish. He brings us with him into industrial food operations, to small and large farms, and into the forest in search of mushrooms and big game to hunt.
In between the descriptions of places and people, Pollan carefully outlines every element within every meal. Often, many of these elements turn out to have the same source.
In his description of his McDonald’s meal, for instance, he described how three people chose 45 different products almost totally made of corn.
It would not be impossible to calculate exactly how much corn Judith, Isaac, and I consumed in our McDonald’s meal. I figure my 4-ounce burger, for instance, represents nearly 2 pounds of corn (based on a cow’s feed conversion rate of 7 pounds for every 1 pound of gain, half of which is edible meat). The nuggets are a little harder to translate into corn, since there’s no telling how much actual chicken goes into a nugget; but if 6 nuggets contain a quarter pound of meat, that would have taken a chicken half a pound of feed corn to grow. A 32-ounce soda contains 86 grams of high-fructose corn syrup (as does a double-thick shake), which can be refined from a third of a pound of corn; so our 3 drinks used another pound. Subtotal: 6 pounds of corn.” (p115)
The Omnivore’s Dilemma also contains a great deal of information about how many societal norms and regulations have radically transformed when it comes to food. Often these changes were due to marketing by various members of the agricultural industry.
Back in the fifties, when the USDA routinely compared the nutritional quality of produce from region to region, it found striking differences: carrots grown in the deep soils of Michigan, for example, commonly had more vitamins than carrots grown in the thin, sandy soils of Florida,” wrote Pollan, on page 178. “Naturally this information discomfited the carrot growers of Florida, which probably explains why the USDA no longer conducts this sort of research. Nowadays U.S. agricultural policy, like the Declaration of Independence, is founded on the principle that all carrots are created equal, even though there’s good reason to believe this isn’t really true.”
In other places, Pollan speculates about the extent that changes to our food system might be creating problems with our health.
One of the most important yet unnoticed changes to the human diet in modern times has been in the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6, the other essential fatty acid in our food. Omega-6 is produced in the seeds of plants; omega-3 in the leaves. As the name indicates, both kinds of fat are essential, but problems arise when they fall out of balance. (In fact, there’s research to suggest that the ratio of these fats in our diet may be more important than the amounts.) Too high a radio of omega-6 to omega-3 can contribute to heart disease, probably because omega-6 helps blood clot, while omega-3 helps it flow. (Omega-6 is an inflammatory; omega-3 an anti-inflammatory.) As our diet—and the diet of the animals we eat—shifted from one based on green plants to one based on grain (from grass to corn), the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 has gone from roughly one to one (in the diet of hunter-gatherers) to more than ten to one.” (p268)
Despite multiple examples of dense information, the overall impression a reader has of Omnivore’s Dilemma is an exploration of America through its food and communities. Pollan aptly outlines his deep concern about deep problems in the food system while demonstrating how caring individuals can change how things are done.
Pollan has nicely captured the hurtful and healing attributes of America’s food system. Omnivore’s Dilemma remains a treasure and a great source of hope.
Reading it may force you to change the way you eat, the way you shop and the way you see your local community as it did for me.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
By Michael Pollan
Are you a word nerd? If so, consider getting a writing reference book from the following list and support your passion and my work at the same time.
If you choose to buy one of these books through my affiliate links, I get a few cents although you don’t pay any additional fee.
Then we can both sit back and explore the world of nonfiction. Very few people in the world understand how wonderful it is for word nerds to pick up a good writing reference guide and read a few pages for fun.
I’m not talking about those moments when grabbing it quickly confirms a particular grammar point, although that’s useful too. No, instead I’m speaking about those lazy days when anything is possible and yet somehow the whole day passes by because I chose to sit and read The Chicago Manual of Style for a few minutes.
In addition to thinking about language and getting tips to improve your craft, writing reference guides can trigger new research ideas.
Once while reading the section about citing sources, for example, I discovered a new potential source for research. On page 748, it says:
Command papers are so called because they originate outside Parliament and are ostensibly presented to Parliament “by command of Her [His] Majesty.” The different abbreviations for “command” indicate the series and must not be altered. No s is added to the plural [Cmnd. 3834, 3835].
That made me curious. Turns out that Command Paper 3834 is a book called “Review Body on Armed Forces Pay: 1998, 27th Report by Great Britain, Gordon Hourston (Paperback, 1998).” This exercise made me realize that researching under the term “command papers” in the UK National Archives might lead to detailed policy analyses that are unavailable elsewhere. Awesome lesson!
While the Chicago Manual of Style contains depth beyond its key strength, most writing references are less diverse. Each one meets a precise purpose for a particular situation.
As with many works of notable nonfiction, that purpose depends on whether you’re looking for story, structure or style advice.
I have selections of books to help inspire me about all three challenges, yet there are still a few highly recommended books on my wish list. I’ve listed all of these below to give you an idea about which books cover which topics best. Books with reviews or affiliations links on this blog are hyperlinked to those resources.
Brown, Rita Mae. Starting From Scratch. A Different Kind of Writers’ Manual. New York: Speakeasy, 1988. ISBN 0-533-34630-X.
Cheney, Theodore A. Rees Writing Creative Nonfiction. Berkeley: Tenspeed Press, 1991. ISBN 0-89815-411-1.
DeBartolo Carmack, Sharon. You Can Write Your Family History. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2003.
Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. New edition. Shambhala, 2005.
King, Stephen. On Writing. A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Simon & Shuster Inc., 2000. ISBN 0-671-02425-6.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.
Nieman Foundation. Telling True Stories. Edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call. New York: Penguin Group, 2007. ISBN 978-0-452-28755-6.
Pen Canada. Writing Away. Edited by Constance Rooke. Toronto, McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1994. ISBN 0-7710-6956-1.
Best American Essays 2000. Edited by Alan Lightman and Robert Atwan. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. ISBN 0-618-035580-x.
Bishop, Leonard. Dare to be a Great Writer. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1992. ISBN 0-89879-464-1.
Kuriloff, Peshe C. Rethinking Writing. New York: St. Martin’s Press Inc., 1989. ISBN 0-312-00274-2.
Larsen, Michael. How to Write a Book Proposal, Writer’s Digest Books; 4th edition (April 18, 2011), ISBN: 158297702X.
Law Hatcher, Patricia. Producing a Quality Family History. Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1996.
Moffett, James. Points of Departure. An Anthology of Nonfiction. New York: New American Library, 1985. ISBN 9780451627285.
Ross, Raymond S. Essentials of Speech Communication. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1984. ISBN 0-13-289173-5.
Sands, Katharine. Making the Perfect Pitch; How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye.
Strathcona County Board of Education Communications Handbook. Edited by Paula S. Goepfert. Scarborough: Nelson Canada, 1982. ISBN 0-17-6015 07-8.
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey. Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 1998. ISBN 0-941188-70-1.
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction. New York: Harper and Row, 1976. ISBN 0-06-272027-9.
Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, edited by Christopher W. French et al. Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1986. ISBN 0201100916.
Board for Certification of Genealogists Genealogy Standards. Edited by Thomas W. Jones. Washington: Turner Publishing Company, 2014. ISBN 978-1-630-26018-7.
Canadian Press Stylebook. Edited by Bob Taylor. Toronto: The Canadian Press, 1986, ISBN 0-920009-01-8.
Canadian Style. Edited by Malcolm Williams and Vitalijs Bucens. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1997. ISBN 978-1-55002-882-9.
Carroll, David L. A Manual of Writer’s Tricks. New York: Paragon House, 1990. ISBN 1-55778-314-4.
Casagrande, June. Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies. A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
Coles Handbook of English Grammar and Composition. Toronto: Coles Publishing Company Limited, 1980.
Gordon, Karen Elizabeth. The Deluxe Transitive Vampire. The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager and the Doomed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.
Hale, Constance. Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. New York: Broadway Books, 1999.
Hart, Jack. Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction Paperback, University Of Chicago Press; Reprint edition (Oct. 12 2012), ISBN 0226318168.
Kleinschmit, Nathalie. Borderless English. Manitoba: Global’ease, 2008. ISBN 978-0-9783825-06.
Mahan, Margaret D. F. The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition. The University of Chicago Press, 2003, ISBN 0-226-10403-6.
Merriman, Brenda Dougall. Genealogical Standards of Evidence: A Guide for Family Historians. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2010.
Shown Mills, Elizabeth. Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Revised edition. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2009.
Strunk Jr., William and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 1999, ISBN 0-02-418200-1.
Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books, 2003. ISBN 1861976127.
Venolia, Jan. Write Right. A Canadian Desk-Drawer Digest of Punctuation, Grammar and Style. North Vancouver: Self-Counsel Press, 1983. ISBN 088908-554-4.
Weber Shaw, Fran. 30 Ways to Help You Write. New York: Bantam Books, Inc., 1980, ISBN 0-553-24073-0.
If you’re new to writing, or if you’ve never used books to inspire you to improve your craft, you might consider judging the “sound” of these books to select those that might appeal to you.
When I say sound, I’m referring to how we hear books in our head as we read them. Readers are used to judging poetry by sound, which encompasses mood, rhythm and tone, but they often forget that other books have the same qualities.
Authors also change how quickly they want readers to read by playing around with how they present their work.
Narrative voice, wordplay and book chapter and sentence structure encompass the mood of a work, whether argumentative, playful, intense or light.
The layout of a written text captures rhythm and reflects whether an author wants readers to quickly skip over sentences or pause and meander through them slowly.
Prose style captures the tone of a work.
Long words, sentences and paragraphs encourage deep thought and slow reading, while short precise sentences present a conclusion as though already formed in a reader’s mind. Is a work divided into small bite-sized chunks that encourage a reader to read sections separately whenever encouragement is needed? Do quick sentences make it difficult to put a book down? Do chapters end on cliffhangers that keep readers wanting more or do they end at clear conclusions to encourage readers to think?
Thinking about sound when judging a book can help readers understand what a writer wants to project.
Most writers fit into a particular type: reporter, researcher or storyteller. All writers have characteristics from each type, but your key tendencies determine your type. In brief, reporters focus on events and news; researchers love information-gathering and storytellers create narratives easily.
Take my family history quiz to find out which type of writer you are and then get the ideal books to help you with story, structure and style.
If you’re a reporter, you’ll appreciate
If you’re a researcher, I’d suggest:
If you’re a storyteller, you’ll probably like:
As a Canadian, I also reference the Canadian Press Stylebook frequently. Rules in Canada sometimes match American rules, while at other times we use British rules. The Canadian Press Stylebook, which was first published in 1940, helps me keep the exceptions to Chicago straight.
If you’re a family history writer, you need Genealogy Standards for style.
Obsessive writers like me own all thirteen of the above books, plus a great many more. We are the word nerds.
Any writer who cares about craft will enjoy “On Writing”, the style guide memoir Stephen King published in the millennial year.
King knows how to get and keep the attention of his reader. I read “On Writing” so quickly, you’d think someone was racing me to the finish. King covers his struggles with alcoholism, insecurities, confidence and hero worship between nuggets of writing wisdom.
My favourite quote concerns simple sentences. You’ll find it on page 121.
Take any noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence. It never fails. Rocks explode. Jane transmits. Mountains float. These are all perfect sentences. Many such thoughts make little rational sense, but even the stranger ones (Plums deify!) have a kind of poetic weight that’s nice. The simplicity of noun-verb constructions is useful-at the very least it can provide a safety net for for your writing.
About halfway through the book (page 209), he compares Kurt Vonnegut’s writing process with his own. Both of them sound like torture to me, but he specifically mentions that not all writers follow the same routine.
With the door shut, downloading what’s in my head directly to the page, I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable. Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names os my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.
King finishes On Writing with three pages of “the best books he read over the past three or four years” (ie from 1996-2000).
I highly recommend the only nonfiction title I knew from that list: Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods.
Due to an unfortunate health problem, Pulitzer prize–winning reporter Alex Tizon died three months before “My Family’s Slave,” his incredible tale about Eudocia Tomas Pulido, appeared on the cover of the June issue of the Atlantic Magazine.
We called her Lola,” wrote Tizon. “She was 4 foot 11, with mocha-brown skin and almond eyes that I can still see looking into mine—my first memory. She was 18 years old when my grandfather gave her to my mother as a gift, and when my family moved to the United States, we brought her with us. No other word but slave encompassed the life she lived. Her days began before everyone else woke and ended after we went to bed. She prepared three meals a day, cleaned the house, waited on my parents, and took care of my four siblings and me. My parents never paid her, and they scolded her constantly. She wasn’t kept in leg irons, but she might as well have been. So many nights, on my way to the bathroom, I’d spot her sleeping in a corner, slumped against a mound of laundry, her fingers clutching a garment she was in the middle of folding.”
Had he lived to tour and answer questions about his experience, Tizon might have prompted an even bigger discussion about modern slavery in North American than his article set off.
“My Family’s Slave” details Tizon’s complicated relationship with his nanny and household maid. Initially, Lola was trapped due to decisions made by his mother and grandfather. After Alex became responsible for Lola, he tried to free her, but by then, she didn’t have anywhere else to go. He paid to send her back home to the Philippines, but she returned to his household soon after saying she no longer fit in with the few people still alive in her hometown.
It’s hard not to wonder how many similar situations exist across North America.
When he came to us with the enthralling, vexing story of his immigrant family and its terrible secret, we recognized that this was the sort of journalism The Atlantic has practiced since its inception,” wrote editor Jeffrey Goldberg, in a companion article to the piece. “The magazine was founded in 1857 by a group of New England abolitionists eager to advance the cause of universal freedom. When I first read a draft of Alex’s piece, I imagined that the founders—people like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Harriet Beecher Stowe—would not have believed that 154 years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, humans would still be enslaving other humans, in America and across the planet. The eradication of all forms of slavery remains an unfinished goal of civilization, and of this magazine, and stories like Alex’s help us understand slavery’s awful persistence.”
Tizon’s story follows a complicated structure that weaves four storylines together. One storyline follows the author’s journey as he carries Lola’s ashes to her birthplace outside of Manilla, told in the order in which it took place in narrative fashion, complete with flashbacks to previous visits to the region. A second storyline outlines the history of slavery as an institution from modern times dating back to some time prior to the 1500s. Another storyline highlights the history of the Tarlac Province and Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. The main storyline connects each of the other three by describing Lola’s service to Tizon’s family, highlighting key moments of connection, cruelty and turmoil.
We landed in Los Angeles on May 12, 1964, all our belongings in cardboard boxes tied with rope. Lola had been with my mother for 21 years by then. In many ways, she was more of a parent to me than either my mother or my father. Hers was the first face I saw in the morning and the last one I saw at night. As a baby, I uttered Lola’s name (which I first pronounced “Oh-ah”) long before I learned to say “Mom” or “Dad.” As a toddler, I refused to go to sleep unless Lola was holding me, or at least nearby.”
Like most of the stories in The Atlantic, “my family’s slave” represents exquisite long-form journalism. No errors appear in the text and each sentence flows easily from the one it follows.
I highly recommend My Family’s Slave by Alex Tizon , The Atlantic, May 15, 2017, accessed April 2, 2018.