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The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

by Michael Pollan

A while back I was having dinner at a new place with colleagues after a particularly grueling week of work. Exhaustion and wine had combined to make me lose my focus in the conversation and I only came to attention when I heard someone say, "They have really good food here, I wonder how you can scale an operation like this to make some serious money." I smacked my hand down on the table and shouted, "You can't scale good food."

Awkward silence, everyone in the restaurant looking at me. My friend asks, "Why not?" If I had read this book, I would have had a good answer, but I would have tempered my opinions somewhat. How food is created in America is a complicated story. There are clearly some bad guys who do not care for good food or the health of those who eat it, but it's not obvious who wears the white hats.

First of all, this book is a great read and in a format I greatly enjoy: one part a deep dive into an interesting subject and another part travelogue. He breaks it down into four stores: Industrial production with a tour of the Midwest, Industrial Organic on the west coast, a process he calls beyond organic in the Shenandoah Valley and finally an attempt at living the Hunter-Gatherer existence in California. Each one of these stories could stand on its own, but the combination truly brings America's perplexing relationship with food to light. I took these lessons from the book:

Do Not Look to Corporation for Dietary Advice

Given that eating is something everyone does, the food market can only grow as fast as the population does. This means the only way for a corporation to profit at a Wall Street acceptable rate is some combination of lower cost of production and convincing consumers to spend more for the same thing or to eat more of it. The former means ruthlessly standardizing the production of food. Mr. Pollan ably demonstrates why this is destroying the environment and making us less healthy. As for convincing us to spend or eat more, that's not hard. We seem to be prey to all kinds of marketing gimmicks and health concerns which Corporate America has no problem stoking as they have just the antidote to sell us.

Organic Processes Are not a Panacea

The only way large organic concerns such as Whole Foods can work is to scale things up. This, ultimately, requires a standardized (there's that word again!) distribution network. Small farmers cannot reliably meet their demand, so only the large concerns succeed. Yes, it is true that this is healthier than regular industrial food production, but it is not environmentally sustainable and, arguably, uses more energy than non-organice food production.

Doing the Right Thing is Hard

Part of the reason many farmers have gone industrial despite it being a losing business is that it is extremely easy. You only have to work for a small fraction of the year and you don't have to think much, industry tells you what to do and when. Sustainable farming that produces healthy food requires a lot effort and thinking in order to balance the diversity of plants and animals that a sustainable concern needs to manage. Those willing to do this deserve our support. I shall seek them out and give them my business. And why not? Sure, it will cost more money, but the food will taste so much better.

A Well Thought Out Animal Rights Philosophy

I love meat. I always will, but that doesn't mean I condone maltreatment of animals. I have had difficulty arguing against folks such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. They seem to provide a good moral argument that's difficult to contradict. Mr. Pollan, though, does this well. I agree with his statement on page 328 of the paperback version of the book: "What's wrong with eating animals is the practice, not the principle." We can humanely raise and slaughter animals. Moreover, a healthy environment demands that animals are eaten. It's part of the cycle that we break at our own risk.

A Losing Battle?

The weak arguments that I did make to my workmates as to why good food shouldn't and can't be scaled were met with a shrug of their shoulders. "Why bother, then?"

A good meal should be more than just a business proposition, more than just the sum of the ingredients that went into it. It's the appreciation of the effort, wonder at a magical combination of flavors and the joy of the people you share it with. I hope this wins out.

Choose Your Battles


It's a simple act, turning on a light.

"What are you doing? Turn that off!"

"Why? It's dark in here, I can't see."

"See how high up that light is?"

I've lived in this house for years, walked through this foyer countless times.

I look.

"We don't have a ladder high enough to reach it. If that bulb burns out, we'll never get it changed."

"If that's the case, why don't we use it until it does burn out?"

She looks at me like I'm a stupid child, one that may not make it past the 6th grade.

I turn off the light.

(aka Cichorium intybus, Succory, Blue Sailors, Blue Daisy, Coffee Weed, Bunk)

Chicory Flower
Chicory Flower

This pretty blue flower carpets much of the untended areas in Centreville. It caught my eye when I noticed that the flowers were open in the morning, but closed upon my return home from work.

Chicory in the Morning and Evening
Chicory in the Morning and Evening

Chicory is native to Europe, but was introduced to the United States. Cultivated varieties include Radicchio and Belgian Endive. In its wild form, the roots can be roasted, ground and as used as an additive to or substitute for coffee. This is particularly popular in the south, where I have had it in my morning cup of joe. It appears, according to the Wikipedia article on Chicory, that the plant is useful in combating intestinal parasites. Still, I think I'll visit my doctor first.

Bobby Rightmyer of the Lexington Gardening Examiner writes:

To make a caffeine-free coffee-like beverage from the roots - scrub, chop, and toast them in a 350ºF oven 1 hour, or until dark brown, brittle, and fragrant, stirring occasionally. Grind to the size of coffee in a spice grinder or blender, and use like regular coffee—1½ tsp per cup of water.

She recommends harvesting the roots in the fall, so I will give it a shot, then.

Chicory Queen Anne's Lace and Chicory
Chicory Queen Anne's Lace and Chicory

Other references:

Dave's Seafood and Subs
Dave's Seafood and Subs

While running errands in the Chantilly area, I was overwhelmed with hunger. Lunch time! I happened to be driving by Dave's Seafood and Subs. Normally, I would not have chosen this place. It's a generic store front in a generic strip mall with nothing beyond the word "seafood" to grab my attention. However, a workmate of my wife's recommended it.

My first impression was, "Yup, inside looks just like what you'd expect from the outside. I was a little worried that I was the only one there, despite it being a little after noon (there was a steady stream of patrons after my arrival, though). This was assuaged by the aroma of freshly fried fish. MUST EAT NOW!

The Fish Combo
The Fish Combo

I focused solely on the seafood, ignoring the subs options. I order the fish sampler which included 3 pieces of fried fish (catfish, tilapia and, I believe, haddock) and 2 sides (I selected onion rings and potato salad). The wait was long enough to tell me that my order was made fresh. I was not disappointed.

Three large pieces of fish come out piping hot with a cornmeal coating strong enough that I could eat this by hand (calluses come in handy to insulate you from the heat). Delicious! It did not even need the tarter sauce it came with, though it was equally good with that and the ketchup / hot-sauce combo I usually mix up when anything fried is on the plate. The potato salad is as I like it: no big chucks, almost puréed with a mustardy dressing. The onion rings were nothing to write home about, just your generic Sysco supplied side dish.

My only complaint is that this is too much of a good thing. I could only eat half, and I was stuffing myself. This combo could easily be split between 2 people, maybe even 3. I say this is a problem because you need to eat fried fish (well any fried foods) quickly as the quality decline accelerates with time. My last few bites were still OK, but it was clear that this wouldn't make for good leftovers.

I will make a return visit with the family.

Revisiting Dave's Seafood & Subs

I find that with many new places we go to, the second visit is never as good as the first. Sometimes after raving about a place, my return trip leads me to wonder what in the heck I was thinking. (See my piece on the Curse of the Second Visit.) Not so with Dave's. This time I went with the whole family.

We ordered the 3 fish sampler again. The catfish was everyone's favorite, followed by the trout. The whiting was OK. The fried oysters, at first, had me worried. They looked over done, but were actually well cooked, meaty and just a degree below scalding. Perfect. The buffalo wings, too, had heft and a good combination of crispy outside and juicy meat.

Where this place excels is with their side dishes. For most places, these are just after thoughts probably bought frozen from a vendor. Dave's, however, makes their own and does it well. I will take this time to apologize for my comment in my initial review about the onion rings. I claimed they looked like typical food service fare, but, no, they are clearly home made and taste that way. I'm not sure why I thought otherwise last time. The potato salad, though, was as good this time as last. The only comment from the family was surprise at the the lack of chunks, being mostly puréed. The hush puppies were the best I've had this far north.

If you're in Chantilly and you're hungry, you could do a lot worse.

Dave's Seafood and Subs
4008 Walney Rd
Chantilly, VA 20151-2986