The Omnivore’s Dilemma

If you’re a panda bear, dinner is easy. It’s bamboo for you; you don’t have a choice and you don’t want one. But when you can eat anything, what should you eat? In other words, what in the world is for dinner? That’s the omnivore’s dilemma, Michael Pollan tells us.

And it’s worse in America in the 21st century. Our methods of food production, processing, and distribution are far removed from the animals and plants our food originally comes from. Would you have guessed that, thanks to government subsidies, chemical fertilizers, and Earl Butz, corn is in almost everything in your pantry and refrigerator? Starches, stabilizers, sweeteners, MSG — even your BBQ ribs or chicken breast or salmon filet go back to corn, because those animals were raised eating our massive corn surplus (whether they would eat grain in nature or not.) Do you even know what’s seasonal? Since tomatoes are available year round (and so is everything else), do you know when it should come into season? (Apologies to my non-American readers, who are all looking a bit perplexed right around now.) What should we eat, and when? What does fresh mean? Organic? Natural?

Michael Pollan explores these questions by taking his readers through four meals: one “conventionally” grown (though this seems an odd term for such recent developments as pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and monoculture), one “industrial organic” such as you might find at Whole Foods, one “beyond organic,” which you can only get by forming a relationship with a local farm, and one he foraged himself. The results are fascinating and (I kind of hate to say this, but it’s true) maybe life-changing. Once you know certain things about the food chain and the way animals and the earth are treated, you can’t un-know; it remains to be seen whether you choose to change, or to look away.

Pollan treats the subject energetically, with a journalistic style to his writing that makes it easy to read and easy to skim over bits you’d rather miss. (I found the section on foraging a bit silly, to be honest. He hunted a pig because… this tells him what about our food supply in America? But he enjoyed it, so who am I?) In the end, though, I was riveted by his descriptions of carefully-managed pasture, of the evolutionary strategies of corn, and how all of this affects us, today, and what’s on our plates. It’s made me think more carefully about what I eat and where I get it. I recommend this book if you’re looking for a jumping-off place; Pollan doesn’t spell out solutions. But as an eye-opener to the many Americans who don’t have the first idea where their food came from or why there’s so much corn in their pantry, this is the place to begin.

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4 Responses to The Omnivore’s Dilemma

  1. Caryn says:

    Apparently he does spell out solutions in his follow up book, which is titled, I think, In Defense of Food … shorthand: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. :-)

    I actually preferred Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Put it on the list … I think she’s a better writer, and her take on the whole thing, becoming a locavore, is more holistic and comprehensive than Pollan.

  2. Tara says:

    I absolutely loved this book and see that Caryn beat me to what I was going to say about Pollan’s most recent book.

  3. Pingback: Omnivore’s Dilemma (Audio) « Shelf Love

  4. shaunmiller says:

    Good stuff. I have also written a blog about it here: http://shaunmiller.wordpress.com/2009/03/09/book-review-the-omnivores-dilemma-by-michael-pollan/#comment-665

    In response to Pollan, I question the idea that domestication isn’t equal to some master/slave relationship. Pollen suggests that it was actually some evolutionary symbiotic relationship that help both the species. But what if humans forced these animals into domestication? If so, that it seems to weaken Pollan’s ethics of eating meat.

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