Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Omnivores Dilemma CoverThe Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan (2006)

“What’s for dinner? This seemingly simple question takes on a whole new meaning when considered in light of the omnivore’s dilemma — that is, when you can eat pretty much anything, what should you eat, particularly if you want to be healthy? In the United States in particular, we seem thrown into a perpetual quandary about what we should eat — low-carb or low-fat? margarine or butter? vegetarian, lacto-ovo, vegan or go for the steak? and shouldn’t it be organic? — primarily because we don’t have a traditional cuisine to fall back on, like the French, Italians, Japanese and Chinese, Pollan posits.

Pollan takes on four meals with four origins in an effort to figure out the answer to the omnivore’s dilemma: an industrialized, processed, fast-food meal; a big-organic, Whole Foods meal; a sustainably and locally grown meal; and a meal he has completely grown, foraged and hunted for himself. (I notice he didn’t mill his own flour for that one, though, which was cheating a bit.) Pollan attempts to trace each meal back to its ultimate origins: the cow that made the McDonald’s hamburger; the organic chicken ranging freely; the wild mushroom growing deep in a pine forest. His fascinating journey takes many unexpected twists and turns, and ultimately leads back to — in the case of the industrialized meal — an Iowa cornfield where the ingredients for most of our processed food, including hamburger, originate.

This book is clearly an indictment of industrialized agriculture, with its dependence on a monoculture based on corn which farmers can’t make enough money selling to even cover the costs of growing but have no other real choice; its treatment of livestock as products on a factory line, creating environments where meat and eggs become less nutritious while disease runs amuck; its overuse of fossil fuels to ship and store out-of-season vegetables across the country to displace those that can be grown locally. But neither does it advocate a return to prehistoric hunting and gathering methods of feeding ourselves. Rather, Pollan wants us to know exactly what we’re eating, where it came from and how much it really cost to produce. He wants to pull down the curtain that shields us from how our food is really grown, raised, slaughtered, processed and distributed. Only then can we make good choices about what we eat that will return to a more natural way of eating, one that is more deeply connected to the soil and sun from which all of our food ultimately originates.

I think this is a very important book for anyone who cares about food to read. And we should all care about food, because food is what sustains us. In nature, everything is connected, and when we attempt to break those connections by removing plants and animals from their natural environments and trying to turn them into predictable machines, the result is inevitably harmful — to the environment, to the plants and animals, and to ourselves. As the end consumers, only we have the power to bring about change, as we each choose what to eat for dinner.

See also my related post: To Eat Meat or Not to Eat Meat: That Is the Question.

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6 thoughts on “Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

  1. Suzanne 5 November 2006 at 9:38 pm

    You are definitely added to my blogroll! Great blog!!!

  2. […] under: Roundups — shannonoz @ 11:51 am Michael Pollan, author of one of my favorite books The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has published an article, “Unhappy Meals,” in the New York Times Magazine, that uses a […]

  3. […] The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (reviewed on my cooking site) […]

  4. […] was quite shocked when I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and learned how farm subsidies promote such a monoculture that it leads to products like corn […]

  5. […] I’m also reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. This was another book I was greatly looking forward to reading, but I can’t make much progress. I started it a few months ago, when I was still pregnant, but I had to put it down because it was depressing me so much. I picked it up again recently, read one page and remembered why it was so depressing. The statistics she provides on our whole food system and how precarious it is are frightening. Maybe I don’t need to read this. My eyes were already wide opened by The Omnivore’s Dilemma. […]

  6. […] of course there’s Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, the classic work. I would also recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma, or anything by Michael Pollan, really. Maybe Walden. Beyond that, you can find a list on Wikipedia. […]

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