The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (Review)

The Omnivore’s Dilemma can be summed up in four stages:

1) Industrial corn. It’s everywhere, terrible for the environment, and we eat a crap-ton of the stuff.
2) Big organic. Marginally better, but it’s got issues too.
3) Small organic = The dream. More of this.
4) Foraging is fun, “natural”, and completely unpractical.

So if I had a red pen I’d obviously go back and circle number three. BUT, even though you know a few of the main points now, you should still read the book, and here’s why: Pollan is a great writer and intrepid explorer of questions who seems to have been one of the first people to have made it onto bestseller lists for a comprehensive yet journalistic work on the roots, history, and use of food. Basically, by reading this book I feel that I learned a lot about what goes into the food that I eat and the different choices that people make about eating.

The layout of the book leads you from the largest scale of food production/acquisition down to the smallest scale. Pollan goes to experts in each of the four categories–the first three being farmers of some sort, and the last being an expert forager and hunter. The character profiles and information that he gains from interviewing each of these experts were the most interesting parts of the book for me. I enjoyed learning about inherited legacies/methods of farming, the challenges these individuals face, and the rewards and profits in each sector.

Pollan adds to the narrative by doing copious research of his own on each topic. In addition, he describes his personal perspectives and observations on the culture of food for different families and nationalities. He eats a meal from each of the four categories, and I expect that foodies will especially love the description of his exploits in the kitchen after acquiring his food. The overall effect is a well-organized and thorough examination that teaches without being boring.

There were a few things about the book that I didn’t love, however. Foremost for me was the framing that eating organic and preparing your own nutritious “whole” meals is a choice that most of us can and should make. I do agree that eating organic is probably better for the environment (even if Big Organic is problematic in a number of ways as he describes), and that many of us–myself included–could actually afford to buy organic more often or even exclusively if we really wanted to. But there are a lot of people that are being left out of the equation. People who make very little money and to whom the cost of buying organic is definitely an insurmountable hurdle. To frame their choices to buy cheaper food as not choosing to provide their children with quality nutrition is preachy and uninformed. The same is true of the argument about preparing one’s own food all the time. Pollan advocates for us all to get over our annoyance of spending a lot of time cooking, and to learn to take joy in food preparation. Again, a single mom working two or three jobs might love to take that time and feed her kids healthily, but simply may not be able to. I have a feeling that Pollan was not marketing his book to these individuals.

Another aspect of the book that I found frustrating was the chapters that Pollan spent theorizing about the ethics of eating animals. He cites a number of different philosophers, and tries to create an objective argument for whether or not eating meat is something our species should do. As a vegetarian, I found this approach a bit annoying, since there are a number of reasons for choosing not to eat meat and probably no “objective” standard about the issue to be found anywhere. That he refers to vegetarians and animal rights advocates as “the animal people” (as opposed to “normal people”) doesn’t really help. Rather than searching for some overarching philosophy, I would have been more interested in Pollan framing it as his personal views and reasoning on the matter.

Qualms aside, Pollan couldn’t have chosen a more universal topic to focus on for his book; everyone has to eat, usually several times a day, and thus eating is something that we think about everyday to one extent or another. While the last part dragged a little for me (again, foodies would probably still be having a blast) I really appreciated his approach and journalistic process in exploring food. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the topic.


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