The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals|
by Michael Pollan (Author)
From Publishers Weekly
Pollan (The Botany of Desire) examines what
he calls "our national eating disorder" (the Atkins craze, the precipitous rise
in obesity) in this remarkably clearheaded book. It's a fascinating journey up
and down the food chain, one that might change the way you read the label on a
frozen dinner, dig into a steak or decide whether to buy organic eggs. You'll
certainly never look at a Chicken McNugget the same way again.Pollan approaches
his mission not as an activist but as a naturalist: "The way we eat represents
our most profound engagement with the natural world." All food, he points out,
originates with plants, animals and fungi. "[E]ven the deathless Twinkie is
constructed out of... well, precisely what I don't know offhand, but ultimately
some sort of formerly living creature, i.e., a species. We haven't yet begun to
synthesize our foods from petroleum, at least not directly."Pollan's narrative
strategy is simple: he traces four meals back to their ur-species. He starts
with a McDonald's lunch, which he and his family gobble up in their car.
Surprise: the origin of this meal is a cornfield in Iowa. Corn feeds the steer
that turns into the burgers, becomes the oil that cooks the fries and the syrup
that sweetens the shakes and the sodas, and makes up 13 of the 38 ingredients
(yikes) in the Chicken McNuggets.
Indeed, one of the many eye-openers in the book
is the prevalence of corn in the American diet; of the 45,000 items in a
supermarket, more than a quarter contain corn. Pollan meditates on the
freakishly protean nature of the corn plant and looks at how the food industry
has exploited it, to the detriment of everyone from farmers to
fat-and-getting-fatter Americans. Besides Stephen King, few other writers have
made a corn field seem so sinister.Later, Pollan prepares a dinner with items
from Whole Foods, investigating the flaws in the world of "big organic"; cooks a
meal with ingredients from a small, utopian Virginia farm; and assembles a feast
from things he's foraged and hunted.
This may sound earnest, but Pollan isn't
preachy: he's too thoughtful a writer, and too dogged a researcher, to let
ideology take over. He's also funny and adventurous. He bounces around on an old
International Harvester tractor, gets down on his belly to examine a pasture
from a cow's-eye view, shoots a wild pig and otherwise throws himself into the
making of his meals. I'm not convinced I'd want to go hunting with Pollan, but
I'm sure I'd enjoy having dinner with him. Just as long as we could eat at a
table, not in a Toyota. (Apr.)Pamela Kaufman is executive editor at Food & Wine magazine.
From The Washington Post
Most of us are at a great distance from our food. I don't mean that we live
"twelve miles from a lemon," as English wit Sydney Smith said about a home in
Yorkshire. I mean that our food bears little resemblance to its natural
substance. Hamburger never mooed; spaghetti grows on the pasta tree; baby
carrots come from a pink and blue nursery. Still, we worry about our meals --
from calories to carbs, from heart-healthy to brain food. And we prefer our food
to be "natural," as long as natural doesn't involve real.
In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan writes about how our food is grown --
what it is, in fact, that we are eating. The book is really three in one: The
first section discusses industrial farming; the second, organic food, both as
big business and on a relatively small farm; and the third, what it is like to
hunt and gather food for oneself. And each section culminates in a meal -- a
cheeseburger and fries from McDonald's; roast chicken, vegetables and a salad
from Whole Foods; and grilled chicken, corn and a chocolate soufflé (made with
fresh eggs) from a sustainable farm; and, finally, mushrooms and pork, foraged
from the wild.
The first section is a wake-up call for anyone who has ever been hungry. In the
United States, Pollan makes clear, we're mostly fed by two things: corn and oil.
We may not sit down to bowls of yummy petroleum, but almost everything we eat
has used enormous amounts of fossil fuels to get to our tables. Oil products are
part of the fertilizers that feed plants, the pesticides that keep insects away
from them, the fuels used by the trains and trucks that transport them across
the country, and the packaging in which they're wrapped. We're addicted to oil,
and we really like to eat.
Oil underlines Pollan's story about agribusiness, but corn is its focus.
American cattle fatten on corn. Corn also feeds poultry, pigs and sheep, even
farmed fish. But that's just the beginning. In addition to dairy products from
corn-fed cows and eggs from corn-fed chickens, corn starch, corn oil and corn
syrup make up key ingredients in prepared foods. High-fructose corn syrup
sweetens everything from juice to toothpaste. Even the alcohol in beer is
corn-based. Corn is in everything from frozen yogurt to ketchup, from mayonnaise
and mustard to hot dogs and bologna, from salad dressings to vitamin pills.
"Tell me what you eat," said the French gastronomist Anthelme Brillat-Savarin,
"and I will tell you what you are." We're corn.
Each bushel of industrial corn grown, Pollan notes, uses the equivalent of up to
a third of a gallon of oil. Some of the oil products evaporate and acidify rain;
some seep into the water table; some wash into rivers, affecting drinking water
and poisoning marine ecosystems. The industrial logic also means vast farms that
grow only corn. When the price of corn drops, the solution, the farmer hopes, is
to plant more corn for next year. The paradoxical result? While farmers earn
less, there's an over-supply of cheap corn, and that means finding ever more
ways to use it up.
Is eating all this corn good for us? Who knows? We think we've tamed nature, but
we're just beginning to learn about all that we don't yet know. Ships were once
provided with plenty of food, but sailors got scurvy because they needed vitamin
C. We're sailing on the same sea, thinking we're eating well but still
discovering nutrients in our food that we hadn't known were there -- that we
don't yet know we need.
We've lost touch with the natural loops of farming, in which livestock and crops
are connected in mutually beneficial circles. Pollan discusses the alternatives
to industrial farming, but these two long (and occasionally self-indulgent)
sections lack the focus and intensity -- the anger beneath the surface -- of the
first. He spends a week at Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah
Valley, a farm that works with nature, rather than despite it. Salatin calls
himself a grass farmer, though his farm produces cows, chickens, eggs and corn.
But everything begins with the grass: The cows nibble at it at the precise
moment when it's at its sweetest and are moved from pasture to pasture to keep
the grass at its best height. Their droppings fertilize the grass, and the cycle
is under way. There's a kind of lyrical symmetry to everything that happens on
this farm. Even the final slaughtering of chickens is done quickly and humanely,
in the open air. It isn't pleasant, but compared to the way cattle are fattened
and slaughtered in meat industry feedlots and slaughterhouses, it is remarkably
We needn't learn how to shoot our own pigs, as Pollan does; there's hope in
other ways -- farmers' markets, the Slow Food movement, restaurants supplied by
local farms. To Pollan, the omnivore's dilemma is twofold: what we choose to eat
("What should we have for dinner?" he asks in the opening sentence of his book)
and how we let that food be produced. His book is an eater's manifesto, and he
touches on a vast array of subjects, from food fads and taboos to our avoidance
of not only our food's animality, but also our own. Along the way, he is alert
to his own emotions and thoughts, to see how they affect what he does and what
he eats, to learn more and to explain what he knows. His approach is steeped in
honesty and self-awareness. His cause is just, his thinking is clear, and his
writing is compelling.
Be careful of your dinner!
Paperback: 464 pages
Publisher: Penguin (August 28, 2007)