The Omnivore’s Dilemma

You could call this book the foodie Guns, Germs, and Steel. Well researched and comprehensive (as you’d expect from the author of The Botany of Desire), it induces strong emotions about the way we currently eat. The book’s three sections–Industrial/Corn, Pastoral/Grass, and Personal/The Forest–are tied together with one common element: a “themed” meal in which Pollan elucidates the concepts covered in each heading.

First stop: McDonald’s, after a side trip to the cornfields of Iowa and a bovine Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) in Kansas. Pollan explains how fast food depends on corn-fed animals, modified corn starch, corn-syrup sweeteners (especially high-fructose corn syrup), partially hydrogenated corn oil, etc.; and how agribusiness in turn depends on government subsidies and considerable fossil fuel consumption. If you weren’t horrified enough by Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Pollan’s descriptions of CAFO methodology, where corn is practically force-fed to the cows, and manure lagoons are enough to make you gag.

Pollan then pushes his cart down the aisles of Whole Foods to explore the big business of organic–an increasingly complicated term for growers, retailers, and shoppers alike. His big insight from grazing under the fluorescent lights is, given the amount of fossil fuel used in the large-scale production and distribution of organic goods (not to mention that they’re often flown in from abroad), maybe the time has come to move beyond organic and to “raise the bar on the American food system once again.” Then, going the DIY orgo route, Pollan visits Polyface Farm, an artisanal operation in Virginia, where he tries his hand at killing chickens and rotating livestock in the pastures. These are some of the book’s best passages.

Finally, Pollan creates a meal from ingredients he’s foraged or hunted in the wild, in an effort to “start again from scratch.” Interspersed between the wild boar and mushroom hunting are excellent ponderings about “the omnivore’s dilemma”–i.e., what should we eat? This question, coupled with the conflicting messages Americans receive about health and weight loss, creates opportunities for both food marketers and scientists. Meanwhile, we consumers eat based upon what’s “good” or what’s convenient versus what actually tastes good. This tendency–call it addiction if you will–toward specialized, industrial-scale eating makes us like koalas and eucalyptus, Pollan suggests. We’re so used to eating one way, unhealthily, we’ve sadly lost touch with eating for pleasure–which he equates with a more diverse, less corporate, and better informed diet.

For the author, who isn’t about to hunt for all of his meals or to become a long-term vegetarian, the answer partly involves eating animals that have had happy lives and humane deaths. For busy Seattle readers unable to raise chickens in their backyards, the only solution may be wallets thick enough to support weekly deliveries of locally farmed produce, meat, and milk.