Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma came onto my reading radar in a rather unusual way. I had gone my entire life without knowing this book existed, and then over the course of a few weeks three of my professors mentioned it in class. It began in Intro to Anthropology during our food unit, which makes sense for obvious reasons. The title next appeared in a philosophy lecture about utilitarianism and the way many of us justify slaughtering animals for meat. You can imagine my surprise when this book was referenced a third time, the last being in the midst of a discussion in my literature class. We were talking about food in fiction and the role dining plays in literature when my professor dropped Pollan’s name. I nearly gasped out loud, I was so surprised.
In a matter of weeks, The Omnivore’s Dilemma had suddenly sprung into too many corners of my life for me to ignore it. Determined to discover what all the buzz was about, I borrowed a copy from my friend and added it to my personal summer reading list. Fortunately, I now understand why three of my professors thought it a valuable title to mention.
This review is divided into three parts, just like the book: corn, grass, and the forest.
The first part of The Omnivore’s Dilemma discusses food from an industrial perspective, focusing on what is arguably the most industrialized crop of all: corn. Corn doesn’t just come in the form of the cobs served at your annual summer cookout; in actuality, corn is present in a shocking amount of the food we eat (and by we, I mostly mean Americans). This section is by far my favorite part of the entire book because it is bewildering in the best, most intriguing way possible. Pollen’s later debates over eating meat as well as ethical farming practices are interesting and important, but his discussion of corn is fascinatingly absurd. I simply cannot wrap my mind around the sheer volume of corn and corn product that we consume. As Pollan points out:
“There are some forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn.” (p. 19)
If that statistic doesn’t send those red flags waving, then I honestly don’t know what will.
I love how Pollan was able to take a simply, seemingly innocuous food like corn and make me think of it in a completely different way. Corn is in the vast majority of fast food products, even soda. Thanks to the recent switch from grass feed to corn feed, corn is now in the meat we eat. It seems as though nothing can escape the clutches of corn these days, which is a bizarre and worrisome thought. Why do we allow our society to continue fostering this dependence on corn? It’s easy to grow in excess, it fattens animals more quickly than does grass; more importantly, it’s cheaper. But the effects of a corn-based society can be disastrous, not only regarding our health but that of the planet as well.
Don’t get me wrong– though I was utterly captivated by all of the corn talk, I did enjoy the following two sections as well. The second part of The Omnivore’s Dilemma discusses farming rom a pastoral perspective. Here, the star of the show is none other than grass.
This section is interesting, but it just can’t compare with the shock value of the previous part. The focus is primarily on small, sustainable farming, showing the tit is indeed possible to farm in a transparent manner. While the majority of large farming corporations conduct business behind closed (and undoubtedly locked) doors, many smaller farms allows customers to view– and often even participate in– the process of slaughtering animals for meat. Inevitably the meat-eating controversy was brought to the table, and Pollan ultimately utilizes a variety of sources to justify consumption while acknowledging the many problems associated with it. It’s one thing to turn a blind eye and simply buy a package of chicken in the grocery store; however, it’s an entirely different matter to b the reason the chicken ends up in that package in the first place.
Like I said before: it’s certainly interesting stuff, but not as fascinating as our current corn debacle.
I think it’s safe to say that these section arrive in the order I’ve ended up ranking them: favorite to least favorite. The third and final part discusses for from a personal perspective while emphasizing the important role played by the forest. Pollen sets out with the goal of putting together a full meal using only food he has obtained with his own two hands (through hunting gathering, growing, etc.). His subsequent adventures involve numerous new experiences for him, not the least of which is shooting a gun for the first time while learning how to hunt pigs. Ultimately he is successful in his desired meal– with the help of some foodie friends, of course.
The bulk of this third part consisted of detailed descriptions of how to hunt pigs, gather mushrooms, and prepare this specific meal. Though interesting at times, some of it was rather dull– especially when compared with all of that corn trivia.
Overall, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a thorough, comprehensive, incredibly important discussion about the way food is currently produced and consumed in the United States. Though I clearly enjoyed the corn section far more than the other two parts, one the whole this is an informative, eye-opening, and thought-provoking read. My professors were right: this is one book that can apply to nearly all subject, making one’s time spent reading it invaluable.
My Rating: :0) :0) :0) :0) 4 out of 5 smileys
Would I recommend it to a friend?: I would recommend this book to everyone! The topic is too important to let it go unread.
What are your thoughts on this book or any of these topics in general? Any recommendations for books about food? Let me know in the comments section below!