The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Nonfiction — print. Penguin, 2007. Originally published 2006. 450 pgs. Purchased.

Subtitled “A Natural History of Four Meals”, Pollan’s book examines how the American food system works by looking at four meals he consumes throughout the book. The book is divided into three sections – industrial, pastoral, and personal – with the sections looking at our dependence upon corn (which is in just about everything at the grocery store), opting out for grass-fed and organic, and hunting-and-gathering, respectively.

“The ninety-nine-cent price of a fast-food hamburger simply doesn’t take account of that meal’s true cost – to soil, oil, public health, the public purse, etc., costs which are never charged directly to the consumer but, indirectly and invisibly, to the taxpayer (in the form of subsides), the health care system (in the form of food-borne illnesses and obesity), and the environment (in the form of pollution), not to mention the welfare of the workers in the feedlot and the slaughterhouse and the welfare of the animals themselves.” (pg. 201)

He spends time with a farmer who grows corn and one who grows grass, but seems that have much more respect for the later than the former, and touches briefly upon the growth of fast food in America. He also discusses how organic has become industrialized and does not mean what people think it means. In fact, during my own recent trip to the grocery store, I discovered that organic strawberries come from Turkey!

“A global food market, which brings us New Zealand lamb in the spring, Chilean asparagus in December, and fresh tomatoes the year round, has smudged the bright colors of the seasonal food calendar we all once knew by heart. But for local food chains to succeed, people will have to relearn what it means to eat according to the seasons. This is especially true in the case of pastured animals, which can be harvested only after they’ve had several months on rapidly growing grass. Feeding animals corn in CAFOs has accustomed us to a year-round supply of fresh meats, many of which we forget were once eaten as seasonally as tomatoes or sweet corn: People would eat most of their beef and pork in late fall or winter, when the animals were fat, and eat chicken in the summer.” (pg. 253)

I was looking forward to this book for two reasons; the first, of course, being that it seems to have made it way into American culture, meaning that people reference and namedrop it quite frequently (at least in the places I live). The second reason is that my mother absolutely loved the book when she read is last summer and is constantly attempting to discuss it with me.

“Our food system depends on consumers’ not knowing much about it beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner. Cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing. And it’s a short way from not knowing who’s at the other end of your food chain to not caring – to the carelessness of both producers and consumers. Of course, the global economy couldn’t very well function without this wall of ignorance and the indifference it breeds. This is why the rules of world trade explicitly prohibit products from telling even the simplest stories – “dolphin safe”, “humanely slaughtered,” etc. – about how they were produced.” (pg. 245)

Unfortunately, I do not exactly echo her sentiments. This book is packed full of information, which can be overwhelming when attempting to read the book straight through. The first two sections are quite interesting and encourage thought and conversation about the moral ramifications of Americans’ eating habits. I found myself flagging more than a couple of passages in each section because I found them interesting or want to bring them up for further discussion in class on Monday.

“As long much as one egg looks pretty like e another, all the chickens like chicken, and beef beef, the substitutions of quantity for quality will go on unnoticed by most consumers, but it is becoming increasingly apparent to anyone with an electron microscope or a mass spectrometer that, truly, this is not the same food.” (pg. 269)

I cannot say the same of the third section in which Pollan goes foraging for his own food. Maybe because I know returning to hunting-and-gathering is not in the cards for Americans (although I do wish more would start gardens in their backyard) so the whole thing felt superfluous and distracting. However, I’m still glad I finally read this book because at least this way I can discuss with people. It certainly provided food for a great discussion during breakfast this morning.

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3 thoughts on “The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

  1. I think I actually enjoyed the last part the most; because it was just so different from what most people do when trying to be more responsible about what they eat. Of course it’s not practical for anyone, but I liked reading about his experience.

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    1. My dislike for the third part was fueled, in part, by the fact that I am reading this for a class centered around “fixing” our food system. In other words, I was looking for practical answers and was a bit peeved to have to spend time reading about something unpractical.

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