TBR: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Today’s book is The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan.  It has a great deal in common with Peter Singer’s book, The Way We Eat, which I discussed last month.  Where Singer looked at the diets of three families — a conventional American diet, full of processed meat, a diet where the family attempts to eat organic and humanely raised meat, and a vegan diet — Pollan looks at four meals that he eats — a McDonald’s burger, an organic meal from large producers, a meal from Joel Salatin’s Polyface farm, and a meal largely of foods that he hunted (a wild pig) or gathered (morels) himself.

Pollan begins by discussing how the vast majority of the American diet comes from corn in one form or another — either directly processed, or fed to animals.  He visits a corn farm to see how it’s grown, but then points out that corn is a commodity — you can’t connect that corn to any particular cow, or any particular cow to a piece of meet.  Organic food from large companies is produced in a more sustainable manner, with less chemicals, but is equally a commodity.  By contrast, Polyface is a self-contained ecosystem.  Salatin isn’t officially "organic," but invites any of his customers to see what he’s doing.

Ironically, I found Pollan’s writing more preachy than Singer’s, even though Singer is the professional ethicist.  Singer tells you what he thinks you should do, and he tells you why.  He tells you what he thinks the ideal is (not eating meat at all), and what’s a good fallback position (not eating industrial farmed meat, unless there’s an overriding reason to do so).  Pollan doesn’t ever explicitly say "you should do this" but gives the impression that he thinks he’s more enlightened than you.

In the section on the meal that he hunted and gathered (which Pollan admits freely is interesting only as a one-shot exercise, not as a lifestyle), Pollan writes about the connection he felt to the food.  But I was left with the impression that the true gift he received was the relationships he developed with the people who took him hunting, who taught him to find mushrooms, and who shared the meal with him.  Conventionally farmed food, cooked and shared with love, can be pretty magical too.

4 Responses to “TBR: The Omnivore’s Dilemma”

  1. Pink Says:

    Margaret Visser did a similar track back of the origins of a basic meal–orn on the cob with butter and salt, roast chicken with rice, salad dressed in lemon juice and olive oil, and ice cream–in her 1999 book, Much Depends Upon Dinner. Her book isn’t an attempt to preach or change the way people eat, but simply to give the history of the foods we all depend on. I had Pollan’s book on my Amazon wish list, but based on your review, I think it’s coming off.

  2. Phantom Scribbler Says:

    Yes, thank you very much for the review. I really enjoyed The Botany of Desire, but I think I’ll take this one out from the library instead of making an impulse purchase of it next time I’m at a bookstore.

  3. Celeste Says:

    If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth following up that read with the back-and-forth between John Mackey, the Whole Foods CEO, and Pollan. You can start here. But it continues with Pollan’s response and the next round, which is linked from that post. Whole Foods has at least made some good noises about responding to pieces of Pollan’s critique. You’ll also enjoy that Mackey sides with Singer, in the second letter. A great debate between two prominent cultural figures!

  4. Laura Says:

    Elizabeth, I can’t find your e-mail. Help. I wanted to see if I could ask you some questions about your blog for a paper that I’m working on. Do you have a few minutes of free time? Please, please. I’ll tell you more about the paper via e-mail. Thanks!! Laura

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