Book Review - The Omnivore's Dilemma
by Michael Pollan
I'm more of a carnivore than I am an omnivore and I approached Mr.Pollan's book with a some skepticism. I did not expect to like it as much as I did. The book has its flaws but should be required reading for anyone who eats. At least it should be required reading for anyone who eats in America because many of the challenges Mr.Pollan discuses are directly related to America's unique food culture.
The Omnivore's Dilemma is divided into three parts, each one the story of a meal. Corn is the star and the villain of the first part - Industrial/Corn. Mr. Pollan is perhaps at his most sermonizing in the first section, liberally anthropomorphizing corn and building it up into a sentient cross generational plotter. I was irritated to the point of wanting to give up on the book. The central point, that there is too much corn produced in the United States and it shows up in too many places it shouldn't, is indisputable. The story of corn ends with a meal from that much vilified icon of American culture, McDonald's, with a particularly discomfiting description of chicken nuggets. For the record, I can't stand McDonald's - I've only eaten there under extreme circumstances.
Organic has gone mainstream and has therefore also adopted industrial techniques without which a store like Whole Foods would be impossible. Mr.Pollan visits a free range chicken farm and reveals what "free range" actually equates to - two tiny doors at either end of a shed the size of football field, carpeted with twenty thousand chickens. As Mr.Pollan pulls away the curtain to reveal the Wizard of Organic Oz it is hard not to question paying the premiums regularly charged at your friendly neighborhood organic grocery store. There is a brighter side to the narrative - the organic non-industrial meal, grown the old fashioned way. The author profiles Joel Salatin, a "grass farmer" who runs Polyface Farms in the Shenandoah Valley. William Salatin started the farm in the 1960s and his son Joel carries on, building on and perfecting the older Salatin's techniques that make his farm a model of sustainable agriculture. It is obvious however, that the amount of effort put into farming by Joel Salatin is unlikely to win many converts. The industrial production of food is much too efficient at producing calories - albeit in the abstracted form of corn.
In the final section of the book, Mr.Pollan acquires a gun and goes hunting. The author freely acknowledges this is the least practical way to put food on the table, but following him around on his hunter gatherer quest makes for excellent reading. Chapter Seventeen delves into the ethics of eating animals and its justification. I've eaten meat all my life and I don't expect to ever give that up, but it is undeniable that the cruelty of feed lots and all the other techniques involved in the industrial production of meat is simply indefensible.
The Omnivore's Dilemma is educational and thought provoking. Highly recommended.