The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Opening sentence: “What should we have for dinner?”

To call Michael Pollan’s book provocative is an impoverished way to communicate the swirling dervishes which dance around your brain while you listen to this piece.  Yes, it is provocative.  Provocative in the sense that it calls forth many thoughts.  

Pollan, a journalist, wonders if he could trace the food we eat back to its source.  He studies four meals: a McDonald’s take out (capable of eating with only one hand); a Whole Foods microwavable organic TV dinner (four words he never thought would be strung together) which represents industrial organic; a meal made from ingredients grown on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms, which touts itself as “beyond organic”;  and finally a meal consisting of meat he hunted, mushrooms he foraged, and vegetables and fruit grown nearby. 

In the opening chapters Pollan does a thorough job of explaining how we arrived to the point of massive farm subsidies and how corn is present in most of the fast foods sold.  Pollan also investigates Industrial Organic and visits Earthbound Farm, which supplies Costco with organic food.  In between the narrative of his travels, Pollan inserts background material and philosophical essays about the consequences individually and culturally of the food choices described.

When I got to the section about Joel Salatin and Polyface Farm (the famous disc 7) I bolted upright in my red Subaru. I’ve heard this before!  A few friends have been discussing this kind of farming for years: growing cattle, chickens, pigs, rabbits, turkeys, rotating pastures and using all the animal byproducts efficiently.  It all made sense and the Salatin family was portrayed as principled, winsome people.  

Most entertaining for this city-girl who married into a hunting and gathering family in rural Oregon was Pollan’s tale of  learning how to hunt and gather mushrooms so he could make a meal free of bar codes, totally from scratch.   He is honest about both the exhilaration he feels after successfully shooting a feral pig, and the remorse he encounters later (remorse is not a factor with my hunters).  He flirts with vegetarianism, debating the reasons why it is acceptable or non-acceptable to eat other animals.   Pollan’s day of hunting morel mushrooms took me back to the day in May when we scored morels like nobody’s business.  The picture he paints of putting a feast together singlehandedly is priceless: plans, schedules, interruptions, arrivals, and finally the food.  He pronounces this meal that he’s prepared and shared with his hunting and gathering mentors “the perfect meal.”  I hope you can relate to the satisfaction that comes from eating something you have had an active part in, i.e. a homegrown tomato.

Pollan doesn’t draw tight conclusions from his journey.  His worldview won’t let him go where I’d like to see him go.  However, he cannot avoid biblical motifs: the garden, the table, providence, feasting, communing, life from death, sacrificial giving. He writes about grace around the table, that the table is grace, but it is a truncated view of grace.  Nevertheless his skill is making complex issues comprehensible is profound.  He writes with clarity, honesty and beauty.

We would love to share a meal (elk backstrap, duck, bass or steelhead, sautéed veggies with basil, garden salad, homemade bread,  fresh raspberries and strawberry rhubarb pie) with Michael Pollan and his family.  Talk food, talk books, talk ideas.  We are on opposite sides of the spectrum on many issues.  But we enjoy exploring the differences, listening, understanding, exchanging.  I think it would be delightful.

This is a book to share, to discuss, to thrash over, to ponder, to wonder, to evaluate, to think over for a long time.

7 thoughts on “The Omnivore’s Dilemma

  1. The book on my shelf similar to this is *Much Depends on Dinner* and is more a social history of food, which I have enjoyed very much.
    Your short, informative review only made me happier with the way I gather my food…at the grocery store
    City girl in GA,Dana
    PS  In my freezer is some ground venison and some Ga mountain trout (heads still on).  Both await preparation.

  2. This sounds like an interesting read.  I live in the midst of corn country and am aware that it is now being used increasingingly for ethanol, which I use in my car exclusively. Corn sugar does seem to appear all too frequently in product labels and I am happy there are some other ways farmers (who for me wear familiar faces) can use their crops and still make a profit.It is wise to know what we are eating and where it comes from; whenever possible I try to buy locally produced but really that ends up being a very small percentage of my overall food consumption.  It is unfortunate that the best and most organic is both time consuming to scout out and expensive.

  3. Carol, the serendipity of our reading amazes me once again!  I am reading “Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal” by Joel Salatin.  I picked it up at our tiny library last week because the title grabbed my eye and I have read some of Salatin’s books on farming in the past.  I’ve been reading the good parts aloud to Terry and Cassie and there have been plenty of good parts!I will look for this book by Pollan.Thanks, my friend.Sandy

  4. Oh. my . goodness.  You friends of mine!  Let’s go in order.I read a review of OD at Amazon and the reviewer complained that this book is SO SIMILAR to “Much Depends on Dinner” and didn’t give any credit to Visser. That book has been on my PBS wish list for a while.  This book confirmed and supported our (mostly my) decision not to eat most fast food.  If we have to eat something on the road we go to Subway or some quick Mexican food place.Poiema, I was ASTONISHED at the role corn has come to play in our country. My husband was very interested in this section because *his* grandfather grew corn in MN.  The other sections were more interesting to me because I live with hunters, but I think everyone should read this part.Sandy: well blow me over!  I’d love to read Joel Salatin.  His story as told by Pollan was absolutely intriguing.  He is a man who thinks outside the box.  You can’t help but admire him.  Our library doesn’t have any of his books, but my friend has a library.  He quotes Wendell Berry left and right.  That’s how Bonnie knows Wendell Berry: not from his great fiction, but from his agrarian essays.

  5. I soooooo wanted to like this book. I’m a biology teacher and was very excited to read it. I just found him to be rather boring. I told my husband if I read one more chapter about corn I was going to throw up. I gave it to the half way point before I put it down.
    I do plan on picking it up again someday and you post has giving me a little shining hope! thank!

  6. “His worldview won’t let him go where I’d like to see him go.”Yes, yes, yes.  That’s the only criticism I had of this book–that he could describe the problem(s) so accurately and come to no conclusions (or, only wimpy ones–let’s all be more “mindful” of our eating!  Like mindfulness is going to close CAFOs.)Thanks for your info about medieval resources–it was very helpful!PariSarah

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