The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan is a book that I have been somewhat aware of since its release fifteen years ago – it is a huge book with a huge cult reputation because of its invasive impact on our culture and culture of food since its release. I recently had to teach a course where the readings are heavily dependent on the book and finally had to pick the book up myself.
Everything everyone has said about it – especially the pervasive NPR stories that mentioned it or used it as a centerpiece for the last fifteen years – is completely accurate.
Pollan writes an incredible and intricate portrait of our food system (primarily in America) that is a direct indictment of our addiction to corn. It isn’t a spoiler alert to mention that much of our economy, bread basket, industrialized farming operations, and health problems are all attributed to the lowly maize plant – and Pollan instructs us about how we have gone off the rails so horribly in the first third of the book using a science, research, anecdotes, and data that are wholly revolting in the way we have engineered life to live off of corn and petrochemicals. The second third of the book is dedicated to grass, and the manner in which responsible, local food is achievable based on a number of (one in particular) farmers whose operations are small but effective in saving the health of our citizens, livestock, and planet whether we eat meat or not. With simple solutions devised over a few generations, one particular farmer has found a way to make a decent living while providing his community with healthy, ethically raised and slaughtered meats and vegetables that are in season, plentiful, and most importantly, happy before becoming a meal. The final third is about the perfect meal where Pollan uses all of his resources to hunt and gather his own meal for a select group of friends and family, and the ways in which mushrooms, wild boar, and a variety of other materials have made their way to the table to create a moveable feast.
Pollan says outright that the meals in both ends of the book – beginning with a McDonald’s meal eaten in the car, moving to the corn-based poisons we always shove down our gullets, moving to the sustainable farm model, and ending with a meal he constructed entirely with his own hands – is completely unsustainable. There are a variety of clear reasons for this, from financially to time commitments to practicality… But something needs to be done, and the fact that Temple Grandin is so prominently featured in this book (among others) showcases the lengths we need to go to have visionaries to look at the systems we have in place, recognize the many, many flaws we have enacted for the sake of convenience and speed, and make serious and drastic changes.
This book moved me greatly, and Pollan’s work as well as his prose are unquestionably at the center of that. I am a huge fan of Jonathan Safran Foer, but his book Eating Animals rubbed me the wrong way. There is a difference between presenting information that I wholly agree with (in both cases), but doing it in a manner that isn’t productive in the least. Pollan’s study is a much more refreshing, practical approach to how food in this country (and in our bodies) has gone completely awry, and the work that he put into this incredible work is certainly going to follow us for generations to come. I look forward to the day that it is an irrelevant book that libraries are tossing out because it is so behind the times. Sadly, fifteen years later, we haven’t done a damn thing and it is more relevant than ever.
Image by Diego Delso, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons