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The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals By Michael Pollan

Do You Know Where Your Food Has Been?

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is one of those books that you thumb through at the bookstore hesitantly, wondering if once you start reading, you won’t be able to look at your food the same way again. This is a reasonable concern. Food is both nutrition and pleasure. After reading the book, you will be able to look at your food, but you will probably start asking it questions such as, “Have you been lying to me?” So this book might do the most damage to your sociological well being above all else.

The book follows three food chains, what author Michael Pollan calls the industrial, pastoral, and personal. The first path takes him to the flyover states of Iowa, South Dakota, and Nebraska where he spends time with cattle and the farmers that feed and kill them. If Pollan were a Hollywood scriptwriter, he would make his villain the unsuspecting vegetable corn. He regales with landmark moment’s in corn’s American history: Squanto’s innocent introduction of maize to colonial America, its incorporation into corn whiskey breaks for the 19th Century worker, and a seminal moment two years after World War Two when an Alabama munitions plant first used their surplus material for making explosives (sodium nitrate) and finessed a formula of synthetic nitrogen to make chemical fertilizer.

Suddenly farmers could grow corn at exponential rates. Cattle eating this formulated corn, could mature twice as fast and develop fat in more revered places then when they were simply grass-fed. The government in the 70s began actively rewarding farmers with subsidies they couldn’t ignore for switching to monocultures of corn. Another seminal date for Pollan: 1984, when Coke and Pepsi switched to a high fructose corn syrup for all their drinks because it proved to be a cheaper sweetener and no one complained. By the time Pollan sits down to a fast food dinner with his family he is unphased when he reads a box of Chicken Mc Nuggets only to discover that 13 of the 38 ingredients derive from corn.

Obviously the pastoral path to the dinner table would seem a more innocent means of bringing earth to table, but Pollan puts himself to the test when he spends time investigating what the term “organic” really means with mixed results. He also spends time with a Virginia farmer who walks his organic talk. Pollan’s host invites him to kill his own chicken. Pollan agrees and describes the scene objectively. He doesn’t become a vegetarian as a result, but he does become more conscious.

The last path, the “hunter-gatherer” is somewhat of an organic/intellectual reality show. Pollan dares himself to prepare a dinner party meal based on everything he has hunted or gathered himself. This takes him on an odyssey with various guides: pig hunting with a raving Sicilian and hanging with morel mushroom foragers near the Central Valley who make him pinky-swear not to disclose the sites where the mushrooms can be found. This section definitely provides some comic relief with these new characters.

What is admirable about Pollan is that he could have easily left this book as an indictment of industrial farming but he doesn’t. He actively participates in investigating an argument some might call rhetorical. The larger question is when we think we have all these food choices, do we really? Obviously the subtext is that monocultures are poison and Americans are creating their own demise by both buying these corn-derived products and not demanding change from the government. It wasn’t so long ago, in Pollan’s last book, The Botany of Desire, in which he had written about the humble potato, and Ireland, and 1848 and the millions who died.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan
April 11,2006
Penguin Press
Harcover $26.95
ISBN: 1-59420-082-3