Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, is a history of four meals. Pollan, a food writer, records his encounters with four meals, and the food chains that brought them to his mouth.

The first, a McDonald’s meal for four consumed in a moving automobile, recounts the rise of the industrial food web… cheap industrial #2 corn, CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), lethicin and xanthan gum and high fructose corn syrup, and the industrial-agricultural system that brings that food to his car. The second meal, a conglomeration of organic edibles from Chile, Argentina, California and Florida, demonstrates the marriage or organic values to industrial technique, and the creation of bagged spring-mix salad. The third meal, made of ingredients raised on the ultra-organic, ultra-local Polyface Farm near Charlotte, VA, illustrates the story of slow food and the local food movement. The fourth meal, a collection of ingredients hunted and foraged from Pollan’s wider neighborhood in northern California, displays the potential of a Pleistocene-style hunter-gatherer meal where a story underlies each ingredient and each dish at the table, and all the food is consumed with deep consciousness of its origins.

Pollan is paid to think about food, and it shows in his writing. Even so, in the book he is primarily concerned not with food but with the origin of a meal’s ingredients. In each chapter, he explores one aspect of one ingredient on the planned menu. The McDonald’s meal section, for example, has several chapters: one on corn, one on beef, and one on chicken. It’s a little startling to discover in the course of reading this that about 80% of the calories from a McDonald’s meal can come from corn; it’s used in the milkshake, in the glue that holds together the chicken nuggets, in the batter, in the hamburger bun, and in the special sauce on the Big Mac, and in the American cheese. Furthermore, because the average American steer eats an almost-exclusively corn-based diet in the feedlot, even the protein is corn-based.

A lot of that corn, industrial #2 (it’s hard to think of a plant as being traded with such a strange designation), comes into food in a very strange way — from farms grossly overloaded with debt, pesticides, and nitrogen fertilizer, to silos where it’s rendered homogenous and fungible, to chemical processing plants where it’s ripped apart, broken down, and reshaped into hundreds of forms.

And yet. And yet, the truth is that none of those forms are very healthy for you. Sure, corn itself is OK for you, as part of a natural diet. Mexicans get a huge percentage of their calories from corn, and to let the plant lie on the ground used to be considered sacrilege. But there are places in Iowa and elsewhere, where the ground lies fallow and denuded of crops for weeks, before the corn gets planted, thirty thousand plants to the acre. There are no people for miles and miles, because there is so much corn. All the animals have vanished as well, because their presence impedes corn production. And high-fructose corn syrup has been loosely linked with a multitude of ills. And. And. Pollan goes on and on.

The chapters on industrial chickens and beef and eggs left me nauseated.

His second meal, by contrast is much more interesting. Pollan takes us inside Big Organic, as he calls it, which uses fossil fuels and mechanized inputs to produce pesticide and fossil-fuel-free lettuces and vegetables. The scale of the systems necessary to produce organic produce is kind of pornographic. At one point, Pollan quotes the owner of a major organic salad-mix company, who’s selling his wares at the local farmers market. The other farmers are giving him, if not exactly the evil eye, then at least the negatively neutral pupil, and this CEO said, “I realized that this was our last farmer’s market, because we weren’t really in this business anymore.” Boy, did he say it.

The fourth meal, by contrast, is produced by a Virginia farm where everything is local, everything is organic, everything is produced by paying attention to the cycles and connections between plants, animals, microbes and humans. The farmer here has planted all the north-facing slopes of his farm with trees. The trees break the wind and provide shade. The cows change pastures every day, always to the freshest and greenest fields, so they can feed on the best food on the farm. The chickens follow the cows from pasture to pasture, to eat the fly larvae, maggots, and parasites out of the cow feces. The extra protein in the chickens’ diet makes the eggs more yellow and more flavorful, and the chickens themselves delicious. The cows give great milk because they’re eating the freshest grass, and the beef cows provide steaks that are absolutely divine, according to Pollan. All of the elements of the animal operation — birds, cows, pigs — rotate pasture to pasture so that manure is spread evenly, environmental productiveness and damage is spread evenly, and the soil and the grass accumulates wealth and prosperity that translates into diversity of species and elimination of pests. Hmmm. But none of this food transports well. Virtually all of the eggs he produces, and the broiler hens, and the steaks, are consumed within 100 miles of his front gate. They have to be, partly because of the farmer’s politics, but mostly because this sort of food doesn’t transport well, and doesn’t scale well.

The fourth meal, consisting of ingredients that Pollan killed or gathered himself, is the ultimate in local, slow food. It takes Pollan several months to get certified as a hunter, plus time to learn how to gather morels and chantarelle mushrooms for one of his dishes, to gather sea salt from San Francisco Bay, to kill the boar and turn it into braised pork and prosciutto. The Bing cherries are almost a small epic in themselves; the bread is not to be believed (except that it is, because I’ve made it his way from the same recipe from the same cookbook).

I think that Pollan’s major point, though, is that our food supply here in the United States is killing us. Sure, the food in the supermarket is cheap, but it’s divorced from nature, and is unsustainable, and it doesn’t taste nearly as awesome as it could taste. He doesn’t offer any solutions, really. I think the major point though is that you can be a fast-food person, or a slow-food person, or somewhere in between, but that finding ways to lean more toward local, organic food, where the animals and plants were raised in symbiosis with each other, will make you healthier, happier, and more culturally grounded. It’s a thesis I happen to agree with to a large extent, but Pollan says it much better than I ever have.

Stars: 4 of 5.

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