Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

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The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan (Penguin Books, 2006)

Coincidentally, I began reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma around the same time that my daughter began eating solid foods. Food was on my mind. I quickly realized I was being more discerning about what Pearl ate than I ever am about my own diet. Thinking and planning what my girl should eat, and how she should be introduced to various foods, has effected what I eat and when and how.

In this book, Pollan addresses “the omnivore’s dilemma”. Basically, What do you have for dinner when you can eat anything? As omnivores, we have the advantage of being able to eat, digest, and obtain nutrients from an abundance of foods (unlike koalas, for example). So why do we eat certain things and not others? How has the way we eat changed with industrialization and modern farming? Why? Should we care about these changes? (Pollan suggests the answer is yes and he makes a compelling argument.)

Pollan forms the book around meals. A fast food meal from McDonalds. A meal cooked at home from ingredients purchased at Whole Foods. A meal cooked with ingredients from his week spent working on a sustainable form. A meal cooked with ingredients which he hunted, gathered, or foraged himself.

The book starts off with corn. I knew, in a sort of peripheral way, that corn shows up in a lot of our food these days. For example, did you know that many yogurts contain corn in some form? Pollan delves into why this is and how agriculture reached this point. As while as time spent in the corn fields, he follows the life of beef cattle (fed on corn) – the kind that end up in a McDonalds’ burger. Pollan focuses on the American system of agriculture, which made me interested to learn more about how these things work in Canada and whether it’s better, worse, or similar. (I can tell you that I’ve never seen eggs for sale at ninety-seven cents a dozen, a price Pollan refers to more than once.)

Next, Pollan moves to Whole Foods and what he terms “Big Organic”. Organic food has become a major market in recent years and I found this part fascinating as Pollan explores whether this “Big Organic” way of eating is much better, and much different, than the standard forms of agriculture. He looks into what some of the terms associated actually mean (What do the lives of free range chickens look like, for example? Answer: not that much better than the rest, unfortunately) and takes us to the hippie beginnings of organic food in the U.S. and how it’s grown and changed from there.

My favourite section was next, where Pollan spends a week on a sustainable farm, learning about grass, cattle, chickens, and everything in between. In my mind, this farm and the way of eating it presents, is ideal. Pollan presents it with sentimentality though and is up front about the difficulties of eating this way in our modern culture and cities. (Accessibility being prime among them.)

I thought the weakest section (maybe the most self-indulgent, because clearly Pollan included it simply because he enjoyed it) was the final one, where Pollan makes a meal comprised of items he has hunted, foraged, and gathered. While some of it felt more relevant than others (mushroom hunting vs. boar hunting, for example) it didn’t have a lot of practical relevance. Very few of us are going to, or are even capable of, hunting and gathering for our food. If Pollan’s goal was to open his readers’ eyes to where our food comes from and the moral questions that raises, this section doesn’t aid his objective. It read more as an experiment he simply wanted to conduct for himself.

The book is well-written and well-researched and, mostly, seems balanced in its portrayals. It’s raised some interesting conversations about food in our house at least.

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