The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma is sub-titled, The search for a perfect meal in a fast-food world.

So, when I first picked up this book, I wondered if it was similar to Fast Food Nation, another brilliant book. While Fast Food Nation focused exclusively on the fast-food industry in the US, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (TOD) is a more encompassing book about food (in the US) and where it originates.

Pollan starts off with corn, which finds its way into the food that Americans eat in so many different ways, it’s mind-boggling. The first part of the book deals exclusively with industrial food, i.e. food that is produced using industrial practices and at an industrial scale. Pollan visits a farmer in Iowa, buys a steer and follows its progress (from feedlots to meat-dom), and illuminates the link between corn and the food that is finally consumed. This part of the book is primarily about the processed foods that find their way on to our plates and into our stomach. Pollan also takes his family to a McDonald’s drive-through and consumes the All-American meal on the road in the car.

The second part of the book deals with organic food production, both industrial and individual farmers. Pollan’s excellent critique of organic food, especially industrial organic is worth reading. While we may buy organic food in a supermarket, it’s worth asking where the food comes from. (Pollan himself buys food that is shipped from Argentina to the US.) His questions and arguments demonstrates that a holistic view is necessary when thinking about organic food (or for that matter any kind of food).

Pollan then visits the Polyface farm, run by Joel Salatin. Salatin is an organic farmer, who calls himself a “grass farmer”, who uses feeds his cattle a diet of grass and also rears pigs and chickens. Salatin’s method of farming takes into account grass-growing patterns, the feeding habits of his animals, and the symbiotic relationship between the animals, the grass, and the various insects in the ground. This philosophy of grass farming also takes into account the seasonal variations in the food cycle. It is worth reading this book just for the chapters on the Polyface farm and the week Pollan spends on the farm.

The third part of Pollan’s book is about hunter-gatherers. Pollan decides to cook a meal from ingredients that he has either grown or gathered or hunted. He goes on expeditions to gather wild mushrooms, hunts for a pig, and gathers food off the land. By killing his own food, Pollan is forced to confront what most meat-eaters don’t have to–the discomfort of killing an animal.

Pollan talks about the viewpoints of the animal rights activists and constructs his arguments splendidly. His point about how the evolutionary origins of domestication and about how it has been good for both certain animal species and the human is well-made.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a beautifully constructed, well-written book, part investigative journalism, part non-fiction fused together in a way that it is a pleasure to read. Pollan’s keen sense of humour is a nice touch when handling a somewhat serious topic. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and even at 400 pages, the book is captivating.

Pick it up and read it, if you’ve ever wondered where your food comes from.

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