Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

These days, human society faces increasingly complex food choices: low-fat, low-carb, vegetarian, vegan, organic, etc.  What does “cage-free” or “free range” mean?  Which alternatives are better for you?  And where does your food come from, anyway?  In this book, Michael Pollan set out to trace three basic food chains: the industrial, the pastoral alternative, and the old-fashioned hunter-gatherer.  Along the way, he made some important discoveries about our food supply, most notably the consequences of oversimplifying nature’s principles in pursuit of industrial efficiency.

Written in an engaging, narrative style, the reader follows Pollan as he traces a steer from birth to plate and discusses the surprisingly pervasive role of corn in our food supply.  He then travels to an innovative farm, managed as a complex ecosystem producing meat for local consumption. Finally, he treks into the forest to hunt game and gather wild mushrooms.  Each of these adventures is described with a balance of personal experience and primary research.  Somehow it makes it all more digestible (pardon the pun) to read the facts and figures even as we learn that Pollan didn’t like waking up early, and often overslept.  But despite this being a very accessible read, it had a tendency to stray into personal memoir.  Towards the end, I began to lose interest.  In part, I just didn’t want to read about hunting with a firearm.  But I also didn’t enjoy Pollan’s navel-gazing about the experience, nor did I really care about Pollan as “foodie,” preparing a special meal for friends.  That’s why this book earned only three stars from me.

And yet. Pollan’s message is incredibly important.  Pollan writes, “Eating industrial meat takes an almost heroic act of not knowing or, now, forgetting.”  (p. 84)  I chose a vegetarian diet four years ago, because I am unwilling to play a personal role in the slaughter of animals for food, I prefer not to contribute to the environmental impact of the fossil fuels used in industrial meat production & transportation, and I could no longer look at supermarket meat without a keen awareness of what it once was, and the path it took to get there.  I respect each person’s right to make their own decision in this regard, and highly recommend The Omnivore’s Dilemma as essential reading to understand where our food comes from, examine your values around food production, and begin to make choices aligned with those values.

On a related note, visit Marie @ The Boston Bibliophile, and read her excellent review of Fast Food Nation.

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14 thoughts on “Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan

  1. Reading this book changed the way I eat. Forever. My husband J and I no longer buy meat anywhere but from a farmer we developed a personal relationship with and know and trust; all of our vegetables are organic and local, the restaurants we eat at have changed, and none of the processed foods we ate before are allowed on our shelves anymore. It sounds like a hassle…but I ENJOY my food so much more now that it is of a higher quality and I know about its origins.

    You’re right about this book being important–what a great review!

  2. I haven’t read Pollan’s book, but I have read others in the genre, and it also encouraged me to adopt a vegetarian diet.

    I really hope people have, and continue to, read books like this. Farming practices in the US are in desperate need of reform. Whether one is vegan, a foodie, or an avid hunter, I think most people can agree that how food is produced in this country right now doesn’t benefit anybody but the corporations behind it.

    • Diana, unfortunately the factory farming model described in this book is not confined to the US; it’s present in all regions of the world. I hope as a society we begin to wake up to the downside of this approach. At least as individual consumers we can choose to minimize our involvement in it.

  3. Great quote! I didn’t enjoy the later parts of the book quite as much either. But, funnily enough, those are the very parts that seem to appeal to some other readers, especially the crafting of that culmination-meal. There was a neat film that we watched in conjunction with reading this book, which also considered the preponderance of corn in the modern diet; it’s great to see so much more awareness about these matters across media and with all different styles and approaches. (And now you can cross this off your Read More Non-Fiction List!)

    • BIP, was the film called Food, Inc. ? I haven’t seen it yet but know that Pollan appears in it. And now, I’m on to my next non-fiction book (3 in one month … pretty much unprecedented)

  4. I haven’t read this one, in part because I’m squeamish, but I’ve read his In Defense of Food, which encapsulates everything he wrote here. It completely changed the way I shop and what I eat.

  5. I had already stopped eating factory-farmed meat before reading this book a couple of years ago. But I gained a lot of additional useful info from it–the flaws of “big organic,” and the amazing work being done by Joel Salatin (sp?). Thanks for the review.

  6. This is one I have on my list for my Non-Memoir Non-Fiction challenge. I do eat meat, but we belong to a meat CSA through a local farm so I’m even more intrigued by this book now that I know more about its subject matter. I’m definitely going to pick it up. Thanks for the great review!

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