The Omnivore’s Dilemma


From a student perspective, The Omnivore’s Dilemma appears to be one of the most, if not the most, quoted and referenced book. Its title appears in all discussions surrounding the modern food system. Even the most uniformed student can link Michael Pollan’s name to The Omnivore’s Dilemma and subsequently link the The Omnivore’s Dilemma to corn. In my own home, The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a household name! And still I had yet to read it.

Michael Pollan is the perfect investigative author. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is imbued with scientific facts, but expertly explained and organized, so that any ‘reader can clearly understand the relationships between data and society. For example, in Pollan’s opening discussion of the creation of corn, he is careful not to overwhelm the reader with a lengthy treatise about genotypes, carbon atoms, and cross pollination. Rather, he incorporates this information into an enjoyable narrative in which he describes the progress of corn. Corn becomes a plant with a mind of its own, a creature that, with the help of human cultivation, government subsidization, and corporate domination, has walked its way out of the classic pastoral American farm and into the recipe of every supermarket product.

In addition to Pollan’s enlightening discussion of corn, another one of my favorite parts of The Omnivore’s Dilemma was the third section entitled “Personal: The Forest”. In this section, Pollan branches away from his analysis and critique of modern industrial farming. His puzzling and stressful encounter with a chanterelle mushroom (or was it a different type of mushroom?), introduces the book’s namesake—the omnivore’s dilemma. As omnivores, the human diet allows us to survive in a number of environments; this ability, however, is accompanied by a certain anxiety. What do we eat? Decades of delicate cuisine have helped to ameliorate this problematic question, but have also left us without a natural instinct for food. Pollan even dares to pose the spine chilling question, “…what’s to stop the human omnivore from eating anything—including, most alarmingly, other human omnivores?”

The Omnivores Dilemma was an engaging, albeit extremely long, read. It exposed me to an entangled history of agriculture and eating. The simplicity of eating disappeared decades ago, as exemplified by the many difficulties that Pollan himself encountered while trying to cook “the perfect meal”, a meal entirely composed of seasonal vegetables and meats. In comparison to what I learned from the first two sections of the book, Pollan’s firsthand struggle in the kitchen left me with the strongest impression. The contrast between Pollan’s laborious yet transparent “Omnivore’s Thanksgiving” and a quick and easy $4.00 McDonald’s hamburger is astounding. Pollan’s culinary goal is deeply telling of our food system, one that has morphed and diverged into a complex organism and one that is difficult to overcome.

This assignment provided me with the perfect opportunity to finally read the book that popped up in all of my classroom discussions. Instead of nodding along in nominal recognition, I have now personally ridden alongside George Naylor and his tractor, praised Joel Salatin’s small rotational farm, and struggled to make a completely natural meal. I do not know why I was waiting so long to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma.


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