on 24 September 2007
This is the most basic culinary detective book. In modern America, Michael Pollan wonders what to eat: "... imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we're eating. Where it came from. How it found it's way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost."
Of course most North Americans can't answer these questions in any self-satisfying way, so Pollan sets off on the case. He journeys through the belly of the food industry beast -- to the massive government-subsidized corn plantations of Iowa, the huge cattle feed lots and the slaughterhouses. He visits the plants where trainload after trainload of corn is refined into the chemical components of processed food, and then he takes his family to McDonalds.
Searching for alternatives to totally explore, Pollan visits large-scale organic plantations. He works for a spell on an organic family farm in Virginia, helping to slaughter the chickens for his next gourmet meal. And last he goes whole hog back to the hunter-gatherer days, searching for mushrooms and shooting a wild pig in the forests of Northern California.
The whole experience yields tons of great stories, and the kind of good common sense I can't resist quoting:
"A tension has always existed between the capitalist imperative to maximise efficiency at any cost and the moral imperatives of culture, which have historically served as a counterweight to the moral blindness of the market. This is another example of the cultural contradictions of capitalism -- the tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society." (p. 318)
But aside from the politics of soil and animal abuse, Pollan ends up with some damn fine meals, eaten with friends he makes along the way:
"Was the perfect meal the one you made all by yourself? Not necessarily; certainly this one wasn't that. Though I had spent the day in the kitchen (a good part of the week as well), and I had made most everything from scratch and paid scarcely a dime for the ingredients, it had taken many hands to bring this meal to the table. The fact that just about all those hands were at the table was the more rare and important thing, as was the fact that every single story about the food on the table could be told in the first person." (p. 409)
on 10 June 2007
This book is very similar to 'fast food nation' in the way that it exposes the hidden mechanics of the food industry. But it does not focus solely on fast food.
The first section concentrates on the way a MacDonalds meal is produced, from its humble(?) beginnings in a corn field in Iowa, to the end product being consumed in the author's car; fascinating and page turning. The middle section concentrates on an 'organic' meal, and really opened my eyes to the idea of organic - it is not all you think it to be, and after reading this book I have reassessed what I think to be an environmentally friendly food. The last section outlines the author's search for a meal from foraging in the forests and fields around his Californian home. Fascinating again. Noone should think they know enough to pass this book by.
I gave it four stars, because the last section gets a little heavy going, but it all ties up well at the end, and worth sticking with it; I love the way that he concludes that the first (fast food) and last (foraged) meals are both two extremes and both unsustainable in the present world. MacDonalds should be saved for a 'treat' once a year and although he doesn't say it, he implies that we should all aim towards consuming locally produced, (not neccessarily organic) food that is the least 'costly' towards the environment - outlined in the meal of the middle section.
The Omnivore's Dilemma is this: what to eat and what not to eat. Sounds easy, but as Michael Pollan shows this dilemma is at the heart of what both divides and joins people at the most visceral level. The dilemma is sharp because the question of what to eat and what not to eat is moral as well as nutritional. It is practical as well as esthetic. It is a question that engages all people in all cultures. It pits traditional values against modernity. There is the family that eats together a meal prepared by a family member or members, and the meal that is eaten on the run prepared by agribusiness and heated in a microwave. There is fast food and the Slow Food movement. There is the question of whether to eat meat or not, and if not, whether to be a vegetarian or a vegan or something in-between. And if we do eat meat, should a distinction be made between free range flesh and the factory kind? Should the suffering of animals spoil our appetite? We are omnivores, but in a world of so many of us, can we really continue to eat so high on the hog?
Pollan addresses these questions and many others in a courageous and uncompromising way that should gain the respect of all readers, whether they agree with his conclusions or not.
The book is in three parts, with four characteristic meals.
Pollan begins with "Industrial Corn" (Part I) and a fast food meal from McDonald's in the car. This part of the book, which could be an entire book itself--and a very good one--tells the story of corn and how it has come to dominate the American food industry. Eating at McDonald's is appropriate since their menu is dominated by products made from corn including the beef in the burgers which comes from cows fattened on corn, the corn sugar in the sodas and shakes, and the corn oil in the sauces. Eating while driving at 65 MPH is also apt since the car is running partially on ethanol made from corn.
Part II, "Pastoral Grass" is about range cattle and how ruminants turn the grass that we cannot digest into flesh that we can. It is also about the wholesale slaughter of animals in deplorable and disgusting conditions, and how these practices have redirected many people to food from sustainable and humane farming practices. Pollan gets his hands dirty and bloodied as he spends a week on a farm in Virginia harvesting and slaughtering chickens and learning how "grass farmers" work. There are two meals in this part of the book, one an organic industrial meal (from Whole Foods) and the other a grass-fed meal from Joel Salatin's Virginia farm.
In Part III Pollan shots a pig, forages for mushrooms and cooks a meal for ten from (mostly) products that he himself gathered, hunted or grew in his garden. He calls it his "perfect meal." He takes a turn at being a vegetarian and faces head-on the ethical dilemma of eating animals. He makes three strong arguments that allow him to go on eating meat. First, there is the argument of the flexitarian, that eating food is a social and cultural event that is shared with family and friends and serves as a basis for bridging cultural divides. Pollan writes, "What troubles me most about my vegetarianism is the subtle way it alienates me from other people and, odd as this might sound, from a whole dimension of human experience." He adds, "I'm inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners." (pp. 313-314)
Next there is the argument from evolutionary biology. "To think of domestication as a form of slavery or even exploitation is to misconstrue...[the relationship between domestic animals and humans; it is] to project a human idea of power onto what is in fact an example of mutualism or symbiosis between species." Pollan explains, "Domestication is an evolutionary, rather than a political, development. It is certainly not a regime humans somehow imposed on animals some ten thousand years ago. Rather, domestication took place when a handful of especially opportunistic species discovered, through Darwinian trial and error, that they were more likely to survive and prosper in an alliance with humans than on their own." A chicken raised on a farm where it is allowed to roam free and then come to a quick and humane end is probably better off than a chicken living in a jungle or forest where its life may be shorter and more difficult.
Finally, Pollan argues that while it is the individual in human society that is the basis of moral consideration, in nature it is the species itself. He asks, "Is the individual the crucial moral entity in nature as we've decided it should be in human society? We simply may require a different set of ethics to guide our dealings with the natural world...(where sentience counts for little)...." (p. 325)
Pollan also confronts the food industry head on. He writes that the industrial factory farm is a place "where the subtleties of moral philosophy and animal cognition mean less than nothing, indeed where everything we've learned about animals at least since Darwin has been simply...put aside. To visit a modern Confined Animal Feeding Operation...is to enter a world...[where animals] are treated as machines--"production units"--incapable of feeling pain." (p. 317)
On next page he adds, "The industrial animal factory offers a nightmarish glimpse of what capitalism is capable of in the absence of any moral or regulatory constraint whatsoever."
What Pollan confronts in this fully lived, deeply researched, and beautifully written tour de force is what is perhaps the deepest existential contradiction of life, namely that in order to live we must eat the bodies of other living things. Only fruits and nectars are given freely to us, and man cannot live on fruits and nectars alone.
on 28 June 2007
The Omnivore's Dilemma addresses the question: if you have the opportunity to eat anything, how do you know which things are best to eat? It delves into the food chains behind various meals, from the industrial to the pastoral.
The skills of Michael Pollan, the Knight Professor of Journalism at U.C. Berkeley, shine through in this book. It is remarkably clearly written, and addresses a broad range of perspectives and potential criticisms. It avoid preaching, which would be so easy to do with this subject, and instead presents information as information, and opinion as just that.
If you are remotely interested in what you put in your mouth, and where it comes from, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
on 28 May 2009
The Omnivore's Dilemma borrows its title from a 1970s study that observed that prehistoric man, being an omnivore, could eat pretty much everything it found in nature, but that at the same time, many plants and fungi were actually toxic. So how did man know what to eat and what not? The modern omnivore faces a different dilemma: a decent sized supermarket has more food than you can imagine, but where does it come from? What is actually in a microwave dinner? How was the cow treated that gave you your steak?
In answering these questions, Pollan dives deep into the inner workings of industrialised farming, and what he finds there, makes for some grim reading. In addition, Pollan shows that organic farming too, is often more of a marketing trick than, well, organic farming.
But The Omnivore's Dilemma is more than an attack on the agro-industrial complex. Pollan teaches us about true organic farming, discusses the ethics of eating meat and explains the surprising appeal of hunting.
Most people will be drawn to this book because of what it says about industrial farming. Pollan, like other authors, spends a great deal of time telling us what's wrong about it, and he can't resist the temptation to blame a lot of it on capitalism. You know, the line about how people really don't want to buy microwave dinners, or vegetables from Argentina, but are forced to buy them by big multinationals. What Pollan does not do, however, is come up with an alternative to industrialised farming. Earth currently has over 6 bn people and they have to be fed somehow. How to do that in a sustainable way, is the next omnivore's dilemma. Perhaps one Pollan can tackle in his next book.
on 4 February 2015
Review courtesy of subtleillumination.com
Why do you eat what you do? How was it produced? If you can answer with more than the aisle of the supermarket you bought it from, well done. If you can’t, does that worry you? Is all food created equal and of equal health benefit? Is beef from a grass-lot the same as feed-lot, or vegetables grown industrially the same as organic? Do you know the answer to that? If not, does that worry you?
Michael Pollan argues it should worry us. Three principle chains of food sustain us, all of them linking one biological system, ourselves, with another, a patch of soil. Most of us, however, remain woefully ignorant of any sort of understanding of our food systems. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan explores each of the three methods of food creation, industrial, organic, and hunter/gatherer, and examines the costs and benefits of each.
There are of course two sides to every story, and Pollan is careful to examine the benefits from cheaper food in terms of health and living standards. He’s right, and the animal rights movement sometimes unfairly ignores these benefits. The reality though is that most of us aren’t in a position to decide either way; we remain willfully blind to the reality, ignorant of what we eat and where it comes from. Perhaps the tradeoff is worth it, but we should at least be aware of the processes our food goes through, whether that means glass walls on slaughterhouses or increased education about industrial production. In the end, what you eat is a personal choice, but it’s one that should be made out of information, not ignorance.
on 4 May 2008
An elegantly and thoughtfully written book on the modern food industry that feeds us. Pollan demonstrates a refreshing openness, sharing how his journey through mass produced, organic, and hunter-gatherer food systems affects him without ever sinking into sentimentality - even when shooting a wild pig his insight into what it means to be a hunter is superb.
Without doubt one of the best books on food that I have ever read and one that will withstand the test of time, if for no other reason than the issues he covers of where our food comes from, how it is produced and what that might mean are as relevant today as they ever have been.
on 4 September 2010
As an avid UK subscriber of the USA magazine "NUTRITION ACTION", especially their monthly "Food Porn" section I had an awareness of what went on but this book make it clear as far as meat is concerned.
Here in London England and i guess Europe generally we seem to have a better idea of how discusting some meat products can be but there are always surprises as this book shows. We always buy free range meat for home use but of course are reliant on the supplier. We use (wonderful) Ginger Pig and (first class) Lidgates Butchers.
Yes I enjoy Corned Beef (its UK name) Bacon, and kosher frankfurters and hotdogs etc but , like smoking cigarettes, now get a frisson of 'danger', All those nitrates, MRM meat, fats etc! As for catering supplies who would now eat a Hamburger from a stadium or greasy spoon cafe?
I also strongly recommend Harold McGee FOOD AND COOKING. This changed my lfe and the way I ate and cooked. It was Heston Blumenthal's one item of choice for his Desert Island!
on 12 April 2016
A brilliant book and a must read for anyone who eats and cares where their food comes from, or for those that don't care because they might after reading this! MP takes you from one end of the food industry to the other, from batteries to bow hunting (okay, not quite bow hunting but it alliterates so I cry poetic licence!). READ THIS BOOK!
on 20 November 2008
The Omnivore's Dilemma
By Michael Pollan
A Review by the Cote d'azur
Men's Book Group
In a world where hunger is a black mark on the ruddy face of the well fed it is almost indecent to note that while millions are starving further millions are fighting obesity to the extent that dieting has become an obsession .
Do we feel ashamed as we watch TV films of flesh and bone victims of tribal warfare in Africa, people fighting for every grain of maize while their oppressors threaten to end their misery by killing them? We in the West fill our supermarket trolleys and eat well while our fellow human beings scratch the scorched earth with their fingers
Is there not a paradox in that while we feel genuine sorrow for these victims our eyes are fixated on our desire for a full belly courtesy of the vast food industry?
It is the mass production food chain system of the United States of America that Michael Pollan, author of this superb book, puts under the microscope and reveals the good and the bad points of an industry that is as streamlined as any car industry with its cow to calf philosophy.
This farming industry aims for the maximum gain from processing the herds; Life begins in the birthing sheds and usually ends some l8 months later with a market weight steer entering the kill \zone where it is stunned and prepared for market. The steer has spent all its life on a "foodlot" a giant farm production area where everything it needs to grow big and strong is provided.
The author takes us on a guided tour of a "foodlot " and he stands in a paddock with the steer he bought as an investment, Steer 534, the animal stands in the natural waste and corn residues, it has mud and excrement sticking to its skin. Unsurprisingly he says his investment did not look like a happy steer. No 534 and the thousands like him are on a modern version of an animal farm, destined for death and, already, the steer's mother has been inseminated to produce the next calf.
The Omnivore's Dilemma is beautifully written and a book of great interest that could encourage more people to become vegetarians. We all eat to live and some of us live to eat. Mr Pallon gives an analytical look at the real cost to society of our meat eating habits.
What we eat creates the dilemma: some food is good for us, some is bad. For an insect which feeds on milkweed the only problem is to find the weed. For humans the range is much wider and potentially lethal. The author has a long section on mushroom hunting which dramatically points up the dilemma. We may fear to eat the fungi at the bottom of the garden in case it is poisonous. There is also a splendid chapter on hunting that evokes the challenge and the spirit of killing and eating wild boar.
Despite the big choice we consume vast amounts of corn/maize not only because it is widely used as cattle food, but also because this ubiquitous product appears in hundreds of products, particularly in processed food. Fed on corn, fattened with hormones, irradiated, it is not difficult to see how and why mad cow disease can threaten the herds. Fruit and vegetables are dosed with pesticide and herbicide, their growth stimulated with artificial fertiliser, a product of the petrochemical industry. The fertiliser is then washed off the land and pollutes ground water, rivers and even the sea.
The Cote d'Azur Men's Book Group asked if it is safe to eat this food. Worries can be assuaged by using organic farming products but then, what does organic mean? Can it exist side by side with industrial farms? Price is an issue too but the real price of meat is hidden by subsidies. The food industry encourages the even greater consumption of processed food in order to achieve growth and higher profits. Result? Obesity.
Here in Europe we have European Community farming rules. Should the feeding of hormones to fatten cattle be forbidden? Should there be stricter rules on genetic modification? Would be then find ourselves in a trade war with the USA?
Where does one find morality in all of this? Sad to say, one cannot see a shred of morality except to understand that the farmers will say they take great care of the animals, feed them, clean them, cure their ills. In the old days many small farmers knew their animals by name. Today the Bertha or Louise of long ago is merely a number.
Modern methods cannot be said to be cruel, or can they? If battery hen breeding is not cruel, then what is inhuman? Anything, it seems, goes in the pursuit of money.
This has always been so and morality in the States appears to go hand in hand with the Big Buck culture. One wonders if, when the author was told that his investment, Steer 534 had been executed and would soon provide nice marbled steaks on a plate,he felt remorse or pain.? Ah, now there is a real personal dilemma!
Mr Pallon, the man from Berkeley - known to local residents in California as berserkly- also reveals that the"foodlot" can cause suffering because cows are designed to eat grass yet they are fed corn. This often results in acidosis, swelling of the rumen, the beast's two stomachs. It is painful and can be lethal Treatment is a water hose down the throat! No gain without some pain!.
George Orwell would not have recognised today's animal farms but he might have again concluded that two legs are bad and four legs are good.