Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Book Review: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

I suppose I need to stop proclaiming that I don’t really like to read non-fiction. I think I just needed to find the kind of non-fiction I do like to read. Well, I’m putting Michael Pollan on my list of favorites.

One of my repeated thoughts as I found myself staying up far too late too many nights in a row, exhausted and nauseous and knowing I’d regret it in the morning, was that The Omnivore’s Dilemma definitely qualifies as what Charlotte Mason calls a “living book”. Pollan’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious, even if I weren’t already interested in the topic of food. His research is extensive and I loved the way he repeatedly dug down, seeking the root causes for things and the links between things, between ideas, between people. Subtitled, “A Natural History of Four Meals,” the book chases down the food chain, following unexpected connections. Its reaches into biology and ecology and economics and government and history and philosophy and anthropology and chemistry.

When discussing corn, for example, he does more than just journey to a farmer’s fields in Iowa to see the corn where it is actually grown. He also chases down the biology of corn, its fascinating dependence on man for its sexual reproduction—who knew it could be so fascinating?—which leads us to the history of corn’s domestication by Native Americans. But he also explores the entire food chain, not only the fertilizers but the history of chemical fertilizers, the links to the World War II military industrial complex and to the chemist who first isolated nitrogen. And then having helped us to understand the basic ingredient corn, he traces it back up the food chain to show how corn is in just about every item on the MacDonald’s menu from the soda to the beef to the chicken nuggets to the french fries to the salad dressing. And that’s just the first meal.

The second meal takes us through what Pollan calls the “industrial organic” food chain and explores the question of just what “organic” means when you see it on a label. How different really is the organic TV dinner you buy at Whole Foods from the Stoeffer’s at the local grocery chain? The third meal is all locally grown. I was especially enthralled with the story of the chickens and eggs raised on a small farm that practices completely self-contained, sustainable agriculture with all the animals co-existing as part of one truly organic food chain. The fourth meal is one for which Pollan personally hunts and gathers all the ingredients. There is a wonderful treatise on the romantic mythology of hunting.

The worldview is materialist rationalist and so I was quite dubious when Pollan began to explore the ethics of eating meat, using Peter Singer as a jumping off point. I kept wanting to yell at the book as Pollan briefly becomes a vegetarian (as an experiment) and finds Singer’s arguments reasonable. The Christian point of view only gets voiced very briefly (one sentence) with a quote from a farmer. But Pollan does a very god job of dismantling the utilitarian argument against eating meat on its own terms without stepping outside of the materialist worldview. Which is actually much more satisfying than screaming: “But animals don’t have souls!” because it stands a chance of winning over materialists.

If I tried to cover everything I liked about this book, my review would be as long as the book, so I’ll stop here. Can’t wait to read his second book: In Defense of Food.

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