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The Omnivore's Dilemma

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The Omnivore's Dilemma
A Natural History of Four Meals. By Michael Pollan. (Penguin: 2007. Pg. 464.) ISBN 10: 0143038583. ISBN 13: 9780143038580.

Reviewed by Auggie Moore - August 31, 2007

There is a well-accepted theory that we are what we eat. However, in this age of mass-produced food, pre-packaged food, how do you really know what you are eating? In The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan takes a compelling look at what, exactly, it is that we are eating, and how these foods are produced. In the process, Pollan looks at not only standard 'industrial' food products, but also at organic foods and other alternative food sources.

The Omnivore's Dilemma is an eye-opening book, and one that will make you change the way you look at the foods that you eat. It is also a book that makes you question just how sustainable our food chain is, and how and why our diet has changed over time. For example, you only have to think back on the no-carb fad that almost overnight saw bread taken out of the American diet. Most important, he looks at the long term implications of eating a highly processed diet, not only in terms of the waist line, but also its impact on our ability to survive as a species!

The material in this book is organized into three main sections:
  1. Industrial: Corn
    This section looks primarily at industrial foods, taking the reader from the farm to the feedlot, and from the processing plant to the table. He also takes an in-depth look at one of the hallmarks of American dining - the fast food meal.

  2. Pastoral: Grass
    In this section, Pollan deals with organic foods, and takes the reader from field to plate, following the process of how organic foods are grown, processed, and consumed. To round-out this section, Pollan examines two different organic meals - one taken from the industrial organic sphere, and one from the more locally grown organic sphere.

  3. Personal: The Forest
    The final section of this book deals with the hunter-gather food-chain system, and the idea of eating foods that are as close to its original components as possible. To this end, Pollan takes us of a victual gastronomical tour of a meal he compiled and consumed solely from food items that he personally grew, gathered, or hunted.
The combination of these three sections ably outlines the full plight of the omnivore's dilemma - when you are a creature that can eat almost anything - should you? And if not, what should you be consuming? The Omnivore's Dilemma will be fodder for many conversations - and meal planning adventures - to come. What perhaps will be most surprising to many is the prevalence of corn in the American diet - from its being used to feed cattle to its use as a sweetner. When corn prices go up (as they have since the recent explosion of the use of ethanol, a form of gasoline primarily made from corn) the price of all foods that have 'corn' element go up - such as milk, beef, and soft drinks. Perhaps even more eye-opening, Pollan examines how much these corn-based food costs in terms of expenditures of fossil fuels (namely petroleum) for everything from pesticides to the gasoline to haul these products around.

If you ever wonder how a chicken gets nuggetized, or a cow gets turned into hamburger, or how what should be juicy and tasty vegetables are turned into tasteless, but pretty and long lasting, side dishes that kids hate - this book is for you! Throughout this book, Pollan is never preachy or pedantic, rather this is a fast-paced book written in a conversational tone that is a real page turner that will change your life and your diet - or at least how you think about what you eat. I highly recommend this book to anyone who eats!


Related Reviews:

Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism, by Marion Nestle.
An intriguing look at the politics of food safety, and the emerging threats to the American food supply.

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, By Eric Schlosser.
In Fast Food Nation, Schlosser offers the reader an eye opening look at how America was transformed into a nation of fast food restaurants and boilerplate shopping centers. Most important, he details the impact that this homogenization has had on the country, not just in regard to the store fronts, but also how it has affected every aspect of our lives from how our food is grown to how our children are exploited as a source of cheap labor.

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