The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Review
Michael Pollen's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, is perhaps the quintessential book on sustainability and our food system. The book, after introducing our "national eating disorder", is broken into three sections - Industrial, Pastoral, and Personal - and chronicles the author's journey through the investigation of each.
The first section, Industrial: Corn, dedicates its pages to what is commonly called the Standard American Diet. It follows the path of our largest commodity food from the field to the processing plant (or CAFO; confined animal feeding operation) and to the subsequent meal. Micheal Pollen's detailed analysis of each step is refreshingly honest and thorough. He thoughtfully covers the modern marvel, as well as the evolutionary quandary, health as well as social impact. Although he comes to his own conclusion, he leaves plenty of room for the reader to come to theirs.
The second section, Pastoral: Grass, carefully and interestingly shows the interconnectedness of all living things and our dependence on grass. It is in this section, The Omnivore's Dilemma introduces Polyface Farms and Joel Salatin, one of the leaders in sustainable or "beyond organic" farming. Ask Salatin his take and he'll tell you he's growing grass, not raising cows, chickens, rabbits, or pigs. But also in this section Michael Pollen begins to cross the distance we have seen come between us and our food; it is where he encounters the ethics of personally killing an animal for nourishment. The segment was fair and honest, looking at biology and morality through the lens of the thoughtful, open-minded inspection of all sides. There was no agenda, other than truth; no lesson outside of the ever-growing and carefully intertwined aspects of life.
Perhaps the most riveting part of the book was it's third and final section, Personal: The Forest, in which the author sets aside all presumptions and habits of cultural progress and attempts to construct an entire meal of food he has hunted, gathered, or grown himself. This is also where he describes the term "The Omnivore's Dilemma" - not about the moral infliction of eating animals, as so many are prone to assume, but the potential dangers and simultaneous benefits of a hunter-gatherer diet that our curious and diverse natures demand. From the paradoxical feelings of thrill and disgust when hunting wild pig, to the time-consuming and potentially deadly challenge of foraging for mushrooms, Michael Pollen comes to the conclusion that it is in fact a perfect meal; that the time, effort and connectedness makes it a meal well-earned and the community it was built upon makes it one so much more enjoyed. He also marvels over the way it all came to be through one of the only things we can't domesticate: the forest.
Although he offers opinions and facts that feel like opinions, he in no way offers a panacea:
It's impossible to prepare and eat a meal quite so physically, intellectually, and emotionally costly without thinking about the incalculably larger debts we incur when we eat industrially - which is to say, when we eat without a thought to what we're doing. To compare my transcendentally slow meal to the fast food meal I "served" my family at that McDonald's at Marin, the one that set me back fourteen bucks for the three of us and was consumed in ten minutes at sixty-five miles per hour is to marvel at the multiplicity of a world that could produce two such different methods of accomplishing the same thing: feeding ourselves, I mean.
The two meals stand at the far extreme ends of the spectrum of human eating - of the different ways we have to engage the world that sustains us. The pleasures of the one are based on a nearly perfect knowledge; the pleasures of the other on an equally perfect ignorance. The diversity of one mirrors the diversity of nature, especially the forest; the variety of the other more accurately reflects the ingenuity of industry, especially its ability to tease a passing resemblance of diversity from a single species growing in a single landscape: a monoculture of corn. The cost of the first meal is steep, yet it is acknowledged and paid for; by comparison the price of the second seems a bargain but fails to cover its true cost, charging it instead to nature, to the public health and purse, and to the future.
Let us stipulate that both of these meals are equally unreal and equally unsustainable. Which perhaps is why we should do what a responsible social scientist would do under the circumstances: discard them both as anomalies or outliers - outliers of a real life. Or better yet, preserve them but purely as ritual, for the lessons they have to teach us about the different uses of which the world can be put.
The Omnivore's Dilemma is not a sermon, but an eye-opening, thoughtful process of questions posed to us, the readers, eaters and hopefully, thinkers. Is this an industry we wish to support, a food we should - biologically or ethically - consume, a way of life that is sustainable or will lead inevitable destruction, to praise or condemn? It's both open-minded and shocking and while it may often lead to the same conclusion, the path we take to get there will likely be different.
A great follow-up book to this is Nina Planck's Real Food: What To Eat and Why.