The Omnivore’s Dilemma

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan writes the story of our food.  Through four parts, he outlines four meals, starting with steer number 534, which he follows hypothetically to lunch at McDonald’s. His 11-year-old son summarizes the experience perfectly when he says the new, improved nuggets taste more like nuggets, not like chicken.  Likewise, Pollan’s gray beef patty is equally nondescript, and that’s the point.  The first section details more about the corn that goes into all of the meals we eat, mostly as sucrose or fructose sweetener.  As a result, we are eating less diverse meals than we think, and everything starts to taste the same.

Pollan balances out the lengthy introduction on corn with a narrative that follows King Corn from seed to processed meal.  In the naming and characterizing of our food, he succeeds in keeping readers’ attention and appetite for more.  Part two starts with the storybook of the Whole Foods description of its products including Rosie the chicken, dives into a chilled sea of organic lettuce, and ends with twenty thousand Rosies packed into a shed.  Though the door is opened five weeks into their lives, by then the birds can barely stand on their own two feet and don’t dare venture outside. He debates the many meanings of organic, concluding that it’s probably better for you but isn’t all you expect it to be.  For the ideal, he turns to beyond-organic and a visit to the Polyface Farm just outside of Stanton, Va.

Both Pollan and the owner of Polyface Farms, Joel Salatin, use the term beyond organic to describe the methods employed in their husbandry, but it’s more of a step back in time.  Salatin moves traditional farming methods forward, literally, through inventive portable structures and electric fences that allow him to rotate his cattle, chickens and pigs in a way that promotes effective grazing and sustainable practices.  For instance, his turkeys and grape orchards share the same acreage.  He taps into the natural cycle of the land – all 100 acres of fields and some 400 acres of forest – so that the entire operation, including the open-air slaughterhouse, is visible and transparent.

In part four, Pollan gets even closer to his food by hunting wild boar and mushrooms in California.  His hunter’s tale is almost unbelievable, as even he questions whether it was his bullet that killed the boar.  He is sickened by the hunting photos but redeemed by the meal that he makes using (almost) only ingredients that he hunted or gathered.  He calls it the perfect meal, but after taking a week to make, it is obviously something that he cannot do every day. However, the experience gives him something to strive for, even if it means that he now gathers his food on the perimeter of the grocery store.

So Pollan leaves us with a decision to make, and that is the omnivore’s dilemma – how do we know what is good to eat and what’s not?  It all depends on how we name it and what we are willing to swallow.

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