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The Omnivore's Dilemma

A Natural History of Four Meals
by Michael Pollan

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Americans are a people obsessed with food. Whether lining our bedside tables with fat tomes detailing the new hot diet or stuffing our faces with burgers larger than our entire heads, it’s not a stretch to say that we have food on the brain. (And around our waists, which does make stretching hard.) But as much as we think about eating, do we really spend enough time considering what we’re actually putting in our mouths? This is the question Michael Pollan raises in his critically-acclaimed book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. And with this deceptively simple query comes its many corollaries: where does our food come from? How has its journey to our plates changed, and how have these changes affected our culture? And considering that the answer to that last question is, according to Pollan, that the modern food industry has given us “a national eating disorder,” well—what can we do about it?

To find out, Pollan, a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley, sets out to trace the origins of the components from four meals, one each from such disparate sources as Pollan’s local Whole Foods “organic” supermarket; a small, “grass-fed” farm in Virginia; the ubiquitous McDonald's; and Pollan’s own fingers as he takes a stab at foraging for food in the wild. Accompanying Pollan on this journey is, for the most part, a real treat: his style is conversational and humorous, even when the book’s middle section gets a little repetitive. What his investigation reveals, however, is incredibly disturbing. Namely, that America has corn coming out of its, well, ears: more than a quarter of products available at the average supermarket contain a derivative of those insidious little kernels. Not to mention that our entire food chain is becoming increasingly dependent on fossil fuels, a finite resource. We can’t all live on or near organic farms, or take to the forest and forage, like Pollan does, so what are we to do?

Ultimately, Pollan raises more questions than he answers, but in a way, that’s kind of the point. He acknowledges that the way we approach food as a culture won’t change overnight, especially if the corporations that profit from our confusion and indecision—and the wild fluctuation of our scales—have their say. But it’s important that we think about it. And, hopefully, find ways new and old to enjoy our food.

(Updated: 12/16/08 SB)

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