The Omnivore’s Dilemma

January 2, 2008 at 4:24 pm Leave a comment

But imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost.

Michael Pollan is, quite simply, a brilliant journalist. I mean, he’s clearly not above a little pretension and that shows in his book. But I think if I was that smart, I’d be a little cocky, too. He follows the trails of four different meals, one fast food, two “organic” and one gained entirely by hunting and foraging. The first concentrates mainly on commercial beef, the latter two on industrial organic and sustainable organic and the last on boar and mushroom hunting.

Though eventually Pollan decides that the best way to understand where our food comes from is by practicing the type of foraging our prehistoric ancestors did, he admits that this practice is not exactly realistic in this day and age. In the same vein, any attempt to increase the prevalence of sustainable organic farming (my personal choice for best and most realistic solution) could lead to the industrialization these farmers are trying so hard to avoid.

Pollan does not end up giving up meat at the end of the novel, and though he tries vegetarianism for a brief period, he does not seem quite satisfied with it. First, many vegetarians are ovo-lacto, assuming that cows and chickens are not injured or killed in the processing of milk and eggs and therefore it’s acceptable. Pollan’s dissection of that rationalization was enough to make me pause before making an omlette, but like him, I’m not sure giving both these foods up is the answer. Historically speaking, of course, humans evolved to eat both animal and plant matter, and I take Pollan’s point that humans shouldn’t toy with natural selection.

Pollan also addresses the culture dilemma which faces vegetarians — those who shun meat are automatically alienated from traditions like Turkey on Thanksgiving, hot dogs on the Fourth of July, and other food-centered holidays. Since one of his early points is that Americans have suffered from a lack of tradition surrounding food which leaves us to fend for ourselves, the decision to be a vegetarian, for him, would mean abandoning the albeit limited food culture we do have.

Though this book did not convince me to eat cow (certainly not — my goodness, I will never eat an American cow again after the feedlot section), it made me seriously consider my eating practices, the ethics behind it, and what I can do to minimize the damage I cause to the ecosystem every time I make a meal. I mean, it’s not such a crazy idea, right, being able to tell where food came from, what damage its production did to the environment, and what, exactly, is in it?

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Entry filed under: Non-fiction.

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