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Omnivore’s Dilemma

People, as omnivores, can eat pretty much anything, so the dilemma is choosing what to eat. Author Michael Pollan gives the example of pandas, which only eat eucalyptus leaves – no dilemma there as long as the leaves are available. Our dilemma, coupled with industrial and technical changes in the food supply along with the modern obsession with diet and nutrition has in Pollan’s opinion led to a national eating disorder. He seeks to unravel the roots of the problem by tackling the whole question of what to eat and where the food we eat comes from.

The first section is about corn and how it has come to dominate our ‘foodscape’ to the point where you can barely escape eating corn in some form or another. Read a few labels, especially on convenience foods, and you’re bound to find high fructose corn syrup pretty far up on the list. In addition, most beef, poultry and now salmon are corn-fed, which means we are indirectly eating corn when we eat these creatures. (How this has affected our national health in terms of high cholesterol and other conditions is illuminating). In fact, the way big agriculture runs on corn, the politics of corn and how it has changed every aspect of our diet is shocking. The second section describes a self-sustaining farm in Virginia that is the opposite of big-agriculture in every way. While livestock is raised for food on the farm, the animals live happy, healthy lives, grazing in pastures, not cooped up in industrial factory farms. The hunting-gathering section leads to an exploration of vegetarianism and the ethics of eating meat. For each section, Pollan describes a representational meal. The corn chapter culminates in MacDonald’s fast food, eaten in the car (I believe even the packaging has corn by-products as an ingredient). The small farm meal has him cooking a chicken that he helped slaughter along with fresh vegetables, including corn, from the farm. The final meal is a wild boar that he helped hunt along with other items that he gathers near his home in Northern California. There are many amusing vignettes in this section such as learning to forage for mushrooms without getting poisoned, learning to shoot a rifle and hunt, and trying to dry salt (not recommended).

This is a big and complex book, but Pollan is an amusing and engaging writer. He is not a polemicist and doesn’t try to beat you over the head with his opinions. He simply asks questions, follows leads and puts himself into situations to add important information to facts, theories and viewpoints that are aired (an example of this is his extended correspondence with animal rights activists and trying out being a vegetarian for a month). It may have to be read twice to fully get all the ramifications of his research, but everyone who eats should read it at least once.

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