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Omnivore's Dilemma (Pollan)

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
Michael Pollan, 2006
Penguin Group USA
464 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780143038580


In Brief
 
A New York Times bestseller that has changed the way readers view the ecology of eating, this revolutionary book by award winner Michael Pollan asks the seemingly simple question: What should we have for dinner?

Tracing from source to table each of the food chains that sustain us — whether industrial or organic, alternative or processed — he develops a portrait of the American way of eating. The result is a sweeping, surprising exploration of the hungers that have shaped our evolution, and of the profound implications our food choices have for the health of our species and the future of our planet. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—February 6, 1955
Where—Raised in Long Island, New York, USA
Education—N/A
Awards—California Book Award; James Beard Award, 2000
  and 2006; Reuters-IUCN Global Award-Environmental 
  Journalism.
Currently—lives in Berkeley, California


Few writers have done more to revitalize our national conversation about food and eating than Michael Pollan, an award-winning journalist and bestselling author whose witty, offbeat nonfiction shines an illuminating spotlight on various aspects of agriculture, the food chain, and man's place in the natural world

Pollan's first book, Second Nature: A Gardener's Education (1991), was selected by the American Horticultural Society as one of the 75 best books ever written about gardening. But it was Botany of Desire, published a full decade later, that put him on the map. A fascinating look at the interconnected evolution of plants and people, Botany... was one of the surprise bestsellers of 2001. Five years later, Pollan produced The Omnivore's Dilemma, a delightful, compulsively readable "ecology of eating" that was named one the ten best books of the year by the New York Times and Washington Post. And in 2008, came In Defense of Food.

A professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, Pollan is a former executive editor for Harper's and a contributing writer for the New York Times, where he continues to examine the fascinating intersections between science and culture. (From the publisher.)

 



Book Reviews 
Every time you go into a grocery store you are voting with your dollars, and what goes into your cart has real repercussions on the future of the earth. But although we have choices, few of us are aware of exactly what they are. Michael Pollan's beautifully written book could change that. He tears down the walls that separate us from what we eat, and forces us to be more responsible eaters. Reading this book is a wonderful, life-changing experience.
Ruth Reichl - Gourmet Magazine


Thoughtful, engrossing ... You're not likely to get a better explanation of exactly where your food comes from.
New York Times


His book is an eater's manifesto, and he touches on a vast array of subjects, from food fads and taboos to our avoidance of not only our food's animality, but also our own. Along the way, he is alert to his own emotions and thoughts, to see how they affect what he does and what he eats, to learn more and to explain what he knows. His approach is steeped in honesty and self-awareness. His cause is just, his thinking is clear, and his writing is compelling.
Bunny Crumpacker - Washington Post


Michael Pollan has perfected a tone—one of gleeful irony and barely suppressed outrage—and a way of inserting himself into a narrative so that a subject comes alive through what he's feeling and thinking. He is a master at drawing back to reveal the greater issues.
Los Angeles Times


Pollan examines what he calls "our national eating disorder" (the Atkins craze, the precipitous rise in obesity) in this remarkably clearheaded book. It's a fascinating journey up and down the food chain, one that might change the way you read the label on a frozen dinner, dig into a steak or decide whether to buy organic eggs. You'll certainly never look at a Chicken McNugget the same way again. Pollan approaches his mission not as an activist but as a naturalist: "The way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world." All food, he points out, originates with plants, animals and fungi. "[E]ven the deathless Twinkie is constructed out of... well, precisely what I don't know offhand, but ultimately some sort of formerly living creature, i.e., a species. We haven't yet begun to synthesize our foods from petroleum, at least not directly." Pollan's narrative strategy is simple: he traces four meals back to their ur-species. He starts with a McDonald's lunch, which he and his family gobble up in their car. Surprise: the origin of this meal is a cornfield in Iowa. Corn feeds the steer that turns into the burgers, becomes the oil that cooks the fries and the syrup that sweetens the shakes and the sodas, and makes up 13 of the 38 ingredients (yikes) in the Chicken McNuggets. Indeed, one of the many eye-openers in the book is the prevalence of corn in the American diet; of the 45,000 items in a supermarket, more than a quarter contain corn. Pollan meditates on the freakishly protean nature of the corn plant and looks at how the food industry has exploited it, to the detriment of everyone from farmers to fat-and-getting-fatter Americans. Besides Stephen King, few other writers have made a corn field seem so sinister. Later, Pollan prepares a dinner with items from Whole Foods, investigating the flaws in the world of "big organic"; cooks a meal with ingredients from a small, utopian Virginia farm; and assembles a feast from things he's foraged and hunted. This may sound earnest, but Pollan isn't preachy: he's too thoughtful a writer, and too dogged a researcher, to let ideology take over. He's also funny and adventurous. He bounces around on an old International Harvester tractor, gets down on his belly to examine a pasture from a cow's-eye view, shoots a wild pig and otherwise throws himself into the making of his meals. I'm not convinced I'd want to go hunting with Pollan, but I'm sure I'd enjoy having dinner with him. Just as long as we could eat at a table, not in a Toyota.
Publishers Weekly


Pollan defines the Omnivore's Dilemma as the confusing maze of choices facing Americans trying to eat healthfully in a society that he calls "notably unhealthy." He seeks answers to this dilemma by taking readers through the industrial, organic, and hunter-gatherer stages of the food chain. Focusing on corn as the keystone plant in the industrial stage, Pollan describes its role in feeding cattle and in food processing as well as its ultimate destination in the products we consume at fast-food restaurants. The organic, or pastoral, stage offers a pure and chemical-free eating environment for animals and humans. In the hunter-gatherer stage, omnivores hunt animals and gather the plant foods that comprise all or part of their diets. Pollan explains how a framework of environmental, biological, and cultural factors determines what and how we eat. Although a bit long and sometimes redundant, this folksy narrative provides a wealth of information about agriculture, the natural world, and human desires. Recommended for all omnivores. —Irwin Weintraub, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., New York
Library Journal


The dilemma—what to have for dinner when you are a creature with an open-ended appetite—leads Pollan (The Botany of Desire, 2001, etc.) to a fascinating examination of the myriad connections along the principal food chains that lead from earth to dinner table. The author identifies three: the one controlled by agribusiness; the pastoral, organic industry that has sprung up as an alternative to it; and the very short food chain Pollan calls "neo-Paleolithic," in which he assumes the role of modern-day hunter-gatherer. He demonstrates the dependence of the agribusiness system on a single grain, corn, as it passes from farm to feedlot and processing plant. The meal that concludes this section is takeout from McDonald's and includes among other foods a serving of Chicken McNuggets. Of the 38 ingredients that make up McNuggets, 13, he notes, are derived from corn. This fact bolsters an earlier, startling statistic: Each of us is personally responsible for consuming a ton of corn each year. Pollan's exploration of the pastoral food chain takes two roads. Investigating "industrial organic," he assembles a meal composed entirely of ingredients from a Whole Foods supermarket. But he also visits a single, relatively small farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, where grass, not corn, is the basis of production, and cattle, chickens and pigs are raised through management of the natural ecosystem. Pollan joins in the farm work and is clearly impressed by what he learns, observes and eats here. In the final section, he learns how to shoot a wild pig and how to scavenge for forest mushrooms. The author's extraordinarily labor-intensive final meal provides a perfect contrast to the fast-food takeout of Part I. Pollan combines ecology, biology, history and anthropology with personal experience to present fascinating multiple perspectives. Revelations about how the way we eat affects the world we live in, presented with wit and elegance.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. Michael Pollan approaches eating as an activity filled with ethical issues. Do you agree that the act of eating is as morally weighty as he says it is? What questions concern you most about the way you eat or the way your food is created?

2. Some readers might argue that Pollan’s ethics do not go far enough, perhaps because he does not urge us all to become vegetarians or possibly because of the zeal with which he pursues the feral pig that he kills toward the end of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Did you find yourself quarreling with any of Pollan’s ethical positions, and why?

3. Pollan argues that capitalism is a poor economic model to apply to the problems of food production and consumption. Do you agree or disagree, and why?

4. Pollan also shows a number of instances in which government policies have apparently worsened the crisis in our food culture. What do you think should be the proper role of government in deciding how we grow, process, and eat our food?

5. How has Michael Pollan changed the way you think about food?

6. At the end of In Defense of Food, Pollan offers a series of recommendations for improved eating. Which, if any, do you intend to adopt in your own life?

7. Which of Pollan’s recommendations would you be least likely to accept, and why?

8. Do you think that the way Americans eat reveals anything about our national character and broader shared values? How is Pollan’s writing a statement not only about American eating, but about American culture and life?

9. In both The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, Pollan quotes the words of Wendell Berry: “Eating is an agricultural act.” What does Berry mean by this, and why is his message so important to Pollan’s writing?

10. In each part of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan has a particular friend to help him understand the food chain he is investigating: George Naylor in Iowa, Joel Salatin at Polyface, and Angelo Garro in northern California. Which of these men would you most like to know personally, and why?

11. What, in the course of his writing, does Michael Pollan reveal about his own personality? What do you like about him? What, if anything, rubs you the wrong way?

12. If Michael Pollan were coming to your place for dinner, what would you serve him and why? [Or would you finally come to your senses...and cancel? —ed., LitLovers]
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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