|The Omnivore’s Dilemma|
|Publisher||The Penguin Press|
|Dewey Decimal||394.1/2 22|
|LC Classification||GT2850 .P65 2006|
|Preceded by||The Botany of Desire|
|Followed by||In Defense of Food|
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals is a nonfiction book by Michael Pollan published in 2006, in which Pollan asks the seemingly straightforward question of what we should have for dinner. To find out, Pollan follows each of the food chains that sustain us—industrial food, organic or alternative food, and food we forage ourselves — from the source to a final meal, and in the process writes an account of the American way of eating.
Pollan begins with an exploration of the food-production system from which the vast majority of American meals are derived. This industrial food chain is largely based on corn, whether it is eaten directly, fed to livestock, or processed into chemicals such as glucose and ethanol. Pollan discusses how the corn plant came to dominate the American diet through a combination of biological, cultural, and political factors. The role of petroleum in the cultivation and transportation of the American food supply is also discussed.
A fast food meal is used to illustrate the end result of the industrial food chain.
The following chapter delves into the principles of organic farming and their various implementations in modern America. Pollan shows that, while organic food has grown in popularity, its producers have adopted many of the methods of industrial agriculture, losing sight of the organic movement's anti-industrial roots. A meal prepared from ingredients purchased at Whole Foods Market represents this food chain at the table.
As a study in contrast, Pollan visits Joel Salatin's small-scale ecological rotation farm, where natural conditions are adhered to as closely as possible, very few artificial inputs are used, and waste products are recycled back into the system. He then prepares a meal using only local produce from nearby small-scale farmers.
The final chapter finds Pollan attempting to prepare a meal using only ingredients he has hunted, gathered, or grown himself. He recruits assistance from local foodies, who teach him to hunt feral pigs, gather wild mushrooms, and search for abalone. He also makes a salad of greens from his own garden, bakes sourdough bread using wild yeast, and prepares a dessert from cherries picked in his neighborhood.
Pollan concludes that, while such a meal is not practical on a regular basis, as an occasional exercise it helps to reconnect us with the natural origins of food as well as human history.
Economist Tyler Cowen argued, "The problems with Pollan's 'self-financed' meal reflect the major shortcoming of the book: He focuses on what is before his eyes but neglects the macro perspective of the economist. He wants to make the costs of various foods transparent, but this is an unattainable ideal, given the interconnectedness of markets."
Washington State University, situated in an agricultural area of Washington state, chose this book to be part of its freshman reading program in 2009, but soon changed course, canceling the program. Many in the university's community, including those who run the kinds of industrial farms that The Omnivore's Dilemma discusses, were unhappy with the selection, and speculation was that the cancellation was a result of political pressure. Elson Floyd, president of WSU, claimed instead that it was a budgetary issue, and when food safety expert Bill Marler stepped up to cover the claimed shortfall, the program was reinstated, and Pollan was invited to speak on campus.
The September 2007 issue of The Atlantic included a review of The Omnivore's Dilemma by B.R. Myers. Myers was severely critical of Pollan's attitudes toward vegetarians and the animal rights movement, describing the work as "a record of the gourmet’s ongoing failure to think in moral terms."
In The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-intellectuals (July, 2009 edition of 'The American', the journal of the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute), Blake Hurst, a Missouri farmer, critiqued Pollan's book on many points, contrasting his farming experience with Pollan's conclusions.