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the culinary adventures of a self-described foodie

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

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I couldn’t think of a more fitting way to start this blog than to review Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. My two-sentence summary of the book is as follows: As we sit at the top of the food chain, the question is not what can we eat, but what should we eat? Pollan dissects food sources and food politics, and comes to the (somewhat unfortunate) conclusion that there’s a lot we shouldn’t eat (or at least, there are very few foods that don’t come with a big dollop of guilt).

Normally, I’m not drawn to non-fiction, but I was intrigued by a chapter of The Omnivore’s Dilemma that first appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine last year. It was about corn — how our government significantly subsidizes corn, which created a monoculture of corn growers in the Midwest, which then resulted in the use of corn byproducts in every processed food in America.

So I bought the book and started reading it at the beginning of this year. While I found it interesting, it took me forever to finish it. Six months to be exact. So, if you don’t feel like trudging through all 411 pages like I did, I’m here to give you the Cliff Notes version. I’ll save the literary criticisms for the real book reviewers. Here’s what I found most practical and interesting about The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

  • We are walking corn. Corn is in everything, from ice cream to chicken McNuggets. And it’s so “cheap” because we pay for it with our taxes that pays for the Farm Bill.
  • Industrial organic is too good to be true. When buying produce, here’s the preferred order of food source: local, seasonal, and organic; local, seasonal, conventionally grown; not local but organic; industrial organic… I think you have the gist.
  • Ideally, if every farm were to move from monoculture (only one crop grown) to growing many different crops and animals as well, then not only would the farmers benefit, but so would the livestock, the environment, and the community as a whole.
  • You are what you eat. Quality is better than quantity. Knowing where your food comes from is ideal.
  • Conventionally grown produce is one thing, but try to steer clear of meat from big factories. Poorly-treated animals is not only inhumane, but results in less nutritious and less tasty meat. This goes for eggs and milk too.
  • Don’t eat so much meat. We eat way more meat than our ancestors did. It’s bad for our health and for the environment.
  • It’s important to read labels and know the definition of terms such as: organic, free range, hormone free, etc. Some of these terms are used more loosely than others. For instance, free range animals often only have a little more space than non-free range animals.

Anyway, there’s a lot more information and interesting details about food but I won’t go into all of it here. I found The Omnivore’s Dilemma to be informative and interesting, if a bit depressing. By the end, I felt like I couldn’t eat anything without wondering what the true “cost” was. I’ve heard that if The Omnivore’s Dilemma is about what NOT to eat, then Michael Pollan’s more recent In Defense of Food is about what TO eat. Even if I do feel guilty about some food choices, this book has renewed my commitment to go the farmer’s market more frequently and to be a better informed food consumer.

Author: Jen

Howdy! My name is Jen and I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I like to eat, run, and blog, but not usually at the same time.

One thought on “The Omnivore’s Dilemma

  1. My favorite info from Michael Pollan is that it takes roughly 10 pounds of feed for each pound of beef, and 3 pounds of feed for each pound of chicken (I don’t know about pork). Since organic meat must be fed organic feed, the organic/not organic decision of a meat purchase is amplified–eg for each pound of beef bought, you are basically buying 10 pounds of organically or not organically grown corn. That’s a lot!

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