The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals Paperback – Aug 28 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
[Signature]Reviewed by Pamela KaufmanPollan (The Botany of Desire) 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. (Apr.)Pamela Kaufman is executive editor at Food & Wine magazine.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Humans were clearly designed to eat all manner of meats, vegetables, fruits, and grains. But, as Pollan points out, America's farmers have succeeded so wildly that today's fundamental agricultural issue has become how to deal sensibly with overproduction. The result of this surfeit of grain is behemoth corn processors, who have commoditized the Aztecs' sacred grain and developed ways to separate corn into products wholly removed from its original kernels. This excess food and Americans' wealth and rapid-paced lifestyles now yield supersized portions of less-than-nutritious eatables. Pollan contrasts the technologically driven life on an Iowa corn farm's feedlots with the thriving organic farm movement supplying retailers such as Whole Foods. Pollan also addresses issues of vegetarianism and flesh eating, hunting for game, and foraging for mushrooms. Throughout, he takes care to consider all sides of issues, and he avoids jingoistic answers. Although much of this subject has been treated elsewhere, Pollan's easy writing style and unique approach freshen this contemporary debate. Mark Knoblauch
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Of course most North Americans can't answer these questions in any self-satisfying way, so Pollan sets off on the case. He journeys through the belly of the food industry beast -- to the massive government-subsidized corn plantations of Iowa, the huge cattle feed lots and the slaughterhouses. He visits the plants where trainload after trainload of corn is refined into the chemical components of processed food, and then he takes his family to McDonalds.
Searching for alternatives to totally explore, Pollan visits large-scale organic plantations. He works for a spell on an organic family farm in Virginia, helping to slaughter the chickens for his next gourmet meal. And last he goes whole hog back to the hunter-gatherer days, searching for mushrooms and shooting a wild pig in the forests of Northern California.
The whole experience yields tons of great stories, and the kind of good common sense I can't resist quoting:
"A tension has always existed between the capitalist imperative to maximise efficiency at any cost and the moral imperatives of culture, which have historically served as a counterweight to the moral blindness of the market. This is another example of the cultural contradictions of capitalism -- the tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society. Mercy toward the animals in our care is one such cruelty." (p.Read more ›
While Pollan does go on to describe a meal entirely hunted and gathered (mostly but not entirely actually), he concludes to eat this way in our modern world is virtually impossible. So, we basically have no choice other than to eat what is available in the supermarkets and 'organic' food stores which after all hasn't decreased the average lifespan. Ultimately, while corn-fed animals may not be as 'clean' as grass-fed animals, it won't make much difference in how long you live.
The book is very well-written and Pollan's research is extensive. His mix of documented research and first-hand accounts is what makes the book so credible and insightful.
The book isn't written as an "expose" of the food industry - Pollan isn't trying to grab you by your shirt collar and slap you around with information. And despite the lengthy discussion of the factory farm system, this isn't a vegetarian or vegan call to arms. Although he never actually states his position, it's fairly clear that Pollan is an omnivore who finds it defensible to eat animals raised on organic / natural farms who lived a good life and had a quick clean death. What he does not find defensible is eating animals - like the billions going through the factory farms - that did nothing but suffer for their entire existence before they reached our plates.
Pollan emphasizes several times the fact that it is incumbent upon the eater to truly look at, and make a conscious moral decision, about what he/she is eating. On page 312 he writes about the choice you have to make after you accept the evidence that an animal was tortured to get to your dinner table: You look away (and ignore the truth) - or you stop eating animals.
Aside from the moral problems associated with the factory farm system, Pollan is also great at discussing what is actually happening in this system. Listen to this description of the food given to cattle:
Around to the other side of the building, tanker trucks back up to silo-shaped tanks into which they pump thousands of gallons of liquefied fat and protein supplements.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
Review courtesy of www.subtleillumination.com
Why do you eat what you do? How was it produced? Read more
A really great book! I liked the CD version because I don't have much time to read lately, but if you are stuck in traffic, this CD will make your car time pleasant. Read morePublished 15 months ago by Lucie
The info is great but it is not written in a way that makes it hard to put down. It's well written in the sense of clarity and understanding.Published 16 months ago by Sharon Vickner
Another Pollan classic in my opinion. I love the stories that sit on top of the points. The book arrived on time and in good condition.Published 18 months ago by Doug W. Murray
This book is amazing. I recently graduated from University with a degree in Nutrition and though we spent a good amount of time studying policies, this book delved into the realism... Read morePublished on March 21 2013 by Steph
Essential reading if you eat (i.e. everyone). I'd also recommend 'Holy Cows and Hog Heaven' by Joel Salatin. The solution to unhealthy industrial practices and food? Read morePublished on Feb. 23 2013 by aleader
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