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The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals [Hardcover]

Michael Pollan
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 11 2006
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What should we have for dinner?" To one degree or another this simple question assails any creature faced with a wide choice of things to eat. Anthropologists call it the omnivore's dilemma. Choosing from among the countless potential foods nature offers, humans have had to learn what is safe, and what isn't—which mushrooms should be avoided, for example, and which berries we can enjoy. Today, as America confronts what can only be described as a national eating disorder, the omnivore's dilemma has returned with an atavistic vengeance. The cornucopia of the modern American supermarket and fast-food outlet has thrown us back on a bewildering landscape where we once again have to worry about which of those tasty-looking morsels might kill us. At the same time we're realizing that our food choices also have profound implications for the health of our environment. The Omnivore's Dilemma is bestselling author Michael Pollan's brilliant and eye-opening exploration of these little-known but vitally important dimensions of eating in America.

Pollan has divided The Omnivore's Dilemma into three parts, one for each of the food chains that sustain us: industrialized food, alternative or "organic" food, and food people obtain by dint of their own hunting, gathering, or gardening. Pollan follows each food chain literally from the ground up to the table, emphasizing our dynamic coevolutionary relationship with the species we depend on. He concludes each section by sitting down to a meal—at McDonald's, at home with his family sharing a dinner from Whole Foods, and in a revolutionary "beyond organic" farm in Virginia. For each meal he traces the provenance of everything consumed, revealing the hidden components we unwittingly ingest and explaining how our taste for particular foods reflects our environmental and biological inheritance.

We are indeed what we eat-and what we eat remakes the world. A society of voracious and increasingly confused omnivores, we are just beginning to recognize the profound consequences of the simplest everyday food choices, both for ourselves and for the natural world. The Omnivore's Dilemma is a long-overdue book and one that will become known for bringing a completely fresh perspective to a question as ordinary and yet momentous as What shall we have for dinner?

A few facts and figures from The Omnivore's Dilemma:

  • Of the 38 ingredients it takes to make a McNugget, there are at least 13 that are derived from corn. 45 different menu items at Mcdonald’s are made from corn.
  • One in every three American children eats fast food every day.
  • One in every five American meals today is eaten in the car.
  • The food industry burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States—more than we burn with our cars and more than any other industry consumes.
  • It takes ten calories of fossil fuel energy to deliver one calorie of food energy to an American plate.
  • A single strawberry contains about five calories. To get that strawberry from a field in California to a plate on the east coast requires 435 calories of energy.
  • Industrial fertilizer and industrial pesticides both owe their existence to the conversion of the World War II munitions industry to civilian uses—nerve gases became pesticides, and ammonium nitrate explosives became nitrogen fertilizers.
  • ...

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The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals + Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation + Food Rules: An Eater's Manual
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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.

From Booklist

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

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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Shocking, Enlightening, Empowering Aug. 11 2007
In this comprehensive book, Michael Pollan presents many of the grisly details of the industrial food system which dominates North American society. While many readers may have encountered stories of animal abuse, genetically engineered foods, and irresponsible agri-business/ government partnerships, this book ties all the threads together in a somewhat bleak picture of current food market conditions. Alternately though, Pollan presents a variety of options that conscious consumers may choose to empower themselves in their culinary choices, while supporting local, sustainable farmers. The highlight of this book is the introduction to the innovative, post-modern farming techniques employed by Joel Salatin and others like him. This author presents a problem, and is refreshingly responsible enough to provide solutions.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
By Brian Griffith TOP 500 REVIEWER
This is the most basic culinary detective book. In modern America, Michael Pollan wonders what to eat: "... imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we're eating. Where it came from. How it found it's way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost."

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.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
This is one of the most important and thought provoking books I've had the pleasure (however scary) to read in a long, long time. Pollan traces the roots of four meals down to their component parts. You will never look at "high fructose sweetener" the same again, and the sight of vast fields of corn now fills me with grave concern. But more importantly, it has helped me understand the real cost of the food I eat. In a way that the 100 mile diet alludes to, but this is a far more in-depth look at the food chain and the perils of mono-culture.

It is also an excellent read. Well written, thoroughly researched, and interesting. The audio version is very well read by Scott Brick. I found myself getting to my destination and then sitting in the car listening to the book instead of getting out. But I ended up buying the hardback as well to have and re-read.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What's For Dinner? July 31 2007
Or an even better question is 'what is dinner made of?'. Michael Pollan brings to us his journey to find the 'perfect meal'. In the process of his search, he debunks several myths about the industrial agriculture that produces the majority of food at your local supermarket. One of the more revealing discoveries is that buying 'organic' is pretty much the same as your ordinary industrial agriculture, sometimes grown right next to the regular supermarket foods.

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.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Think before you eat Dec 23 2008
The Omnivore's Dilemma is the product of a very talented investigative journalist (who also happens to be a good writer) tackling one of the most important issues facing N. American consumers - what's on their dinner plates.
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.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book for an amazing price!
Great Book for an amazing price!
Published 24 days ago by RichView Hills
3.0 out of 5 stars The info is great but it is not written in a way that ...
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 1 month ago by Sharon Vickner
4.0 out of 5 stars Omnivore's delight
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 2 months ago by Doug W. Murray
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book! Anyone who eats food they don't produce on their own,...
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 more
Published 19 months ago by Steph
5.0 out of 5 stars Everyone's busy. You can still buy local to solve this.
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 more
Published 20 months ago by aleader
4.0 out of 5 stars A great piece of journalism
This book told me things about our food system I was totally unaware of. Pollan has a great writing style and it was really well-researched.
Published 24 months ago by grouchy
5.0 out of 5 stars Happy!
I am a student at a chef school and I love Michael Pollan's works. This copy of OMnivore's Dilemma was quite the steal! Read more
Published on June 18 2012 by Cherry
5.0 out of 5 stars Mind Blowing Realism
My interest was piqued into the burgeoning world of sustainable agriculture (called many things today: beyond organic; urban farming; backyard gardening; eating locally; knowing... Read more
Published on Jan. 1 2012 by dfo
5.0 out of 5 stars omnivore's dilemma
Michael Pollan does his research and tells it in such an easy readable way. Totally enjoyed learning more about food without a lecture.
Published on Sept. 25 2011 by Judi Robson
3.0 out of 5 stars Omnivore's delemma
If you know nothing about the "food machine" in the USA, this is a good book to start with. But be warned, 1..this is USA book 2.. Read more
Published on Sept. 9 2011 by silvertree
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