So what is this blog about?

These are the books I would insist everyone read if I were Queen of the Universe. I am not Queen of the Universe, so you don't have to read them, but hear me out. Most book reviews are about new books, but most books are not new. How else are you going to find out about what's out there? Anyway, aren't you just a bit curious about WHY I think these books should be read by everyone?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan

You know, I usually think I'm a pretty good writer, but sometimes someone else comes up with a phrase that just blows me out of the water. For example, another reviewer, one Simon Schama, praises Michael Pollan for his description of the weirdly comforting allure of the scent of McDonald's fries; "it is, he thinks a kind of ersatz 'home': some imagined smell of childish security in that oily-crunchy, burgery squishy provision –as if fast food momma was one gigantic American tit on which the infantilised masses of America placidly suck."

I know starting a review with a quote from someone else's review is a bit weird, but really I could not ignore that sentence. Mr. Schama's whole article is posted on Pollan's own website (

ANYWAY, I'm recommending Omnivore's dilemma as another book under the heading of Books That Make Important Things Make More Sense. In this case the "thing" in question is how America eats, and the economic, political, and ecological issues visible through that lens.

The basic structure of the book divides American food culture into three distinct types of food-chain. Each section follows one chain, and then follows Pollan as he makes a meal from food derived from that chain. This is participatory journalism, an example of a writer doing something quirky while we sit on his shoulder and learn from his experiences. Not all writers can pull this sort of thing off; in a clumsy hand, first-person journalism comes off as self-centered and melodramatic. The very fact that the writer has somehow convinced a publisher to pay for him to cook dinner for his friends interferes with the audience's ability to relate.

But Michael Pollan pulls it off. He always keeps the focus on the journalism part of participatory journalism. He keeps himself comfortably out of the way of his own story, acting simply as the reader's own avatar within the text. Not that his own personality doesn't shine through, but it shines as a texture of consciousness, not an object of focus. Pollan uses his experiences and reactions to help make his story specific, a valuable function given that many of us already know the vague outlines of these stories.

We know that fast food is bad for us. We know that feedlots are horrible places for animals to live. We don't necessarily know how a particular field of corn becomes a particular hamburger (neither does Pollan, but he did get pretty close to that level of specificity), nor do we know the history and ramifications of using corn this way.

Probably the section on what Pollan calls the industrial food chain, the one that begins with corn and often ends with meat, is the important for most people. This is the food chain from which most of us derive the bulk of our food, and it is also the most difficult chain to understand. Later sections deal with grass-fed beef and feral hogs, but if you go out into the woods to shoot a hog, you more or less know how that food-chain works. The story behind the meat in a fast-food joint or a grocery store is much less obvious. Obvious or not, this is a story that unfolds with the blessing of our money, so it is something we all need to be aware of.

Pollan is not exactly anti-meat, and though he does appear to be anti-factory farm, he is not bombastic or prescriptive about it. He is a journalist, and as such his interest is on understanding what is going on, looking straight at it, and reporting what he sees. That he also reports what he thinks and feels is more a form of interpretation than editorializing. If you finish the book unwilling to participate in the industrial food chain anymore, that may be simply a good call on your part based on available facts--but feel free to look elsewhere for corroborating or disconfirming evidence. I'm sure Pollan wouldn't mind. Treat this book as a source of good leads for further research.

Be forewarned that you are as likely to put the book down resolving to eat more meat, rather than less, if you are currently partially or completely vegetarian. All three food chains in the book are at least three links long, meaning that they all end with a human eating an animal. The book functions as an exploration of carnivory, from moral as well as ecological and economic angles. Pollan returns from his journalistic travels with a view that is far from simple.

Part of his journey actually involves temporarily becoming vegetarian, out of a sense that he couldn't adequately cover meat as a journalist if he ate the stuff. Pollan's temporary vegetarianism may be the only weak point of the book; it isn't clear whether he was actually vegetarian for a significant length of time, or whether he ever seriously considered staying that way, so his statements on behalf of "us vegetarians" are a bit suspect. More interesting is his reporting of various forms of meat production, particularly the second half of the second section.

The second section covers what Pollan calls the pastoral food chain, which begins with grass, and here is is possible to follow the meal from sun to plant to animal to plate, because all the steps happen on the same farm. I won't summarize the entire section (or the rest of the book), but in discussing grass-fed beef, Pollan makes the point that vegetables are not necessarily more sustainable than meat. Yes, I know that eating higher on the food chain automatically means you're consuming more energy. This is simple physics. If the planet were a homogenous sphere of interchangeable resources, and if the idea were simply to maximize human carrying capacity, then yes, we should all be vegetarians. But in the real world, well-managed pasture is sometimes better for the land then a vegetable plot is. How a human being can eat lightly on the land depends on what land the human is trying to eat on. And in a landscape that includes grasslands already, raising livestock simply means adding a species to the existing mix of grazers. Raising crops on the same land means killing or displacing all the animals and plants who could have shared that land with cattle. As to animal rights, the animals Pollan meets appear to be happy while they live. The wild animals he does not meet, but who likely share the same pasture, are not irrelevant to the moral calculation.

I have visited a farm similar to the one Pollan visited, incidentally, on a field trip in graduate school. It looked much as described, and seeing something in person that one has previously read about is always a tickle. That the tour we received covered the same material, the same procedures, ideas, and philosophy, as what Michael Pollan heard on his tour of a different farm may be regarded as a reassuring second opinion. That our professor had spent a decade studying grazing ecology and appeared to approve of this guy may be regarded as further confirmation yet.

But again, the point of the book is not to convince anyone but to provide food for thought (about food). If you haven't thought much about food before, it's an appatizer, and should be enough to get you started. If you're an old hand, this book may still give you a new idea or two.

Which is why you need to read this book.

Pollan, M. (2006). The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Penguin Press: New York, NY.


  1. Morning! Just stopping by to subscribe and "follow blog" and all that jazz . . .

    and to read . . . :-D