Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”

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Today when we walk into the grocery store to pick up the ingredients for dinner we assume that the organic produce are superior to the conventional, the free-range chicken is the optimal choice, and the bread – oh yeah we shouldn’t even have that for dinner anymore if we want to be fit.  We are faced with a series of dilemmas every time we walk into a grocery store.  The food war between the healthy choices and the unhealthy choices has been going on for years now, but is there a resolution to all of our dilemmas?  Michael Pollan addresses the food contemplations that our nation has been fixated on for year in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

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This photo is borrowed from this source.

All we have to help us make decisions when we shop are the labels on the packages of food.  But how reliable and truthful are they?  Today, it is hard to know exactly where our food is coming from, because now the majority of the food Americans buy comes directly from a grocery store or a restaurant. Instead of coming from a farm, most food today, is altered from its natural, original state.  We have no clarity about where the food we buy in a grocery store is actually coming from.  Michael Pollan decides to investigate this national food dilemma or “national eating disorder” as he calls it: “The notion began to occupy me a few years ago, after I realized that the straightforward question: What should I eat? could no longer be answered without first addressing two other even more straightforward questions: What am I eating? And where in the world did it come from?” (17)

Today this is an ambitious, novel pursuit, but Pollan does not shy away from finding the truth about where our food is really coming from.  His book answers all of the question we now faced with when doing our weekly grocery shop.  Pollan does not spare any of the details explaining the truth behind where our food comes.  He travels tirelessly around the country to witness where all of our mass produced food is being processed and packaged to reveal and unsettling reality.

Pollan’s journey begins with a close examination of the most unexpected crop: corn.  Corn has found its way into almost every processed food in America from the meat we buy to the corn syrup in our fruit juice: “I expected that my investigation would lead me to a whole variety of places. And though my journeys did take me to a great many states, and covered a great many miles, at the very end of these food chains (which is to say, at the very beginning), I invariably found myself in almost exactly the same place: a farm field in the American Corn Belt.” (18) Corn is not necessarily an unhealthy food; however it offers little nutritional advantages and is yet the leading ingredient in the majority of our food.

Pollan’s follows this corn as it travels into the digestive tract of cows, pigs, chicken and even salmon that eventually arrive in grocery stores around the country. He goes on to \ compare the origin of two meals he shares with his wife and son, which appear to be opposites: McDonalds and an organic chicken from Whole Foods with roasted vegetables.  He brings to our attention; however, that we have the same knowledge of where both these meals are coming from.  We assume we know where the meal from Whole Food is coming from but Pollan points out that we need to be just as skeptical because the demand for organic food is industrializing organic food just like conventional food.

He concludes the remainder of his evocative food exploration back at his home in California with the perfect meal: “I seriously doubt that any of my guest, assuming I was out of earshot, would declare this a great meal. But for me it was the perfect meal, which is not quite the same thing.” (391) Pollan’s meal embodied perfection because he knew simply where all of his food was coming from. In order use a product for his meal he either had to grow it, gather it or hunt for it.  A hefty pursuit in today’s world of food but he proves it is possible by hunting down a wild California pig, scrounging for morels in the woods, de-shelling fava beans from his garden, seeking out a tree of Bing cherries, and finding the yeast to make a loaf of bread (which is an essential component to the table he argues, despite my former remark).

This closing chapter will leave you in awe of how removed we have become from our food.  Pollan will convince you in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that farm-to-table eating, a lofty endeavor for the average American, might be more reasonable than we think.  Pollan’s passion for food is evident and he keeps you searching for answers about our food industry until the last page.

For more on The Omnivores Dilemma click here or to find out more about where your food is actually coming from click here.