Every single day, humans are faced with deciding what to eat. Today in America there are especially countless options available. “What should we have for dinner?” this is the question Michael Pollan set out to answer with his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He breaks down the question into three choices, industrial, pastoral, and hunted and gathered, and then goes into his research on each.
The first section focuses on modern industrial fast food. The main point in this section is how crucial corn has become. Whether it is in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, fed to animals or eaten directly, corn has evolved to dominate the modern American diet. High-fructose corn syrup is a cheap sweetener that has replaced table sugar in a plethora of common foods and drinks ranging from bread to cereal to yogurt to soups to many condiments. More surprising than high-fructose corn syrup’s rise is the fact corn has found its way into beef. Cows traditionally eat grass, but due to low prices of corn and fattening cows quickly, they now consume large quantities of corn. It is very surprising to think that the burger last night was full of corn and scary considering how cows are being fattened on something they do not typically consume. To emphasize the issue with beef, Pollan visits a feedlot where he learns about the poor conditions cows face in their last days, including the fattening process with lots of corn and antibiotics.
The second section looks into organic farming and how it varies in America. Pollan researches Whole Foods’ sources of foods which reveal that much “organic food” has come from farms that adopt some methods involved in industrial agriculture. Consumers enjoy imagining an ideal small scale farms, and that the food they purchase at a Whole Foods-style market comes from places like those, but in reality, is not completely true. Pollan also researches a truly organic farm which stresses its dependence on grass and moving cows to new pastures and land to avoid over grazing. This is the type of small scale farming that truly stresses quality and relies on traditional methods of food cultivation. The fact that these are so rare speaks volumes about America and its preference towards cheap industrial-scale food.
The final section describes Pollan’s attempt to create a meal, being personally responsible for each of his ingredients. He hunts feral pigs, forages for wild mushrooms and greens and even searches for abalone. The discussion of how much effort is required is valuable as there is large time required and even help needed for knowledge on how to acquire everything by oneself.
In the end, Pollan comes to the conclusion that the answer of where to find your food should come from a compromise. It is neither the labor-intensive “do it all yourself” meal nor the industrial corn meal that is best. Both are impractical in their own ways.
We are what we eat and too often do people just eat whatever is convenient. This book is important for making modern people pause and reflect on really they consume. Do we just want to eat cheap corn products regardless of how natural it is? Questions such as these are significant and too often overlooked.