I finally finished Michael Pollan’s new book Omnivore’s Dilemma last night. I’m embarrassed to say it took me over a week. But then, given how much I enjoyed his previous book, The Botany of Desire, I didn’t want to rush things. Top-notch creative nonfiction is a rare and precious commodity, especially when the topic is food. Best to savor it like a good steak. Or an organically-raised chicken. Or a hand-gathered chanterelle mushroom, or an oh…just read the book.
The premise of Omnivore’s Dilemma is straightforward enough. It sets out to answer the question: what should I have for dinner? Not as easy as it sounds, especially if you’re an omnivore. In a world where you can eat just about anything, what should you eat? This is the so-called “omnivore’s dilemma”, a term that refers to the challenge omnivores face in determining which foods are safe and nutritious to eat. Pollan, however, takes the question a step further, turning “what should we eat?” into a moral question. It’s a conceptual switcheroo that turns what might have been a series of highly stimulating essays on the history of eating into twenty chapters of existential angst. And while I can’t say I didn’t have lots of fun gobbling down the book, it wasn’t the morsel I was hoping for.
That of course is not to say that Pollan isn’t a fabulously talented writer. He is. A journalism professor at U.C. Berkeley, he’s a regular contributor to the New York Times magazine. In fact, it’s a March 2002 essay he wrote for the Times, “This Steer’s Life: The Highly Unnatural Journey of No. 534, from Calf to Steak”, that forms the basis of the book (greatly expanded of course). That essay dropped a bomb on the food world then, revealing as it did for those who never really wanted to know what exactly it is that happens on a modern industrial feedlot. As if that wasn’t enough, the article went on to point the finger at corn growers (for cattle are fed corn, a grain they’re not ideally suited biologically), at government policy, and then of course at McDonald’s, drawing the whole lot into one gigantic, morally dubious loop.
Such is the first half of Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which Pollan attempts to trace all the various components of a McDonald’s lunch back to their places of origin. That origin he argues is corn, yet ultimately petroleum, which he sees as the prime mover of the modern industrial food system. It’s an elaborate, fascinating argument that contains a silo full of fantastic information on agriculture. Yet the picture he ultimately paints is of suffering animals, parched Earth, and evil corporate and government bureaucrats pouring barrels of oil down the throats of ignorant consumers in some Bosch-esque food-industrial hell.
Having shown us perdition, he then takes us to heaven, which in this case happens to be Joe Salatin’s Polyface Farms in Virginia. Anyone with even a passing interest in sustainable agriculture has heard of Joe Salatin, and his farm, well, it may very well be heaven, both for animals and the people fortunate enough to live, work and eat there. More than a farmer, Salatin is an naturalist, amateur biologist, inventor and sustainable food evangelist, and Pollan understandably spends a great deal of time on him. It’s probably the best section of the book. In it, we’re treated to all sorts of fascinating tidbits about the workings of the natural world, as well as looks at some of Salatin’s ingenious farming techniques and devices.
But from there it’s a mostly downhill ride as Pollan attempts, with varying degrees of success, to address the various ethical implications of keeping, killing and eating animals. It’s an unfortunate philosophical diversion (of which there are many in this book) for a writer who’s a lot better being a journalist. Even so, the back half of Omnivore’s Dilemma contains its most entertaining portion, as we get to observe Pollan on a (successful) boar hunting trip. Here it’s impossible not to admire his writing and story telling skills, and his good-natured, self-effacing humor.
The book closes with Pollan’s “perfect meal” where he prepares a multi-course dinner composed almost entirely of ingredients he collected himself. It’s Pollan’s morally ideal meal. Certainly it’s an epicurean ideal that many of us, including me, might aspire to. Yet for a wide variety of obvious reasons (many of which Pollan points out himself) it’s an impossible, entirely unsustainable way to live and eat. Given that, I found myself wondering: what’s the point of this book? Is it to point out alternatives? If the alternative is a global reversion to hunting and gathering the answer is clearly no. If it’s a reversion to one-farm, one-family rural agriculture, answer is again, no (a world of sustainable farms like Joe Salatin’s couldn’t even begin to meet global food demands). So what is the point? I can’t say I know.
Pollan’s philosophy can be summed up thusly: if it’s big, it’s bad. Food is ethically problematic in direct proportion to the number of hands involved in its production. Conversely, it’s good in direct proportion to its distance from our industrialized food system. The thing he seems oblivious to throughout Omnivore’s Dilemma is that all of the alternatives he explores, from hunting and gathering to sustainable farming, vegan and organic diets, are themselves products of our industrialized food system. They sit at the very top of a very large pile of luxuries, the base of which is modern farming. For it’s modern farming, more than any other scientific or cultural advance, that’s responsible for eliminating hunger, cutting infant mortality, extending life spans, and creating wealth — wealth that makes all the many choices we have available to us come dinner time possible.
Wealth of course isn’t an easy thing to live with, morally speaking. And this I suspect is the real heart of Pollan’s Dilemma.