The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Review)

Reviewed in this post: Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2006; imprint 2007).

My first complete read of the summer; in fact, the first book I have started and finished reading, for pleasure, in many months.

FOOD is mysterious. It is both intensely personal and ultimately social, a matter of private taste and of public life. It is not enough to point out that food (along with air, water, clothing and shelter) is absolutely necessary for our animal life. Human beings, unlike other animals, are uniquely obsessed by their own symbolic relations with food. For us, food is as much about culture and identity as it is about nutrition and survival.

In Michael Pollan’s convincing account of our evolution and biology, human beings are omnivores. We are beings who have evolved with a capacity for eating just about anything. But more than this, we have also developed the capacity to control our own food supply. We human omnivores have arranged entire economies of food in order to allow for the satisfaction of almost any and every whim. Our dilemma is therefore the omnivore’s dilemma quintessentially: when you really can eat almost anything you choose, what should you choose to eat?

The Omnivore’s Dilemma combines economics, botany, gastronomy and anthropology, weaving a journalistic critical investigation of the problems inherent in the food chains that sustain us modern Americans, into a very personal exploration of the methods and meanings of our eating. It’s an elegant book. The title is drawn from the work of psychologist Paul Rozin, best known for his work on the (very physical) emotion “disgust.” In a 1976 paper Rozin sought to investigate how “food is recognized and how choices are made” among omnivores (his subjects were humans and rats). In Rozin’s words:

Omnivores … faced with an enormous number of potential foods, must choose wisely. They are always in danger of eating something harmful or eating too much of a good thing.

Rozin argued that successful omnivores develop and exploit two conflicting impulses, one pushing us to explore new possible foods, and the other to avoid novelty. He was interested in the physical and psychic structures employed by omnivores who are torn between their drive for “exploration” and their risk averse “neophobia.”

Rozin’s biological and evolutionary puzzle of omnivore behavior seems, for Pollan, to intimate a larger puzzle, one I would not hesitate to call existential and philosophical. Eating is not just a mechanism for the sustenance of life. It is rather a way of life. It raises the question of our relation to the environment and to other species, especially those we consume. Done well, eating could offer abundant life to persons or even entire peoples; or so we suspect and hope. Done less well, it could bring death, not only to individuals but to our own world. Enough individuals eating poorly could greatly harm the life of our own species, not to mention the lives of the species we eat or displace in our cultivation of land. And indeed, when it is examined on the broad and economic scale appropriate to it, human eating can be seen to be directly or indirectly related to some of the greatest health and environmental problems of modern civilization: water pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, extinction, climate change, antibiotic resistant disease, and among those eaters who enjoy the modern western diet: rampant obesity and metabolic derangement.

To explore these themes, perhaps in search of a solution to our dilemma, Pollan offers, as the subtitle suggests, a “natural history of four meals.” These he acquires or prepares for himself from sources available to modern humans. The first is a meal dependent on the food chain we have created with modern conventional industrial-agriculture, a meal heavily dependent on corn and petroleum. The second is a meal of industrial-scale organic produce and meats. The third, a meal from a small-scale biologically and ecologically sophisticated conscious “beyond organic” local farm. The fourth, a meal scavenged, gathered, and hunted from the environs of Pollan’s home base in northern California.

But the subtitle is a subtle piece of misdirection. In truth, the book concerns human personality, not natural history. The meals themselves recede in the face of the “natural history” that stands behind them, and in truth “history,” natural or otherwise, plays at best a secondary role to the force of human personality. At the heart is of course the personality of Pollan himself; the book is a story of his journey of personal discovery. The course of research and reporting is driven by his appetite for understanding, and his desire for knowledge sets the table for these four meals. This highly personal structure gives the book literary depth and serves to highlight the central fact of the science of gastronomy: we cannot be in any sense objective about the subject of eating. It is necessarily personal.

But the Omnivore’s Dilemma is not a private, individualistic journey into food and eating. Pollan is intent from the beginning to expose the inherently cultural, social, and economic dimensions of eating; and his journey is by no means a solitary adventure. His natural histories rely heavily on the strength of remarkable human individuals who serve as Pollan’s informants, guides, and fellow eaters. The people in this book give personality and spiritual depth to the eating of the food they have a part in creating or acquiring.

Four individuals stand out from the rest.

The first is George Naylor, who makes his appearance beginning in the second chapter of the book. Naylor is a cynical and salty tongued industrial corn farmer and expert in the corn market, and his story and insight help Pollan flesh out the complex economics, ecology, and biochemistry of corn and corn-based processed foods. Pollan entertains a creative fiction that he can somehow follow Naylor’s corn from cornfield to feed-lot to the processed endproduct: a corn-fueled dinner of McDonald’s eaten in a moving car on the freeway, a meal symbolic of an entire system of globalized industrial agriculture.

The second individual is one of the pioneers of industrial-scale organic farming, Gene Kahn of Cascadian Farms, who makes his appearance in the ninth chapter. The story of Khan’s journey from hippie-entrepreneur farmer to capitalist giant helps Pollan tell the cold hard truth about the industrial scale and economic and environmental trade-offs involved in mass-produced and internationally distributed organic vegetables and meats. The story Pollan tells basically ruins the idea of “organic” for me… especially with regards to the term’s use in marketing meat and eggs… the only remaining reason to choose organic appears to be concern with the health of local soils and watersheds. But it appears that big agricultural industry has completely co-opted the term, philosophy and practice of organic agriculture.

The third figure, Joel Salatin of Polyface farms, becomes a driving force in the center of the book. Joel, the “Grass Farmer,” raises Rabbits, Chickens, Cows, and Pigs, producing as much protein as he can per acre of a small family farm. Salatin’s methods are described as “beyond organic.” His methods are relentlessly biological, local and sustainable. Salatin’s farm ultimately relies on a solar harvest: everything begins with the power of the sun being captured by plant photosynthesis in grass. Through the magic of the cycle of living beings eating and making waste, and trying to reproduce themselves on the earth, his farm operates at a high but sustainable level of productivity. Salatin, who opens his dinner table to Pollan, and lets him serve a brief stint as a farmhand, seems to make a profound impact on Pollan, before supplying him with some roaster Chickens and eggs which become the centerpiece of Pollan’s third meal, of local, “beyond organic” produce.

The final guide, Pollan’s real “Virgil” as he repeatedly names him, is a larger than life figure who is both overtly and implicitly held up to the classic renaissance man model established by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: outdoorsman, gentleman life of the party, chef, and general advocate of audacious living and eating. Angelo Garro, who makes his appearance in chapter fifteen, seems to become Pollan’s food muse. Pollan is immediately taken by Garro’s personality and relation to food; when he is eating, he is “always intimately involved in the story of the meal” (283). Garro leads Pollan into killing his first game animal, a massive wild boar in northern California, and also introduces him to the world of extreme mushroom gathering (Garro also makes wine, cures meats, etc.; he is an amazing and compelling personality). There is an ancient, somewhat pagan vitality to this type of individual; literarily speaking, he resembles the Biblical Esau or the Mesopotamian Enkidu: a hairy man, a man of the wilds: “a stout burly Italian with a five-day beard, sleepy brown eyes, and a passion verging on obsession about the getting and preparing of food” (282-283). It is evident that the friendship of Garro leaves indelible marks on Pollan. But Pollan does not even seem to believe in his own transformation. The encounter is sometimes painful to read, as Pollan self-consciously censures and second-guesses his writing on hunting and gathering. His account writhes with an unbecoming self-loathing that does a disservice to the literature of hunting and to his own experience, although I think Pollan may be forgiven his eccentricities since he is a Yankee. In my view, Pollan’s chapters on hunting are some of the most tedious and self-indulgent pages in the book. The account fails, in that Pollan remains so defensive about his own process of acquiescence to the pleasure of hunting and killing game. Pollan wants us to know how embarrassed he is by his enthusiasm. In these chapters he writes as if the moral objections of vegans to hunting were something to take seriously, he writes as if he is unable to let go of his self-identification with a too-effete ideal of liberalism, one that equates justice with the total elimination of violence, including all violence against animals… even those we plan on eating. But I digress.

In the end, Pollan’s book becomes a chronicle of the effect these men had on his thinking about and understanding of his own omnivore’s dilemma, as an eater. The effect is profound. Pollan emerges from the experience of researching and writing the book a changed eater, surrounded by a circle of passionate and dedicated fellow omnivores.

Ultimately, what is Pollan’s proposal for a resolution of the omnivore’s dilemma, as we have constructed it in our modern food economy?

Pollan stops just short of advocating a kind of paleolithic, hunter-gatherer philosophy of gastronomy and health. He takes seriously the possibility that our food should be evolutionarily appropriate for us. (But this is, of course, uh, like, no duh.) But he doesn’t really embrace this philosophy. And he outright rejects some of its more extreme versions, such as the low-carb Atkins/Paleo culture that is recently resurgen. (Pollan sometimes mocks the low-carb school of thought as “carbophobic,” apparently without concern or full understanding of the theory… or even a recognition of the theory’s role in his beloved Brillat-Savarin’s genius.) Instead of embracing a radical or revolutionary approach to eating, Pollan emerges as a realist who has had a vision of an ideal world.

As a realist, he knows that multiple food economies will continue to operate — industrial processed agriculture will not go away any time soon. The righteous omnivore can occasionally, perhaps as needed, continue to participate in the larger economic system, even though participation in this system leaves us fraught with dangers of disease and looming environmental disaster.

But in an ideal world, food would be all local, sustainable, whole, and real; it would be gathered, or raised and taken by, a known hand or by the eater himself. It would be processed only minimally, and its provenance would always be known and explicit. Food is natural, and its producers would rely on nature to the greatest possible extent.

For Pollan, all is not lost; far from it. Pollan’s own experience suggests that the individual, the person, has the power, perhaps resident in the force of personality itself, to shape his or her own local culture or society of food and eating. It all begins with our choices about what to eat, or not, and how to eat it, and who to eat it with. As Brillat-Savarin said, “tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.”

Let me know what you think...