Is there any theme more universal – spanning continents, cultures and centuries – than that of food? In The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, author Michael Pollan takes the reader on a not-so-whirlwind tour of the increasingly complex world of contemporary American food. The lengthy tome details every aspect of a meal’s journey, from plant to plate, in an easily accessible, non-scientific style.
Investigating what he calls America’s “national eating disorder,” Pollan finds at the heart of it the omnivore’s dilemma: when you can eat just about anything, what should you eat, and how much of it? With globalization increasing our options, more prospective meals than ever exist. Pollan breaks all of these options down into four main “food chains,” allotting an in-depth investigation to each one.
The four meals that serve as the collective backbone of Pollan’s narrative fall into separate and very distinct categories. First, there is the “Industrial meal,” traced from the Iowa Corn Belt to a McDonalds in northern California. Numerous stop-offs along the way enable Pollan to demonstrate an almost shocking cultural reliance on corn. Next come the two “Pastoral meals,” one from a local organic farm in Virginia, and the other from a San Francisco Whole Foods store. Finally comes the “Personal meal,” hunted and gathered entirely by Pollan in the tradition of our forebears.
As he traces these four food chains, Pollan digresses repeatedly into politics, sociology, economics and a myriad of other realms. He examines why so many farmers have shifted to growing corn, our national dieting craze, and why the French can eat so unhealthily and stay so thin. While a great deal of these digressions are interesting, there are occasions when Pollan seems to lose track of what exactly he’s focusing on, digressing even from his digressions. It’s this seeming lack of control that adds to the lengthy book’s volume.
For all its digressions, The Omnivore’s Dilemma asks – and occasionally answers – some questions that are only becoming more and more pressing. The national mania for diets doesn’t seem to be going away, and obesity rates make it increasingly clear that what we eat really does matter. Pollan is right to bring other disciplines into his text, for, as he points out, eating is not only a biological act, but a political and ecological one as well. At the heart of everything lies the omnivore’s dilemma: what to eat when you can eat practically anything.
For as Pollan writes: “Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world – and what is to become of it.”
Peter Chomko can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.