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The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Mealsby Michael Pollan
True or false: One out of every four items for sale in the average American supermarket contains corn? (Think, think, think...) Believe it or not, it's true. If this unsettles you — or just plain doesn't make sense — pick up a copy of Michael Pollan's latest, which will change the way you think about nutrition and health. Pollan starts out by identifying the three principal food chains that sustain contemporary Americans. Two of them, the organic and the hunter-gatherer, have been around for a long, long time. The third, however, the industrial food chain, suddenly accounts for the bulk of our diet. The "omnivore's dilemma," we learn, refers to anxiety that accompanies an excess of options; specifically, when you can eat everything, what should you eat? One thing this book makes clear: if we are what we eat, it's getting so we hardly know ourselves at all.
Synopses & Reviews
The bestselling author of The Botany of Desire explores the ecology of eating to unveil why we consume what we consume in the twenty-first century.
"What should we have for dinner?" To one degree or another this simple question assails any creature faced with a wide choice of things to eat. Anthropologists call it the omnivore's dilemma. Choosing from among the countless potential foods nature offers, humans have had to learn what is safe, and what isn't — which mushrooms should be avoided, for example, and which berries we can enjoy. Today, as America confronts what can only be described as a national eating disorder, the omnivore's dilemma has returned with an atavistic vengeance. The cornucopia of the modern American supermarket and fast-food outlet has thrown us back on a bewildering landscape where we once again have to worry about which of those tasty-looking morsels might kill us. At the same time we're realizing that our food choices also have profound implications for the health of our environment. The Omnivore's Dilemma is bestselling author Michael Pollan's brilliant and eye-opening exploration of these little-known but vitally important dimensions of eating in America.
Pollan has divided The Omnivore's Dilemma into three parts, one for each of the food chains that sustain us: industrialized food, alternative or "organic" food, and food people obtain by dint of their own hunting, gathering, or gardening. Pollan follows each food chain literally from the ground up to the table, emphasizing our dynamic coevolutionary relationship with the species we depend on. He concludes each section by sitting down to a meal — at McDonald's, at home with his family sharing a dinner from Whole Foods, and in a revolutionary "beyond organic" farm in Virginia. For each meal he traces the provenance of everything consumed, revealing the hidden components we unwittingly ingest and explaining how our taste for particular foods reflects our environmental and biological inheritance.
We are indeed what we eat — and what we eat remakes the world. A society of voracious and increasingly confused omnivores, we are just beginning to recognize the profound consequences of the simplest everyday food choices, both for ourselves and for the natural world. The Omnivore's Dilemma is a long-overdue book and one that will become known for bringing a completely fresh perspective to a question as ordinary and yet momentous as What shall we have for dinner?
Pollan (The Botany of Desire) examines what he calls "our national eating disorder" (the Atkins craze, the precipitous rise in obesity) in this remarkably clearheaded book. It's a fascinating journey up and down the food chain, one that might change the way you read the label on a frozen dinner, dig into a steak or decide whether to buy organic eggs. You'll certainly never look at a Chicken McNugget the same way again.Pollan approaches his mission not as an activist but as a naturalist: "The way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world." All food, he points out, originates with plants, animals and fungi. "[E]ven the deathless Twinkie is constructed out of... well, precisely what I don't know offhand, but ultimately some sort of formerly living creature, i.e., a species. We haven't yet begun to synthesize our foods from petroleum, at least not directly."Pollan's narrative strategy is simple: he traces four meals back to their ur-species. He starts with a McDonald's lunch, which he and his family gobble up in their car. Surprise: the origin of this meal is a cornfield in Iowa. Corn feeds the steer that turns into the burgers, becomes the oil that cooks the fries and the syrup that sweetens the shakes and the sodas, and makes up 13 of the 38 ingredients (yikes) in the Chicken McNuggets.Indeed, one of the many eye-openers in the book is the prevalence of corn in the American diet; of the 45,000 items in a supermarket, more than a quarter contain corn. Pollan meditates on the freakishly protean nature of the corn plant and looks at how the food industry has exploited it, to the detriment of everyone from farmers to fat-and-getting-fatter Americans. Besides Stephen King, few other writers have made a corn field seem so sinister.Later, Pollan prepares a dinner with items from Whole Foods, investigating the flaws in the world of "big organic"; cooks a meal with ingredients from a small, utopian Virginia farm; and assembles a feast from things he's foraged and hunted.This may sound earnest, but Pollan isn't preachy: he's too thoughtful a writer, and too dogged a researcher, to let ideology take over. He's also funny and adventurous. He bounces around on an old International Harvester tractor, gets down on his belly to examine a pasture from a cow's-eye view, shoots a wild pig and otherwise throws himself into the making of his meals. I'm not convinced I'd want to go hunting with Pollan, but I'm sure I'd enjoy having dinner with him. Just as long as we could eat at a table, not in a Toyota. Pamela Kaufman, Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Michael Pollan is a voice of reason, a journalist/philosopher who forages in the overgrowth of our schizophrenic food culture. He's the kind of teacher we probably all wish we had: one who triggers the little explosions of insight that change the way we eat and the way we live." Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse restaurant
"Michael Pollan is such a thoroughly delightful writer — his luscious sentences deliver so much pleasure and humor and surprise as they carry one from dinner table to corn field to feed lot to forest floor, and then back again — that the happy reader could almost miss the profound truth half hidden at the heart of this beautiful book: that the reality of our politics is to be found not in what Americans do in the voting booth every four years but in what we do in the supermarket every day. Embodied in this irresistible, picaresque journey through America's food world is a profound treatise on the hidden politics of our everyday life." Mark Danner, author of Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror
"Every time you go into a grocery store you are voting with your dollars, and what goes into your cart has real repercussions on the future of the earth. But although we have choices, few of us are aware of exactly what they are. Michael Pollan's beautifully written book could change that. He tears down the walls that separate us from what we eat, and forces us to be more responsible eaters. Reading this book is a wonderful, life-changing experience." Ruth Reichl, Editor in Chief of Gourmet magazine and author of Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise
"What should you eat? Michael Pollan addresses that fundamental question with great wit and intelligence, looking at the social, ethical, and environmental impact of four different meals. Eating well, he finds, can be a pleasurable way to change the world." Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs, and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market
"His book is an eater's manifesto, and he touches on a vast array of subjects, from food fads and taboos to our avoidance of not only our food's animality, but also our own. Along the way, he is alert to his own emotions and thoughts, to see how they affect what he does and what he eats, to learn more and to explain what he knows. His approach is steeped in honesty and self-awareness. His cause is just, his thinking is clear, and his writing is compelling." Bunny Crumpacker, The Washington Post
"The main contribution of Omnivore's Dilemma is its scope and rigor. I know of no other book that delivers a broader picture of the U.S. food scene, how it got the way it is, and how it's changing.... [A]n important book, sweeping through broad ground with impressive primary and secondary research." Grist magazine
"Pollan is an engaging companion, whether he's diving for abalone, collecting wild yeast, or musing about American gullibility. And his message is compelling. After reading the book, you will want to change how you eat." BusinessWeek
One of the New York Times Book Review's Ten Best Books of the Year
Winner of the James Beard Award
Author of #1 New York Times Bestsellers In Defense of Food and Food Rules
Today, buffeted by one food fad after another, America is suffering from what can only be described as a national eating disorder. Will it be fast food tonight, or something organic? Or perhaps something we grew ourselves? The question of what to have for dinner has confronted us since man discovered fire. But as Michael Pollan explains in this revolutionary book, how we answer it now, as the dawn of the twenty-first century, may determine our survival as a species. Packed with profound surprises, The Omnivore's Dilemma is changing the way Americans thing about the politics, perils, and pleasures of eating.
"Thoughtful, engrossing ... You're not likely to get a better explanation of exactly where your food comes from."
-The New York Times Book Review
"An eater's manifesto ... [Pollan's] cause is just, his thinking is clear, and his writing is compelling. Be careful of your dinner!"
-The Washington Post
"Outstanding... a wide-ranging invitation to think through the moral ramifications of our eating habits."
--The New Yorker
"If you ever thought 'what's for dinner' was a simple question, you'll change your mind after reading Pollan's searing indictment of today's food industry-and his glimpse of some inspiring alternatives.... I just loved this book so much I didn't want it to end."
-The Seattle Times
Michael Pollans newest book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation--the story of our most trusted food experts culinary education--was published by The Penguin Press in April 2013.
A New York Times bestseller that has changed the way readers view the ecology of eating, this revolutionary book by award winner Michael Pollan asks the seemingly simple question: What should we have for dinner? Tracing from source to table each of the food chains that sustain us-whether industrial or organic, alternative or processed-he develops a portrait of the American way of eating. The result is a sweeping, surprising exploration of the hungers that have shaped our evolution, and of the profound implications our food choices have for the health of our species and the future of our planet.
About the Author
Michael Pollan is the author of three previous books: Second Nature, A Place of My Own, and The Botany of Desire, which received the Borders Original Voices Award for the best nonfiction work of 2001 and was recognized as a best book of the year by the American Booksellers Association and Amazon. A longtime contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, Pollan is also the Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley. His writing on food and agriculture has won numerous awards, including the Reuters/World Conservation Union Global Award in Environmental Journalism, the James Beard Award, and the Genesis Award from the American Humane Association.
Table of Contents
The Omnivore's Dilemma Introduction: Our National Eating Disorder
I. Industrial: Corn
One. The Plant: Corn's Conquest
Two. The Farm
Three. The Elevator
Four. The Feedlot: Making Meat
Five. The Processing Plant: Making Complex Foods
Six. The Consumer: A Republic of Fat
Seven. The Meal: Fast Food
II. Pastoral: Grass
Eight. All Flesh Is Grass
Nine. Big Organic
Ten. Grass: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pasture
Eleven. The Animals: Practicing Complexity
Twelve. Slaughter: In a Glass Abattoir
Thirteen. The Market: "Greetings from the Non-Barcode People"
Fourteen. The Meal: Grass Fed
III. Personal: The Forest
Fifteen. The Forager
Sixteen. The Omnivore's Dilemma
Seventeen. The Ethics of Eating Animals
Eighteen. Hunting: The Meat
Nineteen. Gathering: The Fungi
Twenty. The Perfect Meal
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