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"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'twhich 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 mealat 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?
A few facts and figures from The Omnivore's Dilemma:
- ISBN-13: 9781594200823
- ISBN-10: 1594200823
- Publisher: Penguin Press
- Publish Date: May 2006
- Page Count: 450
- Reading Level: Ages 18-UP
Michael Pollan rates America's dinner menu
Delving deep into the murky underwaters of the modern agricultural complex, The Omnivore's Dilemma is not the kind of book you'll want to read with a fast-food burger and fries in your hand. As the book traces the provenance of four mealsindustrial, industrial organic, pastoral organic and hunted/gatheredyou might not even feel comfortable with takeout from the local health food store.
"How did we ever get to a point where we need investigative journalists to tell us where our food comes from and nutritionists to determine the dinner menu?" asks best-selling author Michael Pollan in an introduction entitled, "Our National Eating Disorder." Faced with a constant barrage of information and an increasingly large distance between the consumers and producers of food, most of us are able to choke down dinner only by willfully forgetting the latest headlines about cancer-causing chemicals or animal conditions at many super-sized farms.
In Pollan's personal quest to shake loose that fog of forgetfulness and lack of real information, he does everything from buying his own cow to helping with the open-air slaughter of pasture-raised chickens to hunting morels in Northern California. This is not a man who's afraid of getting his hands dirty in the quest for better understanding. Along with wonderfully descriptive writing and truly engaging stories and characters, there is a full helping of serious information on the way modern food is produced. This can, occasionally, be a little slow going, but that does not mean it's not worth the effort.
Pollan doesn't suggest that we hunt and gather our own food, the basis of his own (rather fancy) final, "perfect" meal, but he believes that, "if we could see what lies on the far side of the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture, we would surely change the way we eat." Once we've read The Omnivore's Dilemma, we've bitten the apple of knowledgeand we can only hope it was grown on the right kind of farm.
Trained chef Megan Brenn-White is the author of Bake Me a Cake (HarperCollins).