The Omnivore's Dilemma


In The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan reveals that in our quest for cheap food, Americans have gradually been transformed into "processed corn, walking."

In beautifully crafted prose that is more conversational than didactic, he traces the industrialization of our food supply to a post-World War II surplus of ammonium nitrate, which the government put to use as a chemical fertilizer for growing hybrid corn. Farmers could now grow this soil-depleting plant year after year with no need for crop rotation.

Soon, there was a glut of cheap corn on the market, and manufacturers rushed to find uses for it. Before long, Americans had a diet filled with chicken nuggets, high fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and other laboratory developed "foods." In this system, not only do the lion's share of profits go to the processors rather than the farmers, but the mono-cropping of corn exacts a toll not only on "the farmer's soil, but on the quality of the local water and the overall health of his community, the biodiversity of his landscape, the health of all the creatures living on or downstream from it. And not only those creatures, for cheap corn has also changed…the lives of several billion food animals…that would not be living on factory farms if not for the ocean of corn on which these animal cities float."

As if all this news weren't bad enough, Pollan convincingly demonstrates the relationship of high fructose corn syrup—a very-cheap source of sweetness that is virtually omnipresent in processed foods—and the national epidemic of obesity.

So, where do we go from here? Pollan introduces us to a smart farmer named Joel Salatin who understands that the "yearning in the human soul to smell a flower, pet a pig, and enjoy food with a face has never been stronger."

Salatin relies on his wits and the wisdom of his predecessors to raise chickens, pigs, and corn in a way he believes nature intended. His system creates no waste and constantly replenishes the soil. Salatin's food is sold only locally, and he knows most of the people who eat it. He understands that "farms produce a lot more than food; they also produce a kind of landscape and a kind of community."

Pollan has done prodigious research, both in libraries and in the field. Along the way, he learns to slaughter chickens, kill a wild pig, and prepare a meal based on ingredients foraged within 20 miles of his home. He asks hard questions and tries diligently to present answers.

Despite the fact that Pollan never preaches, his theories are quite compelling. The reader comes away learning that "however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we're eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.

Reviewed by Lorna Sass, author of 13 cookbooks including Recipes from an Ecological Kitchen, now available in paperback with the title Lorna Sass' Complete Vegetarian Kitchen. For further information see www.lornasass.com.


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