Contrary to what my media review posts would lead you to believe, I don’t just watch documentaries about food and farming. I also read books! The Omnivore’s Dilemma is the book that started it all for me.
I started dabbling in “real food” a few months before I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but this book was my tipping point that took me from moderately interested to full-out convert. Other than the Bible, this book has influenced my life more than any other.
Its beauty lies in Michael Pollan‘s writing style. He is a journalist, not a scientist or a Ph.D. researcher. His writing is accessible and enjoyable. He takes a potentially dull, academic subject and makes it fun and engaging. He doesn’t just list off facts and statistics. He poses questions that force the reader to think for herself as she reads.
However, there is no going back once you read this book. My bubble of ignorant food bliss was forever burst. Grocery shopping became a whole new experience for me. I compulsively read labels, took up canning and preserving, and planned my weekends around farmers’ markets. If I ran out of eggs midweek I agonized over whether to buy the ones at the store or go without until I could get my $5 local, pastured, farmers’ market eggs. You can’t forget the information he presents.
That being said, the Pollan doesn’t come across as judgmental or pretentious. I honestly felt he was just as shocked and appalled by his discoveries as I was, that he had been just as much in the dark as I had been. I felt I was learning along with him, not being lectured by him. While it is clear he favors local and sustainable foods over industrial agriculture, he doesn’t waste ink bashing big ag. Instead he encourages people to simply buy the best they can afford and have access to. If you are buying industrial organic products from Wal-Mart or locally grown conventional produce because it’s the best you can do, you are OK with him.
The book breaks down into 3.5 sections in which he traces 4 meals from farm to plate. He begins with the industrial food system, following a bushel of corn from a field in Iowa to a McDonald’s meal. He then turns his attention to the organic system. This is where the .5 comes into play. He prepares an “industrial organic” meal using ingredients from around the world purchased at his local Whole Foods; he also prepares an “alternative agriculture” meal using ingredients from Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm. For his fourth and final meal, Pollan tackles the hunter-gatherer system, killing and curing a boar, foraging for mushrooms, preparing his own sourdough starter, etc.
You will feel queasy and disgusted. You will laugh. You will salivate. Because in the end, “this is a book about the pleasures of eating, the kinds of pleasures that are only deepened by knowing.