SGT Book Club Recap: Michael Pollan's 'The Omnivore's Dilemma'

When Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, hit bookshelves in 2006, it immediately ascended to the top of the New York Times Best Seller List. Usually, a designation of this sort would prompt me to read the book as soon as possible, but something was different this time. I can’t exactly put a finger on the reason, but for some reason I wasn’t overly anxious to read the book; I think part of me feared the influence of Pollan’s perspective on food ethics as I continued to ponder my own food strategy and eating principles. But seven years later, with scores of positive press stashed under the book’s belt, the time had finally come. 


So when the SGT/Linden Hills Coop Book Club announced they were reading this book for their latest gathering, I jumped on board. Indeed, by this point I had already read much of it in excerpt form, but I had yet to hear Pollan’s whole story. After the long delay, I’m pleased I did. 


In his book, Pollan seeks to answer one of the most basic questions humans ask themselves daily: “What should we have for dinner?” To that end, he borrows the title’s phrase, “the omnivore’s dilemma,” from a University of Pennsylvania research psychologist named Paul Rozin, who released a study in the late 70s titled, “The Selection of Foods by Rats, Humans, and Other Animals.”


In the study, Pollan writes, “Rozin contrasted the omnivore's existential situation with that of the specialized eater, for whom the dinner question could not be simpler. The koala bear doesn't worry about what to eat: If it looks and smells and tastes like a eucalyptus leaf, it must be dinner. The koala's culinary preferences are hardwired in its genes.” But as omnivores, our human digestive systems hold the ability to digest anything. “...A vast amount of brain space and time must be devoted to figuring out which of all the many potential dishes nature lays on are safe to eat.”


With this idea in mind, Pollan begins his study of "the three principal food chains that sustain us today: the industrial, the organic, and the hunter-gatherer. Yes, omnivores are blessed with options. Problem is, not all options are good ones.


So how do we determine which option is the right one for us? Pollan not only studies his food choices from each food chain, but also dines on samples from within them, meanwhile addressing questions of viability, ethics, nutritional value, and flavor along the way.


According to Pollan, nutritional food needs to be a higher priority in the lives of those who eat it. And while some have referred to Pollan’s ideology as an elitist one, when it comes down to it, I agree with Pollan’s assessment that regardless of how much money we make individually, surely we have work to do in promoting healthy food for our bodies. For example, how much do we spend on cable television? Do we really need that new vehicle? Do we really have to have that new pair of kicks?


The difficult truth is that good, healthy food does come with a cost. Is access always the largest obstacle to our eating more healthy food? Or does preference play too great of a role? Pollan would argue that cheap food is, ultimately, more costly. Processed food may be cheap at the point of purchase, but the argument can be made that its true cost is hidden from consumers, often in the form of unhealthy bodies and medical bills. If what Pollan says is correct, only when we make healthier food a priority will we make progress. Although this is a diluted version of the argument, I would tend to agree with Pollan’s sentiment.


As he begins his exploration of the industrial food model, Pollan quickly learns that corn is indeed king. As a matter of fact, corn has found its way into nearly all the processed food our society consumes. As he focuses his attention on the dinner he shares with his family at McDonald’s, Pollan is amazed to learn that nearly 80% of their meal comes from corn in some form. Ketchup and soda based on corn syrup. French fries cooked in corn oil. A patty of beef patty that owes much of its existence to the corn used to fatten cattle at the feedlot. A bun made of corn starch. Surprisingly enough, corn itself is not on McDonald’s menu at all. 


While surely we benefit from having cheap, reliable, and affordable access to corn, it is becoming more apparent that these benefits come with hidden costs, not only for those who eat it, but also for the environment in which the corn itself grows so plentifully. With the creation of high fructose corn syrup in the 80’s, the food game shifted as food scientists worked tirelessly to find ways to get more calories into the mouths of hungry eaters than had ever been consumed before, leading to what Pollan calls, “our nation’s eating disorder.” We are eating too many calories and not enough of the good ones.


In his critique, Pollan dutifully attempts to consider all perspectives. He not only places blame for the rise in unhealthful food options in restaurants and grocery store isles on the forks of its consumers, but also points his finger at federal subsidies that prop up a commodity food industry that effectively deters suppliers of healthier food options from competing in the marketplace, largely due to their higher prices.


As Pollan looks for a better alternative, he takes a step back in time, and visits and dines on food from the farm of Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, an organic farm operation that has successfully created a farming model that Pollan hopes will present a vision of our future. Farming the way that Salatin does is hard work, and our current federal food system doesn’t lend much support, but he is achieving positive results. Limited external resources are requisitioned for such a food production model, making it more friendly to its environment. Additionally, according to Pollan, the food tastes better. “This may not sound like much of a compliment, but to me, the chicken [raised on Polyface Farms] smelled and tasted exactly like chicken...Which is to say, I suppose, that it chimed with that capitalized idea of chicken we hold in our heads but seldom taste anymore.”


Plus, Pollan felt that, at Polyface, he could understand more about the origins of this meal’s food. He appreciated the ability to witness his food as it traveled from field to plate. Comparing the Polyface Farm model to what he calls, “Big Organic” – the type of organic food he encountered while shopping for his next meal at Whole Foods Market –  Pollan quickly came to realize that another form of “organic” exists than that of Polyface Farm’s. “Big Organic” as it turned out, exists closer on the food production spectrum to our industrial food chain than Pollan initially realized.


To conclude his research, Pollan enters the forest and forages for his last meal. The sampling of wild boar and morel mushrooms he encounters are full of flavor, but it’s easy to comprehend why foraging and hunting is simply not a viable option for most of us, and Pollan clearly admits this limitation in his writing.


Overall, this book was an enjoyable one. Never before had I read such a detailed exploration of our nation’s food supply chain compared side by side for readers to explore. Pollan has a unique ability to draw his readers in and fill them with emotion, and food is an emotional experience for most of us. In our book club’s discussion, we shared knowledge from our own food experiences. Some members spoke of their desires to maintain a strictly organic diet, while others saw “local” as a slightly better option, considering the nature of our current organic food supply chain. Not all of us eat meat, and surely this is an ethical issue that many relate to. Overall, the book club agreed that we owe it to our bodies to pay close attention to the fuels with which we power them.


In the end, Pollan did not seem to solve the “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” but he did begin to paint a picture of what a solution might look like. He openly admits that not everyone wants to spend hours thinking about food every day when he states, “I like to be able to open a can of stock and I like to talk about politics, or the movies, at the dinner table sometimes instead of food. But imagine for a moment if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost. We could then talk about some other things at dinner.”


Peter Cusic has spent the last 15+ years working in MN restaurants after graduating from St. Olaf College and LCB Culinary School. He strives to enjoy the process of creating food equally to the bites that wind up on his plate. Heʼs travelled the world in search of the tastiest foods and is happy to report that many of them can be found right here in the Twin Cities. He and his family are proud residents of S. Mpls, and when heʼs not in his kitchen, youʼre likely to find him on his bike, strolling the isles of our co-ops and farmers markets, spreading compost in his garden or contemplating the future of farming -- his familyʼs farm has been in the family for over 175 years. He also contributes to his own website, The Humble Palate. His last post for SGT was SGT Book Club Recap: Joel Salatin's 'Folks, This Ain't Normal.'