Belated Book Review: “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”

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The soup dumpling was balanced cautiously on my spoon, the twisted top bitten off and, as I stared into the murky, steamy depths of broth, I was struck by the gray lumpy brain-like matter in the middle. Struck, not because it was unfamiliar—soup dumplings at Grand Sichuan are almost monthly staples of our diet—but because, suddenly, after reading “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” that lump of pork conjured forth images of tortured pigs, in crowded pens, their tails cut off to a stump so that other pigs won’t chew on them. Was this the meat of a factory pig? Would I, by biting in, be complicit in its tortured death? I drowned the dumpling, and my quandary, in gingered soy sauce and bit in quickly.

Eat fast and don’t think. I gobbled it up, like a good American.

* * * * *

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is old news. It made so much news, in fact, when it came out last year that I felt like I’d read the book without having read the book. My hardcover copy was positioned prominently enough on my bookshelf—top tier, in fact—that it would’ve been a reasonable assumption, had you seen it, that I’d not only read it, but understood it thoroughly, allowing its stories and ideas to seep into my cranium, changing my outlook forever.

I often brought it up in conversation. “Have you read The Omnivore’s Dilemma?” I’d ask, without revealing that I hadn’t read it myself.

“Of course,” the other conversationalist would say and for all I knew they were lying too.

It’s just a book with a premise so clear, so clean, it’s very easy to feel like you’ve read it without having read it. What is that premise? I’d be surprised if you didn’t know, but just in case: Michael Pollan, the book’s author, eats four meals—a fast food meal (McDonald’s), an organic meal from Whole Foods, a farmer’s market meal from Virginia’s Polyface farm and, finally, a meal for which he hunts the meat and gathers the mushrooms himself—and explores everything there is to explore about the provenance of our food, why it’s important, how it’s changed and what that means for us, our children and the world.

That’s a heavy conceit and its heaviness was what wore me out when I first attempted it. I got stuck in the science of corn, around pg. 40, and never picked it back up. “Ok,” I thought to myself, “I get it. Corn’s bad, industrialization is bad, I should eat natural foods I get at the farmer’s market. Problem solved.”

And for the next year, even though I never got past page 40, I felt as though I’d read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” Its lessons were simple, its conclusions obvious, and anything I didn’t extract from the first 40 pages or the flap copy, I’d garnered from all the articles I’d read about it.

Was this the first book in human history that you could read without actually reading? If only “War and Peace” were so simple.

* * * * *

Of course, now that I’ve read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” I want to warp myself back to that moment when I put the book down and, like someone in a V-8 commercial, whack the old me on the head.

“You idiot,” I’d say, “you have no idea what you’re giving up. This book gets good—it gets really good—and, as a matter of fact, it’s going to change your life.”

There are not many books I’d say this about, in fact I can’t think of any others that’d fit this category, but “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is essential reading. Absolutely essential, especially for Americans. To live in America, to eat the food we do on a regular basis, to live in ignorance about where that food comes from, what it means for our health and longevity, not to mention our humanity, is to be guilty of a great crime. Michael Pollan says as much when he asks: “Is it possible that history will someday judge us as harshly as it judges the Germans who went about their lives in the shadow of Treblinka?”

You may lightheartedly joke about walking into a McDonald’s and grabbing a cheeseburger, as I’ve certainly done to rattle my extreme foodie friends, but now that I’ve read this book I know that doing so is an act of such willful, almost hostile, ignorance that I’m not sure I’ll ever muster the tenacity to do so again.

Why?

Where to begin. I could talk about corn, how our government subsidizes the corn industry at the expense of the land and, most disturbingly, our health; how scientists at places like McDonald’s conspire to turn corn—which is outrageously cheap and plentiful—into millions of different products, from Chicken McNuggets to the stabilizer in the Newman’s Own dressing you put on your “healthy” salad, not to mention the zillions of chemicals derived from corn—chemicals you’ll be familiar with if you’ve ever read the side of a cereal box.

I could talk about that, but I’d rather talk about the animals—the tortured, diseased animals whose miserable lives are rendered into that mealy, gray patty, a flavorless disc that all the ketchup and mustard in the world can’t obfuscate. That patty might seem innocuous—a quick source of protein, not to mention a comforting taste of childhood (at least my childhood: I had my 11th birthday party at a McDonald’s)—but it’s anything but. That meat comes from a cow that’s fed an unnatural diet of corn (cheap, cheap corn—as the book makes very clear), causing the cow—an animal meant, both biologically and evolutionarily, to eat grass—to break out in nameless diseases, their livers frequently infected, while crammed mercilessly into lots, standing in piles of their own manure.

That’s a McDonald’s hamburger.

* * * * *

However gruesome that scene, this book did not make me want to give up meat. What it did, in fact, was help me understand that eating meat is a natural function of being human, and that eating meat is not only conscionable, but ecologically important. (For the full argument, of course, read the book).

Instead, this book forced me to consider the provenance of the meat I consume. Which brings us back to Grand Sichuan, where the pork in the soup dumpling sent me into a moral quandary. Knowing what I know now, about where most of the cheap meat you find at grocery stores and fast food restaurants comes from, how can I blindly consume meat with an unknown provenance?

I’m not sure I can or that I will. On Friday, I went with Craig and my good friend Lauren to The Little Owl for dinner. Famous for their pork chop, I was suggesting she and Craig order it—I’ve had it before—while I settled upon a lamb T-bone. Having gone on a pre-dinner tirade about “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the provenance of meat, Craig felt compelled to ask the server where all this meat was coming from.

And, lo and behold, there was an answer. “Our pork chops come from,” and she named the farm, “where they’re fed a diet of acorns and honey.” The lamb was “grass-fed, free-range, organic lamb from Colorado.”

Wow. All we had to do was ask and suddenly the plate of food we were served had a story, a compelling narrative that not only alleviated my tortured conscience, but actually—magically or not—made the food taste better.

And all thanks to “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

* * * * *

There’s so much more I want to tell you about this book, but if I tell you any more you may do what I did: feel like you’ve read it without reading it. So, I’ll simply reiterate: this is an essential book, a book that’ll change your life and help make the world a better place. You may not agree with every part (I didn’t completely share his hostility towards government regulation of meat production, for example) but you will be woken up—shocked awake, really—and you’ll never again sleep your way through a frozen dinner, a Happy Meal, or an Applebee’s fajita the way we’ve been doing as a country since the industrialization of food.

If nothing else, keep that word—“industrialization”—in mind. The food industry is a business and like any business, it wants your money. It wants to trade your health, your family’s health, the welfare of the land and the country for the convenience of a cheap, easy dinner. It’s confusing, for those of us reliant on—if not downright addicted to—this way of life to transition into a more sustainable way of eating and living. That’s why Michael Pollan is, in many ways, our savior: a man with a flashlight and a compass, there to show us out of the woods.

Read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and wake up to a new way of thinking, a new way of eating. Wake up to the reality of the food you put on your plate every night, the food you put on your children’s plates. Wake up to the cost of this food, the suffering, the disease, the toil it takes to make your dinner cheap and easy.

Wake up.

* * * * *

Ok, I just read this to Craig and he thought the ending was self-righteous and way over the top. He also questions the practicality of eating humanely 100% of the time for the rest of my life: “What if you’re at a dinner party and you don’t know where the meat came from? Would you refuse it?”

I see his point and I also anticipate the inevitable money issue, an issue I’ve often stated myself: what if you can’t afford to eat this way? What if you’re a working single mom with four kids and a 30-minute window to make dinner? (A scenario that might account for the revolting fact, stated in the book, that 1 out of 3 kids in America eat fast food every day). Here’s how Michael Pollan addresses the money question:

“As a society, we Americans spend only a fraction of our disposable income feeding ourselves–about a tenth, down from a fifth in the 1950s. Americans today spend less on food, as a percentage of disposable income, than any other industrialized nation, and probably less than any people in the history of the world. This suggests that there are many of us who could afford to spend more on food if we chose to. After all, it isn’t only the elite who in recent years have found an extra fifty or one hundred dollars each month to spend on cell phones (now owned by more than half the U.S. population, children included) or television, which close to 90 percent of all U.S. households now pay for. Another formerly free good that more than half of us happily pay for today is water. So is the unwillingness to pay more for food really a matter of affordability or priority?” (243)

It’s a compelling argument, though one that I’m sure will arouse equally compelling responses. I’ll simply say that avoiding processed foods, eating foods that occur naturally and meat that’s raised humanely, are admirable ideals no matter your income bracket. How we incorporate those ideals into our lifestyles is the question of the moment–and a question that will persist until an answer is no longer optional.

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