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An Omnivore Asks, “What’s for Dinner?”
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by Betty Brody | 2006

Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma describes the American diet through an examination of four meals.

An Omnivore Asks “What’s for Dinner?”


A Review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

A Natural History of Four Meals

Michael Pollan, The Penguin Press (2006), 411 pages


When we start a nice meal in a restaurant, the last thing we want to think about is where our food came from, especially our animal food. We don’t like to consider ourselves mammals, with animal needs for clean air and water, and for safe and nutritious food. 

Michael Pollan, an award-winning journalist, see, tells how he investigated food production in this country and explains, in an easy-to-read style, scientific facts about that production. He asks, “What should we have for dinner?  When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety, especially when some of the potential foods on offer are liable to sicken or kill you.”

Our dilemma is selecting which food will be good for us (nutritious, tasty, ethically proper) and which food will poison us, either immediately (rancid food or poisonous mushrooms) or slowly (food high in saturated fats or heavy metals or pesticides or hormones, or food produced and transported in a way that  harmed the environment necessary to our survival). Four-fifths of the energy used to feed Americans is spent processing food and moving it around. Pollan discusses, with many interesting details: 1. “fast food” and supermarket food (food from corn); 2. organic food (food from grass); and 3. food hunted and gathered (food from the forest).

1. Corn feeds American cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry and farmed fish; becomes cooking oil; and appears in many guises as a sweetener. Our supermarkets sell about 45,000 items which seem to be different, but more than 25% of them contain corn. Our corn is grown as a monoculture. Devoting so many acres to one crop and simplifying crop production is contrary to nature, which is complex and diverse.

Though agribusiness produces huge quantities and feeds masses (without it, would there again be hunger in America?), it relies heavily on fossil fuels to create fertilizers, pesticides, and food packaging, and to transport the food. These fertilizers and pesticides end up in our water supply and, with a slew of other pollutants, travel down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, creating there a dead zone the size of New Jersey.

Bison once thrived on the arid Great Plains, but Europeans preferred to graze cattle on that land. Later, when American corn, government-subsidized and grown efficiently with artificial fertilizer, became cheap, Americans started fattening cattle with corn in huge feedlots. Cattle, ruminants, only graze on grasses, and their stomachs are neutral. Eating corn makes their stomachs acidic, causing them medical problems, which require treatment with antibiotics.

2. Consumer Reports recently endorsed organic foods (big and little organic farmers are battling over the legal definition of  “organic”), and, as more Americans wanted organic products, Wal-Mart and supermarkets started selling them. But a lot of products in Whole Foods Market are not organic. Many are highly processed (such as organic frozen dinners), and some just claim to be “natural,” whatever that means. Many organic products are grown on huge monoculture farms and are prohibitively expensive. Organic milk must be ultrapasteurized to insure its safety, since the cows from which it comes have not received antibiotics or other medications.

A few farmers do not grow organic food industrially; they do not try to dominate nature, just to mimic it.Joel Salatin farms this way on Polyface Farm in Swoope, VA. His cattle, chickens, turkeys, pigs, and rabbits eat grass, and the fowl and pigs eat insects in and under the grass. All those animals are raised with no need for medications.

 3. Author Pollan hunted and gathered a meal. He shot a feral pig, gathered wild mushrooms, captured yeast from the air, and picked fava beans and lettuce from his garden and cherries from a neighbor’s tree. His valiant attempt to harvest abalone from the sea came to naught. From a gargantuan effort, Pollan served an unusual meal to his friends, mostly proving how impractical it is for Americans to “live off the land.” 

Still, we might help the environment and improve our health by eating little or no meat (a lot of corn and energy go into its production), and eating the least processed, least packaged, organic food from local farms. And, odds are, this food will taste better!   

> 2006 Table of Contents


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