The Omnivore's Dilemna

I finally finished The Omnivore’s Dilemna while in Peru. I read the first half in about four months, and the last half in about four days. It’s a lengthy book, but I found it well worth it. It did, however, ultimately fall a bit short of my expectations. The book is an excellent collection of ideas around a specific philosophy of eating, but it is not, as the title suggests, a general-purpose thesis on eating well.

The book starts with, and claims to be an answer to the question What should we have for dinner? But by the end it becomes clear the entire book is rooted in the unstated assumption that industrialization was a grave mistake. So the book is more specifically an answer to the question What is the best pre-industrial meal available in our post-industrial world? The answer, unsurprisingly, turns out to be pretty much exactly what it would have been before industrialization.

It is this certainty in industrialization as the root cause of most modern dietary problems that makes the book so compelling to continue reading. It wasn’t until nearly the end that I realized that such obvious food issues as health, economic class, geography, and aesthetics would not be addressed in any more depth than their relation to industrialization. By then I had already invested too much under the assumption other topics would be covered to stop reading. And I wouldn’t have stopped reading anyway, as Michael Pollan is a captivating story-teller, even when the moral of his story is entirely disagreeable.

It is because the book was written so well that I was so disappointed that the topic turned out to be deceptively narrow in scope. I think this paradox is most clearly demonstrated in the section on vegetarianism, the only in the book that significantly strayed from the central theme of industrialization, presumably because it would be absurd to write a book around thoughtful eating and not cover vegetarianism in much depth. This was the most interesting section for me, not only because I am vegetarian. I have been vegetarian for over ten years and this section presented arguments both for and against vegetarianism that I had never considered.

Which made it all the more disappointing that it ended with a conclusion suggesting that vegetarianism only makes sense as a means of avoiding the industrial food supply. This was where it became clear to me that industrialization was not simply the context in which Pollan chose to consider food, but rather food was the context in which he chose to consider industrialization. One can imagine him pitching his publisher a book on industrialization, and the publisher responding with “why don’t you write about food instead?” The child of those two is The Omnivore’s Dilemna, which while enjoyable, left me wishing to read either of the hypothetical books.

To beat a dead horse (an act Pollan apparently deems palatable so long as it happens outside an industrial economy), I’d like to note where the anti-industrialization bias creeps outside the context of food. In the section on mushroom hunting, he makes a very convincing argument that mushrooms can’t be reliably described over email or even over the phone. The argument in favor face-to-face communication is so good that it’s difficult to see why it should be restricted to mushrooms. Surely I can also understand driving a car infinitely better by talking to someone familiar with it than by reading about it in a driver’s education manual. After all, if someone doesn’t really know how to drive a car, he should be as dead as someone who doesn’t really know how to identify a poisonous mushroom.

So industrialization has diminished food and communication, or so says this book published, distributed, and sold in the industrial economy. And it has also diminished government (the USDA is subservient to industry), medicine (modern science is so untrustworthy regarding diet that Pollan doesn’t even bother telling the reader how the health care establishment would answer the question of what we should eat), and, well, everything really. It’s not even that I find many of these anti-industrialization ideas particularly disagreeable. I personally distrust modern medicine, for example, apparently with good reason. So I would be very interested to read about an alternative world view. But none is offered here. The book details problems of an industrialized food supply, but no real solutions.

Pollan admits that we live in an industrialized world, so his ideal non-industrialized diet is at best only feasible for a small minority of omnivores. But he stops there. If you’re in that small minority, The Omnivore’s Dilemna gives you a pretty good idea of what you should have for dinner. If you’re not, you only get a pretty good idea of what would be good for dinner if you were. The book ends with a chapter titled The Perfect Meal, which (no surprise) is one most removed from industrializations, one hunted and gathered by the eater himself:

This is not the way I want to eat every day. 
 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 would no longer need any reminding 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.

If you’d enjoy a book to help you imagine this, as I did, The Omnivore’s Dilemna is well worth reading. But before doing so, know that if you’d rather, you know, eat a good dinner than imagine it (as I would), you may find the book falls a bit short of expectations.

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