Thursday, October 8, 2009

Omnivore's Dilemma

Book Review : Omnivore's Dilemma
Author : Michael Pollan
My Rating : 5 out of 5 stars

The complete title for this book is "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals".

Most of us are blissfully ignorant about the food we eat. Well, we of course know what we are eating. And in this age of health conscious eating, morally right eating, organic eating etc. we think we know a lot about what we are eating. Hence reading "Omnivore's Dilemma" is a real eye opener !

Do you know the history of how we came to eat what we are eating ? Why did we start eating in a way that is now considered unhealthy ? Even if organic is really organic (!) is it really what you think it is (as in "natural") ? And how about the environmental effects of your eating choices ? Do you know how many calories of energy were spent in getting you a calorie of food that you are eating ?

Those are the questions surrounding the "Omnivore's Dilemma". As Pollan says, unlike a Koala who only knows eating leaves, we can choose from a much more diverse set and hence have to answer this question - "What's for dinner tonight ?". As you can expect Pollan's question is not about what recepie to use. The questions that we directly or indirectly face are quite deep. How do we get our food ? How do we know that the way we grow our food results in food that is good for us ?

In searching for answers to these questions, Pollan takes us on a tour with him. Or 3 tours. To 3 different ways of aquiring food. Industrial, organic and hunting-gathering. On this tour we meet corn farmers in Iowa, trace the journey of an animal from a ranch to a slaughterhouse, visit organic farms in California, spend days on the "beyond organic" Polyface farm and finally end up hunting a wild boar to eat with gathered wild mushrooms.

It is impossible to review all the information packed on these tours. I was surprised how much I learned from reading this book. The discussion covers a range of eclectic topics. Sceince, agriculture, politics, ethics of eating animals ... and so on. Everyone knows that US society is heavily dependent on oil, but do you know what role corn plays in the obesity epedmic around us ? We all know we live far away from food, figuratively speaking, but how far ?

This book is not just information. Oh no, it's way more than that. First and foremost, this book chronicles Pollan's journey in search of these answers. He is not afraid to express his biases, views and opinions. This gives the book a strong personal flavor - this is not a common practice - and I found that very refreshing. I do not have to agree with everything an author says in order to like the book. As long as the views and opinions are expressed in a thought provoking manner, I enjoy the book. This is definitely the case here. The book also gives proper share to the personalities that helped Pollan along the journey. This aspect helps the book avoid the label - "dry".

Not that Pollan needs that help. The writing is really engaging, and the entire book is an absolute pleasure to read. There is no preaching at all. What's more, the book is eminently quotable. Pollan asks, have we domisticated the corn plant, or has it domesticated us ? Reading his analysis on the dependence of the industrial food chain on corn, will make you understand that this question is quite serious. And if you are a proud consumer of Organic food, note that the farmers on the Polyface farms wouldn't use it even for compost !

One mild warning. Pollan worked on the Polyface farm to expereince it first hand and describes how he killed the chickens. And he hunted a wild boar to go through the hunter-gatherer experience as well. He is definitely an adventurer. I did not find anything objectionable in those descriptions, but given the hyper-sensitivity of the age we live in, I wanted to mention this to prospective readers.

The only quibble I have is about the ending. It seemed hurried. There is no "typing it all together" chapter. But Pollan has been presenting his conclusions through-out the book and maybe a chapter for it really wasn't essential.

Overall, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. Informative, opinionated and a joy to read. What more you want from a book ?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...