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The Omnivore’s Dilemma August 12, 2008

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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Every so often, books about food manage to rate on any of the major commercial bestseller lists. Upon closer scrutiny, it’s not unusual to find that these amount to compendia of recipes by the latest celebrity chef, if not one treatise or another on the merits of some new-fangled weight loss diet taking the world by storm.

For these reasons, I often view such books with a fair degree of skepticism. I can’t cook to save my life, so the concoctions from whatever fusion cuisine happens to be the flavor of the month (pun intended) fails to capture my imagination. And where diet books are concerned, remember what happened when that caveman diet fad ran its course? No? Exactly.

This is why I’d long been hesitant to have a go at Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Here was a book about food, on numerous bestseller lists, and the object of praise from critics left and right. All things considered, it seemed to fit the profile of one of those books I’d want to avoid like a food allergy. It turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong, because this appropriately subtitled “natural history of four meals” is one of the most intelligent books I’ve read all year.

There’s plenty to like in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It begins with the premise: because humans are omnivores, how exactly do we sift through what is good for us or bad for us, what we like and dislike, and actually decide on what to eat? In search of an answer, Michael Pollan embarks on what can only be described as a most unusual adventure. First, he jumps headlong into the processes of industrial food production, making the case — and convincingly so — that the main foodstuff consumed by most of the modern world in one way or another is actually corn. This contrasts starkly with earlier modes of food production, a topic Pollan further explores as he unearthes the history, issues and politics behind the “organic” movement that seems to be all the rage today. Eclipsing even this, however, is a more personal account of Pollan’s attempt to “walk the talk” and cook a sumptuous meal entirely from ingredients he himself hunted, foraged or harvested, a feat certainly not for the weak of heart (or stomach).

Granted, there is a bit of Anglo-centrism evident in the book, which is understandable. After all, it was written for American audiences and thus seeks to demistify much that is wrong — or right — with how American society nourishes itself (including, I should add, pointed insights about why Americans easily fall prey to diet fads). Despite this — or maybe because of it — Pollan’s work is overall an enthralling if competently written book that stands out because it is imbued with so much introspection on the author’s part about what he is doing and why. At times, this is where reading through Pollan’s accounts can be tedious, as he loses himself either in the science behind it all (occasionally) or his more personal musings about his experiences in the process of doing his research (more often), particularly in the first quarter of the book. Yet these melt away in the broader scheme of things soon enough, resulting in a tome much like Mark Kurlanski’s Cod or Salt: entertaining and informative reading of great quality for an otherwise niche topic.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma demonstrates that we can expect something more from “food books” than the usual recipe listing or diet craze. And well we should.

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1. Books of 2008 « BRAIN DRAIN - December 30, 2008

[…] The Omnivore’s Dilemma […]


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