Going to the grocery store can be an exercise in guilt. You know—or think you know—that you should buy free-range eggs, organic celery, and grass-fed beef. But should you pay attention to the labels or to the price? Should you shop at your local farmers market, or grow your own tomatoes? These, and other pressing issues, are explored in The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan, published in 2006.
Pollan, an entertaining writer and expert foodie who reached nonfiction fame with The Botany of Desire and An Eater’s Manifesto, attempts to answer the question that weighs on all of America: do we save our money or our planet...and how? In three info-packed and wryly funny sections, Pollan suggests ways in which to do both. Section 1, titled “Industrial Corn,” examines the source of much of our mass-produced calories, from sweet corn syrup to corn-fed cattle. As a shocking conclusion, Pollan dissects a fast-food meal ingredient by ingredient, in order to show just how much corn Americans ingest.
Section 2, or “Pastoral Grass,” investigates the growing culture of organic farming, and questions whether or not it is truly good for the planet. A large-scale industrial “organic” farm is compared to a much smaller operation, where the farmer takes active steps to work within the natural ecology. Pollan caps this section with a meal made entirely of food purchased at Whole Foods, a well-known national purveyor of organic food.
Finally, in Section 3, Pollan goes primitive in “The Forest,” and eats a meal consisting entirely of food he caught and foraged himself. While he admits that this is not exactly practical, he advises it as a meditative exercise for those of us who have lost touch with the source of our sustenance.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma was one of a number of food-centric books published in the past decade, including Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, all of which vilify industrial farming and act as proponents for locally produced and grown food. This trend has translated to movies as well, and Pollan himself narrated the 2009 film Food, Inc., based loosely on The Omnivore’s Dilemma.