“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”

July 12, 2008 at 7:41 am | Posted in Nonfiction, Slow Food | 2 Comments

(June 30, 2008)

I decided to read The Omnivore’s Dilemma because I wanted to read Michael Pollan’s more recent In Defense of Food, and I knew I would have to wait a few weeks for my turn at the library.  I’m also interested in the Slow Food movement, and find that I almost always have to pick around the “animal parts” in omni-focused foodie books for the “vegetable parts” that interest me.

The basic premise of the book is that, as omnivores who can and do eat virtually anything, we are presented with the problem of what we should eat.  For a koala or a monarch butterfly, the answer would be simpler, as they each eat only one food.  My own answer to this dilemma, made over a decade ago, was: if it’s vegan, I’ll eat it.  (I had to temper this by excluding chilies, because they set off my migraine.  I also don’t consume coffee or alcohol through plain dislike).

Pollan spends 400 pages traveling around to different farms, grocery stores, and restaurants, in search of a sustainable way to eat.  He shows us some fascinating experimental farms, and does his best to puncture our attachment to Whole Foods organic salad greens.  Like me, Pollan is looking for a pure way to eat, and he finds it by focusing on sustainable, local farming that supports family and community.  Hey, I support these things too – though in the sense of family, it’s easy for me because my parents are vegans and one of my brothers is veggie.

I have a few things to say about Pollan’s treatment of the ethics of eating.  He spends a full chapter exploring vegetarianism, which for his purposes he conflates with veganism.  (If you ever want to watch two people in “violent agreement,” get a vegan and a vegetarian together – we often can’t stand each other, as the vegetarians think the vegans are pompous and anal-retentive, and the vegans think the vegetarians are hypocritical sybarites who are deluding themselves about what constitutes suffering).  Anyway.  Here’s what happens.  Pollan reads Animal Liberation while eating a steak dinner.  Also like me, Pollan concludes that one can’t continue to eat animals after reading that book.  Unlike me, he spends his veggie days trying to find a moral justification for resuming his former diet.  He makes it for about a month.  This chapter is an anomaly, in that Pollan does not describe a single vegetarian meal that he makes, while the rest of the book is saturated with description of meal after meal after meal.  He complains that cooking veg involves too much chopping.  He goes on to complain that now other people have to accommodate him, and says that vegetarians are missing something by excluding themselves from social traditions when they shake their heads at whatever animal product their hosts are trying to feed them.  In the next chapter, he goes off to hunt his own pig, and says, “there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater.  Yet part of me pities him, too (362).”

Here I pause to say, “Arrrghhhh!”  Once again, the omnivore presents the fallacy that being vegetarian means sitting in the corner, sucking on an ice-cold white cube of tofu, glaring at all the partiers enjoying their rump roast in perfect conviviality.  Now, I love tofu.  I crave it sometimes, and usually I pick around it so I can save it for last.  But I don’t think I eat it more than once or twice a month.  If I met Pollan, I would ask him what he cooked while he “gave up meat.”  Did he make things up himself?  Did he have an experienced veg come over to fix him something?  Did he round up a cookbook?  If so, which one?  And, most obvious of all to me, did he stop by any of the dozens of great veggie restaurants in the Bay Area to see how it’s really done?  He lives in Berkeley, and could have taken BART almost directly to Millennium, a four-star vegan restaurant that, in my experience, is always packed to the rafters with enthusiastic omni diners.

On a side note, Pollan is a Jewish guy who just went on a pig hunt.  Tell me again how social and cultural considerations are important when we decide what to eat?  Undoubtedly it’s more important to fit in with one’s new WASP friends and eat pork than to fit in with one’s cultural heritage by following millennia-old dietary customs.  More convenient, anyway.

I have other issues with this book.  For one, I think some important concerns are left out.  First and foremost, Pollan does an awful lot of traveling to show us ways that our food could be produced sustainably, but he skips the part at the end where he’s supposed to show us how he carries this on once he’s back home.  Instead he shows us his attempt to put on a local meal, and all the problems he runs into.  Second, he leaves out any mention of how American dining habits affect people who live in other parts of the world, other than to say that there are now more “overnourished” people than malnourished people in the world.  If it’s fair for a particular area to trade its food for foods it can’t produce – are there any ramifications for North Americans who want to eat coffee and chocolate when the people who produce those foods live in poverty?  Third, how about the environment?  Okay, yes, if all omnivores sustained their meat habit with the farming practices Pollan describes, there might be no net environmental harm.  Might.

This, finally, is my big frustration with this book.  Pollan does more than rationalize his meat-eating habit – he also glosses over his (former?) marijuana habit, though it is against the law.  (Entirely typical for Northern California hedonists).  Here is a person who is prepared to justify any pleasure, bending to our region’s unofficial Follow Your Bliss mantra.  And this is exactly what I think will happen with anyone who reads, buys, or hears of this book.  Anyone who reads a 400-page book is not going to walk away remembering every word.  The audience will boil it down to the basics: 1. “Organic” isn’t so good after all, 2. Eating meat is a-okay, 3. It’s more important to eat things we enjoy that don’t bother our friends and family than anything else, 4. If I like it, it’s probably healthy.  What will come of this?  Precisely zero change.  We’ll remain a culture that eats unhealthy food, joylessly prepared, in our cars or on our laps while we stare at the TV.  It would take more than a book like this to light a fire under someone’s butt.



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  1. Hi. Great blog you have. I loved your review. This book is next on my pile- I can’t wait to read it. I’m not vegetarian, so I don’t think I’ll have the same reaction you did. (My sister is, though, and I had a roommate who cooked in a vegan restaurant, so I ralate a eensy tiny bit).

  2. Thanks, Jeane! I just finished Michael Pollan’s next book, “In Defense of Food”, this weekend. Maybe I’ll post a review of that too.

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