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Bookmarks Issue: 
23-July-Aug-2006
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A Natural History of Four Meals

A-TheOmnivore’sDilemma"To go from the chicken (Gallus gallus) to the Chicken McNugget," writes U.C. Berkeley journalism professor Michael Pollan, "is to leave this world in a journey of forgetting that could hardly be more costly." Such "forgetting" reveals the omnivore’s daily dilemma: what should we eat and how should we produce it? To understand the effects of our food choices on our health and the environment, Pollan travels around the United States to chronicle the origins of four meals: a McDonald’s lunch, which starts in an Iowa cornfield; a flawed "big organic" meal from Whole Foods; food from a sustainable farm in Vermont; and, for the grand finale, mushrooms and wild pig foraged from the wilds around Sonoma, California. In Pollan’s hands, the question "What should we have for dinner?" has never posed a greater—or a more fascinating—challenge.
Penguin. 450 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 1594200823

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s a pleasure to read the well-read writer who can breezily summon Brillat-Savarin or Rousseau. You gotta love that Pollan is willing to … wrap his arms around a bloody pig." Leah Eskin

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an ambitious and thoroughly enjoyable, if sometimes unsettling, attempt to peer over these walls, to bring us closer to a true understanding of what we eat—and, by extension, what we should eat. … Readers of this intelligent and admirable book will almost certainly find their capacity to delight in food augmented rather than diminished." Troy Jollimore

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] searing indictment of today’s food industry—and [a] glimpse of some inspiring alternatives. … But for sheer narrative thrill, the high point of the book is the semi-comic epic of the Sonoma pig hunt." David Laskin

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"[Pollan] wants us at least to know what it is we are eating, where it came from, and how it got to our table. He also wants us to be aware of the choices we make and to take responsibility for them. It’s an admirable goal, well met in The Omnivore’s Dilemma." Moira Hodgson

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"His book is an eater’s manifesto, and he touches on a vast array of subjects, from food fads and taboos to our avoidance of not only our food’s animality, but also our own. … His approach is steeped in honesty and self-awareness." Bunny Crumpacker

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
" [I]t’s hard to believe that a writer with Pollan’s gimlet eye can consider a meal that involves hunting in a private forest, crossing California in an SUV, and the use of ATVs and GPS technology as living off the land. He seems to have been ambushed by his book’s structure." Patric Kuh

Critical Summary

In The Botany of Desire (2001), about how people and plants coevolve, Michael Pollan teased greater issues from speciously small phenomena. The Omnivore’s Dilemma exhibits this same gift; a Chicken McNugget, for example, illustrates our consumption of corn and, in turn, agribusiness’s oil dependency. In a journey that takes us from an "organic" California chicken farm to Vermont, Pollan asks basic questions about the moral and ecological consequences of our food. Critics agree it’s a wake-up call and, written in clear, informative prose, also entertaining. Most found Pollan’s quest for his foraged meal the highlight, though the Los Angeles Times faulted Pollan’s hypocritical method of "living off the land." Many also voiced a desire for a more concrete vision for the future. But if the book doesn’t outline a diet plan, it’s nonetheless a loud, convincing call for change.