You might not become vegetarian after this, but you’ll definitely think twice before consuming most foods again.
First Published: 2006
Date Reviewed: 1st August 2013
Pollan looks at three methods of creating food – industrial, natural farming, and hunter-gathering, in order to find the ‘perfect’ meal. Following some of the foods from field to table, he explores the effects the different methods have had on our world and our health and aims to make his reader aware of the entirety of what they are eating.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an in-depth book written in a casual, friendly, style, that seeks to inform.
Besides the obvious information, the best aspect is undoubtedly Pollan’s style, his approach to the work. Humorous, unbiased in general and open when not, he comes across as both an expert and layman and the book is enjoyable and engrossing.
The biggest ‘takeaway’ from the book is surely Pollan’s detailing of the industrial food industry. Albeit that the book concerns America and therefore may not be so relevant elsewhere, the details of unnaturally fed cattle, of drugged-up animals, petrol-filled pigs, and cruelty, is enough to make you want to put the book down for a moment to clear your mind. Some of what’s written is hard to read, especially when you know your digestive system depends on the very food discussed – both meat and vegetables are described in equal ‘ickiness’.
This is balanced by Pollan’s second study, natural farming. ‘Beyond organic’ (organic as a completely natural method having been debunked earlier), this is where Pollan introduces the reader to the farmers who work entirely with nature. Of particular interest are the sections that deal with natural farming being easier because the farmers are working with nature instead of trying to change it.
The hunter-gather sections aren’t quite as historic as you might expect, but as you learn, it is as good as Pollan can get within the limits of present life.
Pollan isn’t out to turn people into vegetarians, but nor is he comfortable with changing the mindset of vegetarians, either. There is an inherent bias towards the omnivore, naturally, and many vegetarians who are such for reasons of principle, may find the latter sections of the book hard to comprehend. But Pollan doesn’t debunk vegetarianism or denounce it as silly, he provides unapologetic and undefended reasons why and in what circumstances it is okay to be a meat eater.
And he doesn’t ever condemn those who like fast-food, instead simply cautioning against it.
At times the book can be repetitive and Pollan’s choice of words and phrasing is strange, but overall this is a very solid book with a fair amount of research. Easy to read, it is accessible to anyone and should inspire an admiration of Pollan, if not of his work per se, then certainly his approachable style.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an important book that contains knowledge everyone ought to have. As much for what it doesn’t say – perforce, as Pollan speaks of not being allowed inside industrial slaughter houses – it is recommended to everyone who so much as ponders what they’re putting in their mouths at meal times.
August 26, 2013, 11:43 am
Nice review, Charlie- have been curious about this. Sounds like an essential and eye-opening read. Does he offer practical suggestions for the average consumer, I wonder?
August 26, 2013, 12:20 pm
Interesting! I think this would – like the film Super Size Me – put me off fast food, which would only be a good thing.
I like that this remained interesting, as I know some similar books can get to technical and leave you disengaged.
August 26, 2013, 1:00 pm
Part of me can’t wait to read this, and part of me is afraid!
August 26, 2013, 4:39 pm
I fall into the ‘petrified’ category when it comes to these kind of books — I kind of don’t want to know!!
August 26, 2013, 5:26 pm
I just borrowed a copy of this book for my Kindle and can’t wait to get into it. I’ve only heard great things.
August 26, 2013, 5:28 pm
I read this one after reading In Defense of Food, and find many of his suggestions exhausting and impracticable, although I don’t buy ground beef in grocery stores anymore (I buy it from a local farm, because I live in a rural area).
August 26, 2013, 8:24 pm
So happy to see another fellow fan of this one! Yes to his “approachable style”…I think that’s a big reason why I love his books so much. He takes on some pretty complex issues at times, but I think any reader can understand and appreciate his research.
August 27, 2013, 12:38 am
I’m with Audra–petrified to read it! Haha Maybe someday. I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.
August 27, 2013, 3:09 am
I have Pollan’s Botany of Desire on my shelf but have not read it yet. I want to read his Cooked, too. This one appeals to me less only because I have already rad Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and they seem similar.
August 27, 2013, 5:37 am
I really like reading about this topic so I’m surprised I haven’t read this book yet. I think I have a copy of it somewhere around here…
I do like authors who can write about food choices without condemning those of us who like an occasional hamburger from a fast food joint.
August 27, 2013, 3:16 pm
I really like his books, they are accessible. That’s really important when talking about this subject :) Great review!
September 3, 2013, 11:35 pm
I’m glad to hear that Polan maintains his humorous style in this one :) I enjoyed his writing in The Botany of Desire and am thinking of trying some of his other books. That said, reading about cruelty to animals is something I try to avoid, so I don’t know if this will be the next one of his books that I read.