Friday, March 7, 2008

Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

There was one Christmas where I regaled much of my husband’s scores of relatives with facts from Botany of Desire. (And, if you are reading this and thinking, I had no idea that Maybelle’s Mom enjoys a good lusty busty book, well, you are like my husband’s aunt, who said when receiving the book as a gift, “honey, that’s sweet, but those sorts of books aren’t for me anymore.” ) After the full colon in the title, we find that the phrase “A Plant's-Eye View of the World.” Even though it has been six years since I read the book, so many elements of the book remain fresh in my mind. The salient kernel (pun intended) of Michael Pollan’s book is that rather than being unwillingly subjugated by humanity, the vegetable kingdom has evolved through a connection with humanity. From my memory, each chapter, including a wonderful one on apples, discusses how the evolutionary path of a plant is inextricably changed by people. But, Pollan’s masterful writing style anthropomorphizes the plant, or at least imbues it with enough sentient characteristics, so as to imply/ prove that the plant moved the people to change them. (It would be very interesting to read Michael Pollan’s rendition of the story of Eden, I think.) In many ways, this aspect of the arguments reads like a mental exercise for the reader to challenge accepted belief. That is to say, Botany of Desire is soft science paired with social history, and its goals seems to be to help the reader understand that evolution is not directional or fueled by any one element of the food chain (especially man).

When Omnivore’s Dilemma came out, my husband often teased me that my “boyfriend” had finally written another book. I felt some ownership of Pollan, as I had recommended Botany to so many friends, acquaintances, strangers. I set down to read Omnivore in the dead of a Cleveland winter. I was not eating a caprese salad at the time, but I might as well have been. I am sure I had tomatoes, cucumber, and lettuce in my fridge. And, I know that I was wrestling with the issues of what to eat and why to eat what I eat. (Heck, I deal with it all the time these days.) The book basically began with the eating times of most Americans now, commercial food, and ended with the past of most Americans, foraging and hunting. In the middle, he dealt with the culture of the organic.

In this book, Pollan’s goal seems much like in Botany, to destabilize conventional wisdom and open up discussion about that which is considered a given. His tools are weaving facts and experience through erudite yet conversational writing. However, I felt that Omnivore has an elemental undercurrent of preachiness—down with corn, and then die soy beans too. I can’t be convinced this was actually the author’s intention. It is my guess that some of this was due to poor editing; Pollan often repeated himself, in a slightly louder manner each time. In Botany, the repeated facts, the truths about the plants were woven together to create a crescendo that left the reader to understand his message. In Omnivore, this crescendo was not as graceful.

Nonetheless, the message was very interesting. To me his discussion of the culture of corn and commercial farming was interesting, though not particularly surprising or new. Ethanol and the corn lobby are some of my least favorite things in the world, and I always felt dirty when I saw the ADM ads on PBS. But, the organic discussion was quite interesting—in part because of the information but in part because it made me wonder about the author’s goal in the chapter. This section could be considered two sections, conventional organic and small-scale organic. In each, he discusses the multifold, and often conflicting, issues in all of those supposedly good choices you are making for your family. In my book club discussion of the book, we all discussed how this book can be in some ways disabling. Pollan uses himself as a character in the book describing himself as a man who is on a quest to understand food. And, just as the reader feels paralyzed by his eating choices, Pollan writes of how he is disabled by what he has come to understand as the untenable choices in our marketplace. Everything you will eat will necessarily affect something in the world or yourself negatively.

In some ways, the most interesting, and least satisfying part of the book was the third part—the hunting and foraging. I had a feeling that Pollan had gotten so tired writing about corn or perhaps so cerebral about killing an animal for food, that he wasn’t able to spend enough energy on this section. For a man who wrote the in Botany most interesting thing I had read about Johnny Appleseed in my life, I was disappointed in the language of this section.

In total, my love for Botany remains unabated. And, Pollan is a wonderful writer with the ability to simplify that which needs to be simplified while at the same time embellishing that which is either incredibly powerful or boring to the point where both seem equally worth reading. That said, if you wish to eat again read Omnivore’s Dilemma only if you wish to pair it In Defense of Food (his follow-up) or What to Eat by Marion Nestle.


Anonymous said...

Check this out...M. Pollan talks a bit about the concepts in Botany of Desire and The Omnivore's Dilemma

About this Talk

What if human consciousness isn't the end-all and be-all of Darwinism? What if we are all just pawns in corn's clever strategy game, the ultimate prize of which is world domination? Author Michael Pollan asks us to see things from a plant's-eye view -- to consider the possibility that nature isn't opposed to culture, that biochemistry rivals intellect as a survival tool. By merely shifting our perspective, he argues, we can heal the Earth. Who's the more sophisticated species now?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for discussing this. I somehow have managed to avoid hearing much about Pollan or reading any of his books. I'll remedy that as soon as I can. (After I finish the Naomi Klein book I'm reading now..)