This Book was Very Good

The title might suggest that this book is about whether to eat meat or be vegetarian. This is not at all the case. Instead, this book has a much simpler but more interesting premise: figuring out where our food comes from.

Michael Pollan wrote a book before this called The Botany of Desire: A Plants-Eye View of the World. It was about how plants have evolved with humans, or how humans have shaped the population genetics of plants. There were four plants that were discussed in that book: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. I didn't read the whole thing, but it was very good.

Omnivore's Dilemma is a journalists journal through industrial corn and beef, industrial organic, Polyface Farm's "beyond organic," and Pollan's venture into hunting and foraging. You might expect a book like this to do what Eric Schlosser's 2001 book Fast Food Nation did: villainize the massive economic system in place and make you feel kind of bad about it. Again, Pollan takes the more interesting path of figuring out just how everything works and why "the system" is the way it is. It turns out that a lot of it begins with Federal corn subsidies and farm policy and ends in a five dollar box of kids cereal, which is just one example of how Omnivore's Dilemma cuts across the subject of food and untangles a whole bunch of related systems and issues.

It's very good. The only thing that tired me was in the last quarter, when Pollan seemed to run short on oblique perspectives and anecdotes and started recycling the same ones every other page. Most of these were regurgitations of other writers who thought about these very things decades or centuries ago. But still, it's very good. You should read the first 20 pages and see for yourself.

Since I finished it yesterday morning, I notice myself thinking about where things in my kitchen really come from, like wondering where the almond trees that grew my marzipan are, or what the pig that became my pork tenderloin was fed. All of this happens in a way that—like the book itself—is much more scientific than value-based. I guess it's one of those things where knowing a little bit winds up helping you guess and wonder about everything else.

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