Introducing: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Digest

“Whatever native wisdom we may have once possessed about eating has been replaced by confusion and anxiety[…we are] a notably unhealthy people obsessed with the idea of eating healthy.” –Michael Pollan

This is my first “foodie” book.  Oh, and really, why do people use the word “foodie”?  We should start calling people who don’t smoke “oxygenies”, and people who try to dress modestly “clothesies”.

I am a little late in reading that breakout book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  It caught my attention when it first came out, but I was too uninterested in food philosophy, too busy, and too uneducated about nutrition science and the food industry to bother.  Still, ever since I had seen Super Size Me in high school I had this growing yearning for figuring out what’s wrong with how we do food in America and what can be done about it.

So I gave the book a read.  And as I began to read it, I realized I wanted to share my experience of reading it with others.  It’s important that I identify myself as someone other than a food critic, farmer, USDA agent, or anyone having any professional link to food.  Mostly because I want to share my journey as someone who came upon this book having a very low nutritional literacy (remind me what Omega 3s do again?), natural literacy (I know nitrogen is good for soil, but I always forget why), or agricultural knowledge (I’ve helped out on a farm a couple times).  I don’t want to misrepresent myself, but more importantly, I want to demonstrate why this book is good for people like me, who aren’t experts, but have become food-conscious over the years.

The thing that most attracted me to this book was that it was told as a narrative.  I’m the storytelling type.  Narratives are how things make the most sense to me.  Michael Pollan is a journalist, and journalists are sometimes the best at finding out about things we don’t know about and putting them in terms we can know about.  They can also make it into a good story.  But I also wanted a book that was well respected and honest, even if still running the risk of being idealistic or overwhelming.

This book is eye-opening in ways other books might fail to be.  You might have already “heard the old story” about the absurdities of factory farming, but they can all seem like distant facts that don’t matter until you hear them woven into such a compelling story.

Pollan also makes allusions to the Bible and Christian thinkers, though he is not writing as a Christian or for a Christian standpoint.  I plan to explore much more of the Bible’s wisdom as applied to these issues.  It merely helps for an audience of conservatives and evangelicals who don’t understand what the big deal is when you can get all the food you want at Wal-Mart for an easy buck, think only hippies and yuppies do this “organic” stuff, fear Obama’s wife will shove broccoli in your face (gasp), and don’t believe in evolution or global warming.

Pollan rarely mentions climate change, and when he talks about the evolution of plants and animals, he’s speaking on a micro-evolutionary level, not trying to teach your children they came from monkeys and there’s no God.

You might lose me talkin’ on phosphates and glucose, but I know that cows are designed to eat grass, and that corn makes their tummies swell.  I don’t really know what the label “organic” really means at the store (I do now that I read this book), but I know that I don’t want butane in my chicken.  I want to support my local small businesses, but I know that small business has to charge more to stay in business and I can’t always afford it.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a hefty book with a lot of information, but it’s broken down into a story that gives you the big picture in small chapters.  I’ve found that the greatest quality of reading this book is that it ties everything together, shows the interconnectedness of everything involving the meals we eat, from farmers in Iowa to me in my car to doctors and patients to American 19-year-olds being shipped out to play leap frog across mine fields in order to get cheap oil.  It talks about the politics of a chicken nugget, the aesthetics of asparagus, the emotional ride of watching a steer from life to death to digestion.  If you really want to dive into the world of understanding the ethics of making food and why it’s so important, this book is a great first read.

I will digest this book
In case you don’t have the time, patience, or literacy threshold to read it, I’m here to break it down in a series of blog posts.  It will be part review, part commentary, part digest of the “important bits”.

Pollan will take us through four kinds of meals: The industrial, the “organic“, the pastoral, and the arboral.

Pollan’s book is long, and his narrative is very secular.  Due to the interests of convenience and spiritual application, I am digesting this book to help others.  I am going to chew the book, swallow it, ruminate on it, regurgitate its points back out with an added flavor (natural flavor, of course).  It’s shorter and, more importantly, I want to emphasize more the Biblical parallels to Christianity.  Pollan brings up some references, but a lot more could be said about the connection to Christian spirituality.  But didn’t Paul say “the kingdom is not eating and drinking”?  Well, we know from the rest of scripture that he didn’t mean that Christ’s religion had nothing to do with food at all.

This series will be enriched by the commentary provided by those who are “experts” and professionals.  I encourage others to please leave comments, answering my questions, asking more questions, offering more advice.  Join me, beginning with the next upcoming post, as we digest The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Part 1: Corn-flation
Part 2: The Feedlot, Grocer and McD’s
Part 3 All Flesh is Grass
Part 4 Big Organic and the Supermarket Pastoral
Part 5 (How) Should People Hunt and Eat Tasty Animals?
Part 6 Toward Resolving Our Food Dilemmas

5 responses to “Introducing: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Digest

  1. This is awesome, Caleb! Do you know there are others at church who are on the same journey as you? I am looking forward to your commentary … would also like to borrow the book if you have it!

  2. You may want to consult Ellen Davis’s book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge, 2009).

    • Already have. That one really helped inform me of the agricultural concerns of the prophets. I think, still, the biggest hangup preventing many evangelicals from treating this as a moral issue is the lack of New Testament material comparable to Amos and Joel. And what verses are often brought up seem on the surface to say otherwise: “It’s not what goes in a man that makes him unclean.” “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” “The kingdom is not eating and drinking.” “‘Do not taste, do not touch.’ Ignore people who say these things.”

  3. Pingback: How I Tried to Eat Like Michael Pollan in His Book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” | CALEB COY

  4. Pingback: On Processing Chickens for the First Time | CALEB COY

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