What a terrific book! The omnivore’s dilemma refers to the result of having many choices for dinner and the complications that brings. The omnivores in question refer to humans in the long term and larger questions than choosing a restaurant. Like the rat, humans can digest a variety of foods and must develop ways to determine which will not kill them, learning for example which mushrooms are delicious and which are murderous. Our communication skills have come in very handy in this area.
In the course of examining the implications of the way we feed ourselves, Michael Pollan begins on a farm in Iowa. He tells the story of corn and its very large part in our diets. I love his view of the connection between corn and humans — he says it is corn that chose us as a partner. Without humans, corn could not reproduce. Making farms into agri-business has made food appear to be cheap to the consumer, hiding the costs in government subsidies, as well as the health costs we all bear. Earl Butz is a real villain in this story.
Making corn into a portable long-lasting commodity is not new; in the 19th century, alcohol consumption was a serious problem in the US. Consumption reached a total of 5 gallons a year for every man, woman and child; now it is at a level of 1 gallon a year. Alcohol was a wonderfully portable way to use all that corn.
Moving to a positive view of feeding ourselves, he describes the workings of a farmer here in Virginia, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. They use very low-tech, intelligent, and elegantly simple farming methods. They raise chickens, pork, cattle, hens to lay eggs, and sheep. The cattle are moved around the pasture in movable pens so that they eat grasses at their most nutritious without overgrazing the pasture. Then chickens are brought along in their movable pens to chow down on the leftovers in the cow patties and other delicacies in the grass, leaving their valuable manure to nurture the grasses. And there are many of these wonderful connections. The grip of those who benefit from agri-business is unlikely to be loosened anytime soon, but I am heartened at the prospect of eating food grown so beautifully nearby.
Michael Pollan is a wonderful story-teller; kindly to his subjects (except Earl Butz) and wonderfully clear in his explanations. His elegant writing is in evidence in this description of those who write about wild mushrooms. "Their reverence for their subject runs so deep that they will pursue it wherever it leads, even if that means occasionally leaping the fence of current scientific understanding. In the case of mushrooms, that’s not a very tall or sturdy fence."
I heartily recommend this book although it will send you running to your cupboard to look at ingredient lists.