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I enjoyed the first two-thirds of The Omnivore's Dilemma. The last third had some good bits in it, and some bits that I just skipped completely. Which was pretty much the case with the previous Pollan book I read, The Botany of Desire.

In The Botany of Desire, Pollan talked about four economic plants not in terms of what humans got out of them, but in terms of how the plants have evolved in order to cause humans to spread their seeds throughout the world. I enjoyed the book until I got to the part devoted to cannabis, in which Pollan ignored the 8,000+ year history of cannabis cultivation (for rope and fabric and food) and focused exclusively on the plant's use as a drug in the late 20th century, and how the plant was transforming in the US and Europe from a field weed into an indoor hydroponics plant adapted to be grown under artificial lights. All because of Pollan's conceit that he was not discussing four plants, but rather four human desires that the plants were exploiting (Cannabis being "intoxication" or some such).

At that point, I found myself wondering how Pollan might have truncated or distorted the history of the other plants he talked about to shoehorn them into his artificial schema of desires, and I put the book aside unfinished.

In Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan is once again creating an elaborate and rather artificial schema to compare U.S. factory farming to U.S. organic farming, and to contrast the mainstream way of food in the U.S. to the "slow food" movement. In each section, he traces a specific type of food from its origins as a crop to its final incarnation as a meal that he and his family/friends eat.

The section on factory farming ends with a meal at McDonald's; the section on organic farming has two meals, one made up of faux-organic food grown factory-style by the organic arms of big agribusiness companies and purchased at a chain health food store, the other made up of locally grown, pasture-raised meat and eggs and farmer's market veggies; and the final section of the book details Pollan's own hunting of pigs, gathering of mushrooms and gardening of veggies for a sort of "extreme slow-food" meal. I found the narcissism of the last part quite boring and skipped a lot, but there were some interesting bits in there about mushrooms and about the ethics of eating meat.

Along the way, I learned a great deal about modern factory farming and big agribusiness in the US today - the book filled in a lot of context, background, and missing pieces that other books I've read on the same subject (Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, Cook's Diet for a Dead Planet, Nestle's Food Politics) left out due to their narrower focus.

Overall, I think Pollan is really just too full of himself for me to actually enjoy his books wholeheartedly. But this time, he picked topics that I was already seriously interested in (factory farming and processed foods, and how they are destroying the world and us), and provided a lot of interesting information, especially a global overview, that I had not encountered previously. So I'm glad I read the book, even if I didn't fully enjoy it. And while I may regret this later, I have added Pollan's In Defence of Food to my want list.Read more... )


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October 2017



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