Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006)
Penguin, 2007

I included this on my list of Must Reads for the year, knowing that it would overlap with the Science Book Challenge, because I’d started it several times and had not persisted. I figured a dual incentive would seal the deal. But, ultimately, it was Michael Pollan’s work itself which urged me onwards.

There was no question as to its relevance. Here is its opening: “What should we have for dinner? This book is a long and fairly involved answer to this seemingly simple question.”

Food is as basic as it gets really. I knew that I wanted to read this. And I knew that this book was for me.

“Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world; this book is probably not for them. There are things in it that will ruin their appetites. But in the end this is a book about the pleasures of eating, the kinds of pleasure that are only deepened by knowing.”

I want to be aware of my role in the industrial food chain but, more than that, I want to enhance the pleasure I get from food. It is one of my greatest pleasures, in the context of shared preparation and consumption. I’m up for deepening that pleasure. Yes, please. More, please.

As a means of considering this basic question, Michael Pollan considers several scientific concepts that I don’t think about much when I’m shopping for food (like photosynthesis, fertilization, pollination). The Omnivore’s Dilemma is about food chains and ecology, botany and chemistry, and what’s on your plate. But when you’re reading? Rather than being overwhelmingly about scientific concepts and bodies of knowledge, the relevance remains clear throughout the narrative.

And it is a narrative, as he follows the path of three meals from production to plate; the text is human and inviting.

But it’s also informative. Somehow Michael Pollan strikes a balance that works for me.

Here’s an example:
“Maize is self-fertilized and wind-pollinated, botanical terms that don’t begin the describe the beauty and wonder of corn sex. The tassel at the top of the plan houses the male organs…. A meter or so below await the female organs, hundred of minuscule flowers arranged in tidy rows along a tiny, sheathed cob.”

It actually is quite complicated, but it comes down to the silk and then there’s a grain of pollen that splits into two, and it really doesn’t sound that complicated when Michael Pollan explains that every “kernel of corn is the product of this intricate menage a trois”.

I imagine it must have taken a long time to perfect passages like this, which summarize incredibly sophisticated processes so that someone without a science background can appreciate the complexity, without either being completely flippant or losing the significance in jargon.

This is not the first of Michael Pollan’s books that I’ve read. (And I’m not sure it would be the place to begin; I think I would suggest Food Rules instead, if it’s the subject matter that appeals. Otherwise, I love The Botany of Desire, which is incredibly readable and which truly altered the way that I look at things that grow.)

But did The Omnivore’s Dilemma deepen the pleasure that I derive from my food? Yes, indeed.

Have you read his work before?