The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
Michael Pollan. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. 450 pp.
By Mark Maule, MS, SPN, CFT, YFT
Adjunct Professor, Kaplan University School of Health Sciences

As we sit down to eat our evening meal, we may engage in conversation with our family members, admire the food on our plates, or appreciate the means that provide the meals we enjoy. In an ideal world, perhaps of only a few generations past, this would have been a commonplace occurrence. However, today’s hustle and bustle society with ever-increasing priorities holds precedence of our time and often disallows any of these behaviors. Instead, we do whatever it takes to complete tasks as soon as humanly possible, including the meals that we eat. This fast-paced meal-setting—ranging from take out, fast food, and cooking while simultaneously completing other household duties—may not be the best route for understanding our nutrition patterns. It also hinders a full understanding of the methods involved in getting the food to our plate—arguably, a process that is just as important as the meal itself.

This food process is what Michael Pollan explains and explores thoroughly in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. He journeys through some of the history regarding food production with special consideration to corn, grasses, and obtaining meals from the forest. Pollan allows us to vicariously join him as he experiences such things as purchasing a steer raised for slaughter, butchering chickens, hunting for his meal (for the first time in his life), and gathering mushrooms. The various events offer a clear example of why we as omnivores (for those of us that consider ourselves omnivores) should consider not only the foods we eat, but how our food makes it to the dinner table.

Among Pollan’s experiences include participation in the slaughter of a cattle and chickens, subsequently learning that some of the processes involved are not necessarily the healthiest, and many people do not consider this when purchasing meat products. For instance, one moment follows Pollan when he sees his purchased steer in a feedlot pen, and notices the bloodshot eyes of the animal. As the dust whips around he has “to remind myself that this is not ordinary dirt dust, inasmuch as the dirt in a feedyard is not ordinary dirt; no this is fecal dust.”

On another excursion, Pollan experiences how chickens are processed on an organic farm system. Initially he helps load chickens for slaughter by hired hand, but then is offered the knife to kill the chicken by his own hand. His reluctance is noted as “It was hard to watch. I told myself the spasms were involuntary, and they probably were. I told myself that the birds waiting their turn appeared to have no idea what was going on in the cone next to them. I told myself that their suffering, once their throats were slit, was brief.” He then continues to slaughter the chickens to gain the full experience of the process.

Pollan’s perspective toward the brutality that comes with many of our meals could be considered both subjective and objective. The subjective perspective comes from his personal feelings toward the methods being used, and his objectivity is expressed through a genuine wonderment of the process. For instance, Pollan’s hunting excursion is explained through his eyes as a complete novice. He shares thoughts of the hunt itself, the kill (including the adrenaline rush when pulling the trigger), and the subsequent feast. While he methodically identifies the various steps that take place, he also reflects upon the transformative perspective of this process—from the excitement of the hunt to recognizing the animal’s death for his sustenance—a primal interconnectedness with the environment.

The only time the pace of the narrative falters is in a section about mushroom picking. This discussion extends for a number of pages, but essentially discusses nothing more than the importance of being careful about which mushrooms to pick, as some are toxic to humans. Although this is intended to indicate another viable food source and dangers associated with it, the message about the necessity for omnivores to make conscious choices about food was already clear.

Overall, this book is recommended to anyone who is interested in the processes that are used in obtaining the foods we eat. Pollen takes this practice far beyond going to the supermarket, purchasing food selections, and then taking food home to the table. Beyond the financial investment that goes into our food choices, there is a strong emotional investment that we make with our food and our food choices. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals suggests we must combine our psychological, biological, and spiritual mindsets in order to truly determine what best fits our food patterns.

Mark Maule, MS, SPN, CFT, YFT

Mark Maule is a professor with Kaplan University’s School of Health Sciences where he teaches Creating Wellness: Psychological and Spiritual Aspects of Healing.  Mr. Maule received his Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse and his Master of Science in Psychology/Sport Psychology at Capella University.  He has spent many years working in treatment centers, both residential and day, and as a fitness/wellness director for children ages 6 to 17. 

Mr. Maule is a Specialist in Performance Nutrition (SPN), a Certified Fitness Trainer (CFT), and a certified Youth Fitness Trainer (YFT).  In addition to teaching, he is writing a children’s book and working on opening a wood burning business with his wife.

Kaplan Higher Education Corporation is a division of Kaplan, Inc., a subsidiary of The Washington Post Company.

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