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What's for dinner? The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

Updated on March 31, 2015
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A long-time whole grain baker, Kathryn discovered the thrill and ease of cooking with whole, fresh foods decades ago. Still chopping!

In Omnivore's Dilemma, author Michael Pollan asks "What's for dinner?"

The answer may surprise you. It surely did me.

In Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan serves up four meals to family and friends, the first--fast food on the go, racing down the highway in a convertible, top down. The last meal--wild boar he shoots and dresses himself.

Between those two meals, Pollan gets up close and personal with all the ingredients in each of his four dinners, including his meat, on the hoof and off. Where does it come from? What's hidden in the foods he's serving to the people he loves most?

Omnivore's Dilemma reads like a novel, and like any good novel raised the hairs on the back of my neck, warmed the cockles of my heart and kept me thinking and talking about it for months.

If you care about your health and the health of your family, if you care about the future of human kind on the planet, you must read Omnivore's Dilemma. This page zeroes in on Pollan's key points and encourages you to discuss your views.

Your opinions count. Join the fray!

photo credit: Alia Malley

An animal that eats both plants and other animals

— Webster's Online Dictionary
Koala | Source

What is the omnivore's dilemma, anyway?

Unlike the koala, who eats eucalyptus leaves and not much else, omnivores eat just about anything that won't kill us.

So our dilemma--we humans--has always been to remember what killed Joe and never eat that again, and what healed Emma, so we can use that again.

In an age where massive food recalls and death by food (spinach, peanut butter, and cantaloupe leap to mind) are increasingly commonplace, Pollan says:

One way to think about America's national eating disorder is as the return, with an almost atavistic vengeance, of the omnivore's dilemma.

The cornucopia of the American supermarket has thrown us back on a bewildering food landscape where we once again have to worry that some of those tasty-looking morsels might kill us. (Perhaps not as quickly as a poisonous mushroom, but just as surely.)

Koala; morgueFile free photo

We once again have to worry that some of those tasty-looking morsels might kill us

Meal One: Where does our food come from?

Pollan's quest begins with a convertible, a burger and Calf #534

It's Meal One, fast food in the fast lane, and Pollan's search for answers takes him from his home in Marin, California, to a cattle ranch in South Dakota where he buys calf #534. Trailing his very own meal-on-the-hoof, Pollan lands hock deep in Kansas feedlot muck next to his bulging, corn-fed steer just before it hits the slaughterhouse.

Once he saw where the most important ingredient came from, it's amazing Pollan was able to go home and buy that fast-food burger, fries and soda for his family, let alone roar joyfully down the freeway, wind whistling in his ears, but he did.

Meal two: Industrial organic for sale

Or, just how free is that chicken in the no-window cage?

For his second meal, which Pollan calls industrial organic, he visited a block-long chicken house and learned how cage-free chickens get the name. Hint: They're still in cages and not all that free. He dished that one up too, with lots of graphic information on the side.

Meal three: Home on the range

Just might be all it's cracked up to be

Farmer Joel Salatin doesn't ship his beef cross country, so Pollan couldn't serve his family the grass-fed beef he earned sloshing hogs and herding chickens and cows for a week on a Virginia grass farm. Luckily, Pollan had friends in the neighborhood who were more than happy to share a cooked-from-scratch, hand-raised, all-organic meal, as fresh off the farm as you can get it. Word was, it was delicious.

Meal four: Wild boar on the hoof, mushrooms in the rain

Yes, Virginia, it can be done, even in the richest county in the state

Back home in California, with equal gusto Pollan first stalked a wild boar in Marin County, then hunted down wild mushrooms on a rainy day in the Sierras. He served them up to his home crew with salad fixings and berries he'd foraged along the way, some in the countryside, and surprisingly, some in the city.

But that's just the meals. What Pollan learned about the growing, manufacturing and processing of our meat and potatoes along the way is the real story.

Get the rest of the story here

Would you be surprised to learn that corn and soybeans are in just about everything we eat these days? If it comes in a box, most likely it has corn or soybean derivatives in it. And if it has those, most likely, the corn and soybeans come from genetically modified seeds (GMO). No one but the company that manufactures them and its scientists know what's in those GMO seeds, not even the federal government that regulates agriculture and is supposed to assure our food is safe.

What's more, if it's meat or contains meat, very likely it's been fed that very same GMO corn and soybeans, along with an antibiotic cocktail that would knock the socks off an elephant.

In his search to learn what's in our food, Pollan takes us on a ride that feels like a roller coaster going down more than it goes up. Omnivore's Dilemma changed the way I eat. It just might change the way you eat too, and I can't help thinking that is a good thing.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

What we eat is far more important politically and economically than many of us realize. If you care about the health of the planet, the health of your family, and your own health, read this book. Understand just how personal the political is, and why what you put on the dinner table is a political statement, sometimes a radical one, and a vote for or against your family's well-being and just possibly our survival as a species.


Have you read, or would you, Omnivore's Dilemma? - What do you think of Pollan's ideas about the food we eat?

How important is it for everyday people like you and me to know where our food comes from and what's in it? Do you buy into the notion, as we've seen from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, Pollan and others, that our food choices may be killing us? What do you eat? And how much attention do you pay to what's in it?

What's for dinner at your house?

Organic, locally-grown, non-GMO food all the way, or nearly so!

Organic, locally-grown, non-GMO food all the way, or nearly so!

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    • Kathryn Grace 13 months ago from San Francisco

      Thank you, Kerim. I apologize for the delay in responding. I only today discovered that HubPages has a comments spam filter, and your thoughtful comment, for some reason, ended up there. I'm always game for fresh green beans!

    • Kerim 2 years ago

      Real' food to me is the raw material for meals: vgegies, fruits, dry (not canned) pulses, whole meats, eggs, whole and minimally processed grains (ie gram flour, breads with fewer than 5 ingredients, raw pasta, etc). I avoid eating processed foods as much as I can, though I do admit to partaking now and then. energy bars would be my most common processed food, especially for days when I teach through mealtime. I'm particularly careful about avoiding processed foods (or at least carefully reading the ingredients) because I am sensitive to both dairy and wheat ingredients and those are rampant in processed foods. I guess tofu and soy or almond milk are fairly processed too, and those are also common components of my diet.In a moment of weakness yesterday I bought pre-made sushi rolls. They were delicious, but I woke up with aching joints and sore muscles. Lo and behold the sticky brown rice contained wheat starch! I should have read the ingredients, and had a little more willpower the good thing is that our garden is finally producing! If you want some fresh beans, let me know! I've got about 8 lbs of them in my fridge right now

    • TransplantedSoul 3 years ago

      We should know where our food comes from. I'll bet there would be more vegetarians!

    • Nicole Pellegrini 4 years ago from New Jersey

      It's very important to me to eat locally and, when possible, organic (although coming from a farming family I know that that coveted label is not always easy to obtain, even when you are doing things "right".) I live in an area where the last few farmers of New Jersey are struggling to survive instead of selling their land for housing developments. My mother has struggled for the last 4 years to make ANY kind of living raising pigs, chickens, turkey and cattle ethically and without bankrupting herself. So yes, it's an important and dear issue to me.

    • NC Shepherd 5 years ago

      I read this. I'm glad there's someone like Michael Pollan spreading the word.

    • Nicole Pellegrini 5 years ago from New Jersey

      My mother has been naturally raising pigs, beef, chickens and turkeys on a small scale for the past three years. We just slaughtered our first pasture-raised pig this fall and it's been such a lesson in respecting where our meat and sustenance comes from. While I can't afford or always eat home-raised meats, I do believe it is important to encourage small-scale farming again as much as possible. Not only is the taste infinitely superior but I have such a deeper respect and understanding for what I am eating vs. buying processed chicken breasts at the supermarket.

    • Renaissance Woman 5 years ago from Colorado

      The more I learn, the more my habits change. When I learned how the chickens suffer (in my first SquidLit book review) in some of the biggest poultry producing factories, I could never look at a package of chicken the same (in the supermarket). Now I try to buy local (farmers' markets), organic, and produce more of my own food.

    • filmic 5 years ago

      It's not that hard to eat well where i am.

    • anonymous 5 years ago

      I have read Omnivore's Dilemma. While I was already eating organic I didn't understand the local foods perspective until reading his book. Food Inc helped my understanding too.I strive for as much locally grown foods as possible, and mostly eat whole foods too. I especially avoid HFCS and grains.

    Nah, just Supersize Me!

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      • Peggy Hazelwood 4 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

        I don't pay as close attention as I should to what I eat.

      • TheFoodDigest 5 years ago

        You would have to ask me that as I sit here eating BBQ brisket quesadillas. lol

        Thanks for the comments on my lens. "Liked" yours also.

      Rate Omnivore's Dilemma - Would you read it? Recommend it?

      Omnivore's Dilemma book cover; photo credit: Alia Malley
      Omnivore's Dilemma book cover; photo credit: Alia Malley

      How do you feel about Omnivore's Dilemma?

      On a scale of 1-8, what do you think of Omnivore's Dilemma, knowing what you now know?

      See results

      If you liked Omnivore's Dilemma, you may like this one too

      In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto
      In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto

      We can escape the Western diet and its consequences. - Michael Pollan

      Why would we want to? Aren't we the best fed people in the world? The fact is, science has shown again and again that our Western diet is killing us. Pollan, in his usual lively style, explains why, dropping one fact after another into our brains without skipping a beat and so deftly, we can't wait to learn why it's important and what's next.


      I hope you enjoyed this page and participated in the debate. If you meant to but forgot, here's another chance.

      © 2008 Kathryn Grace

      Last chance to weigh in - Or just leave a friendly note

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          Kathryn Grace 3 years ago from San Francisco

          @smine27: It had a similar impact on me. in Defense of Food is on my long list of books to read. I look forward to your review. You are going to do a review here on Squidoo, aren't you?

        • smine27 profile image

          Shinichi Mine 3 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

          I remember reading this book about 5 years ago and it has changed the way I look at food forever. I am currently reading In Defense of Food.

        • Brite-Ideas profile image

          Barbara Tremblay Cipak 3 years ago from Toronto, Canada

          honestly if I read that I may never eat again! (I should read it) - a little bit of a weak stomach, but it sounds like I should eventually get to reading this

        • ecogranny profile image

          Kathryn Grace 3 years ago from San Francisco

          @TransplantedSoul: Thank you! I appreciate your reading it.

        • TransplantedSoul profile image

          TransplantedSoul 3 years ago

          This is a great write-up.

        • Rosetta Slone profile image

          Rosetta Slone 4 years ago from Under a coconut tree

          I feel like the lasst person on earth who hasn't read it! I'm lucky enough to know where my food comes from, as we have an organic farm where we raise animals (and they truly are free range) and grow fruit & vegies. I only eat chicken I've killed myself, not just for ethical reasons but because the supermarket chicken tastes like rubber to me.

          I love your book review.

        • sockii profile image

          Nicole Pellegrini 4 years ago from New Jersey

          Oh my, I didn't realize I'd chimed in twice on your duel debate - sorry about that! *blush* But I guess that just goes to show how close to home this issue is for me. Great lens and book review.

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          entertainmentev 5 years ago

          It's a great book. I suggest everyone to read it.

          Wonderful lens!

        • KarenHC profile image

          Karen 5 years ago from U.S.

          I have to admit that I haven't read any of Pollan's books yet, although my husband and a son has, and they've been urging me to read them. Omnivore's Dilemma sounds like a good choice for me to start with. I had heard that GMO soy beans and corn are in so many of our foods, in one way or another. Sobering thought!

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          NC Shepherd 5 years ago

          I love Pollan's books. His writing is so readable and his message so important.

        • ecogranny profile image

          Kathryn Grace 5 years ago from San Francisco

          @Diana Wenzel: I've always wondered how he could do that too! Even though he ate the burger before he visited the feedlot, as a food scientist, he had to have known about the conditions there, at least intellectually. Still, reading a dry journal and standing knee-deep in manure in a crowded feedlot with hundreds of barely mobile steers are two different things.

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          Lorelei Cohen 5 years ago from Canada

          I guess that we don't look at ourselves too often as omnivores but simply as meat eating carnivores. Sounds like a book that will really make us stop and think about that aspect of our lifestyle.

        • Diana Wenzel profile image

          Renaissance Woman 5 years ago from Colorado

          Stopping by to leave a blessing was no dilemma. I'm still trying to figure out how Pollan could eat that burger after visiting the feedlot. I would not have been able to look that cow in the eye and then chow down. I suppose, though, that I have done the equivalent (by not being a vegetarian). I'm committing myself to more compassionate eating habits in 2012. I should have done this years ago, but it's never too late to start.

        • sockii profile image

          Nicole Pellegrini 5 years ago from New Jersey

          Great lens on a great subject. Thanks for bringing it to more people's attentions. ~blessed~!

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          julieannbrady 5 years ago

          I didn't know what to expect from the title ... I thought something was eating him, you know? I believe it is Gordon Hamilton who is embarking on a weekly vegetarian conversion -- I'm thinking I will be less of an omnivore tomorrow too.

        • Diana Wenzel profile image

          Renaissance Woman 5 years ago from Colorado

          Michael Pollan is a favorite author of mine. I look forward to checking out this book. Thanks for the review. It has been shocking to learn the truth about food. The more we know, however, the healthier we will be. Congrats on your first SquidLit!

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          filmic 5 years ago

          Nice lens. important stuff.

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