The Omnivore's Dilemma

Taking his title from a research psychologist’s analysis of the existential difficulty faced by omnivores in selecting from the vast array of available food sources what will make up their next meal, Michael Pollan’s most recent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, attempts to answer the question “What should we have for dinner” by tracing four meals from their source to our plate. Along the way I have been disturbed and sickened at times, challenged to change our food purchasing habits even further than we have already done, but above all reenergized to help others see the connections between the choices we make about what to eat and the eucharistic imperative to live a life of love, expressed in concrete acts of social justice.

The four meals for which Pollan traces all the steps involved in getting them to our plates are a) industrial Iowa corn fields to McDonald’s, b) industrial California organic to Whole Foods, c) a sustainable local farm in Virginia, and finally d) a meal entirely hunted and foraged from the forests around the San Francisco Bay area. Insofar as Pollan has a goal in writing The Omnivore’s Dilemma it would be to remind people that our relationship to what we eat has an impact on ourselves, on nature, and on society. We need to be conscientious eaters, realizing that we do much more to influence political decisions by the day-to-day choices we make than we do in, say, voting. Further, by figuring out on our own what to eat, rather than relying on a shared cultural cuisine, Americans especially foreclose reliance on the most important tool the omnivore has: a shared culture of food. Reconnecting, or communing if you will, with our food and one another go hand-in-hand.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is as much about the philosophy of food and eating as it is about the detective work of reconnecting ourselves with what we eat. And while I learned a great deal about the processes involved in modern food systems, got some nice tips for our chickens, and now have this weird desire to hunting, it was perhaps the deep revelation about what it means to be human that will most remain with me. Connecting Pollan’s work with ideas that I have had ruminating in my head for some time and drawing together elements from many areas, I see quite clearly the work I need to do to bring about an understanding of the incorporation of our own nature into the divine through the incarnation. If we do not understand humanity, we certainly will never understand its theosis to divinity. And I suspect that as we are further alienated from our food that the words of the offertory—”Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made”—will remain unintelligible to all. The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the quest it represents to get in touch with a quintessential aspect of what it means to be human—eating—offers a helpful first step in this process.

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