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Sierra Magazine
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Sierra's November/December 2006 Let's Talk selection:
The Omnivore's Dilemma
A book by Michael Pollan
Review by Bruce Hamilton

What it's about
"Organic" and "free range" labels make food sound like it came right off Old MacDonald's Farm. But nowadays organic eats are more likely to be grown by a distant corporate operation than a local family. Michael Pollan traces two meals back to each of those sources--and compares them to one at McDonald's and one he hunts and gathers himself. His findings lend new meaning to the question "What's for dinner?"

Where to get it
The Omnivore's Dilemma is widely available at libraries and bookstores.

About the author
Michael Pollan is a journalism professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine. His previous books include The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World, A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder, and Second Nature: A Gardener's Education. Pollan was honored with a James Beard Foundation Award for best magazine series in 2003 and the Reuters-IUCN Media Award for environmental journalism in 1999.

Discussion questions

  • Which of the four meals Pollan describes--fast food, industrial organic, "beyond organic," or entirely self-made--is closest to what you normally eat? Did you learn anything about how it's made that surprised you? Will you make any changes in your eating habits as a result?

  • "If nature won't draw a line around human appetites, then human culture must step in," Pollan writes. Are there certain foods you won't eat for moral, philosophical, or environmental reasons? If so, when and why did you decide to stop eating them?

  • Pollan believes that Americans are particularly subject to food fads and anxieties because we have "no strong, stable culinary tradition to guide us." What are your family or community traditions, if any, and how do they (or the lack of them) affect your relationship with food?

  • Have you ever grown, fished, or hunted your own food? How does the experience of eating it compare to eating something from a grocery store or restaurant?

  • Pollan writes that the pleasures of eating are "deepened by knowing." Do you agree, or are there some things you'd rather not know about your food?

  • "Even if the vegetarian is a more highly evolved human being," Pollan writes, "it seems to me he has lost something along the way"--namely, his or her links to cultural and family traditions, history, and biology. What do you think?

  • "Eating's not a bad way to get to know a place," Pollan writes. Describe a meal that deepened your understanding of a location you lived in or visited.

  • "Is an industrial organic food chain finally a contradiction in terms?" Pollan asks, deciding that it is. Do you agree?

Links

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