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Peer Review: Kernels of Truth

By (October 1, 2007) No Comment

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

by Michael Pollan
Penguin, 2006

In this regular feature we review the reviewers who review new books

Since its publication in April of 2006, The Omnivore’s Dilemma has not become a particularly divisive or controversial book. Instead, it has become an important book. At the same time, its reviewers have devoted a lot of character count to exclamation points and question marks, two marks of punctuation that typically nurture controversy. Written in conversational, “plain truth” style, Michael Pollan’s bestseller addresses specifically how and what we eat, but it is mostly one kernel—a corn kernel—that holds the attention of reviewers. The ostensible reason is that the specter of agro-industrial corn is haunting America. It’s no coincidence that Washington Post reviewer Bunny Crumpacker calls The Omnivore’s Dilemma “an eater’s manifesto.”

You’ve probably heard by now that the environment has gone to hell; that an inseparable tag team of corn and oil have infiltrated every nook of our food supply, and are also used in some form in products such as shaving cream. Byproducts of corn even make glossy magazines glossy, making advertisements for more corn-based products more appealing. As the slogan goes, America runs on Dunkin’; it turns out that Dunkin’ runs on corn. Considering production, transportation, and packaging, even the most lofty restaurant entrees, like a chophouse’s best dry aged strip steak with heirloom tomatoes and truffle mashed potatoes, have also been infiltrated with corn. Most reviewers of The Omnivore’s Dilemma invoke the pointedly seasonless you-are-what-you-eat adage, and so it goes that we are corn: our kernels, ourselves.

“Be careful of your dinner!” warns Bunny Crumpacker in The Washington Post. “Whole states filled with nothing but corn, that monocrop that started it all,” exclaims Julie Powell in The Boston Globe. Moira Hodgson writes in The Wall Street Journal, in true movie fashion, “A leading villain, says Mr. Pollan, is the corn industry.” David Kamp notes in a New York Times review that “the species Zea mays, for all its connotations of heartland goodness…has been turned into nothing less than an agent of evil.” “We’re Living on Corn!” screams the headline of Tim Flannery’s piece in The New York Review of Books. It’s an inescapable cycle, writes Pollan, because every bushel of the stuff that we grow, regardless of demand, is unnaturally moved around to feed us, to the animals we eat. Fossil fuels are expended in the process and this leads to the planting of even more corn. Flannery writes: “of the 45,000-odd items in American supermarkets, more than one quarter contain corn.”

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a hybrid of personal history and muckraking, so for reviewers it evades the “exposé” tag given to other books like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. That book’s subtitle is “The Dark Side of the All-American Meal,” emphasis on Dark Side. Pollan’s writing often has the appealing tone of insouciant, humorous direness, and reviewers commonly regard the anecdotal elements of The Omnivore’s Dilemma with a kind of impressed whimsy. Others focus on the barrage of science and economics presented in the book. Writing for the Times Literary Supplement, David E. Cooper states that Pollan “writes clearly and engagingly, shifting styles as topic or rhetorical purpose demands—now genial and ‘folksy,’ now hard-hitting and ironic, now poetic.” In short, reviewers find the breadth of voice in The Omnivore’s Dilemma of particular added value: The book has something for everyone. This same exact quality is a problem for other reviewers, most notably B.R. Myers in The Atlantic, who considers The Omnivore’s Dilemma in light of the standards for “ethical” eating it investigates—and according to Myers, shirks.

What’s black and white and eschatological all over? It isn’t quite Bunny Crumpacker’s Washington Post review of Pollan’s book. Mid-review, Crumpacker notes the foundering midsections of The Omnivore’s Dilemma:

Pollan discusses the alternatives to industrial farming, but these two long (and occasionally self-indulgent) sections lack the focus and intensity—the anger beneath the surface—of the first.

Let’s see: The center of the book literally can’t hold. Its best sections lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity? Not really. Just the opposite, in fact. The slouching beast hidden in Pollan’s book and Crumpacker’s last paragraph, with a little Walt Kelly mixed in, has been revealed:

To Pollan, the omnivore’s dilemma is twofold: what we choose to eat (“What should we have for dinner?” he asks in the opening sentence of his book) and how we let that food be produced. His book is an eater’s manifesto, and he touches on a vast array of subjects, from food fads and taboos to our avoidance of not only our food’s animality, but also our own.

The tipoff is that it’s not anger itself that is important, but rather that it is “anger beneath the surface.” Then there’s the animality, the beasts. Intentional or not, it’s hard not to see a little of Yeats’ “The Second Coming” here as peel-n-stick metaphor. That poem is the little black dress of the doom world, and its intimation suits the agro-industrial debacle Pollan describes.

Steven Shapin, in a larger commentary piece for The New Yorker, goes further in taking Pollan to task for his perceived lack of urgency and, as Shapin sees it, the narrowness of his vision. Shapin discusses the expansion of the organic food industry into behemoth enterprises flaunting mission statements replete with words like “harmony” but demonstrating “late-capitalist business as usual” tendencies. He retraces Pollan’s exploration of “four meals,” seemingly just to point out one missed opportunity:

Pollan seems aware of the contradictions entailed in trying to eat in this rigorously ethical spirit, but he doesn’t give much space to the most urgent moral problem with the organic ideal: how to feed the world’s population.

Elsewhere, it’s a perceived hopscotch of morals that bristles reviewers. David E. Cooper notes that Pollan’s “usual empiricist’s spirit” compels him to go vegetarian for a short period. Cooper writes,

In the terminology of the moral philosopher R.M. Hare, Pollan is a “demi-vegetarian”—a moderate and selective meat-eater who, by insisting on free-range, organic, local, etc, products, has more of an impact, it is argued, than out-and-out vegetarians, whom producers and suppliers have already discounted for. The argument is a serious one, even if it cuts little ice with people whose objections to eating meat go beyond utilitarian ones—those, for example, whose sense of community with animals precludes so blatant a use of them as turning them into lunch.

The review continues:

Pollan, whose genuine regard for animals is not in question, protests too much, I feel, when he unfairly labels such abstainers as “parochial” and “sentimental.”

Cooper resolves this issue with Pollan’s tone by underscoring one of his conclusions: “It is doubtful that you can build genuinely sustainable agriculture without animals to cycle nutrients and support local food production.” Cooper is striving for diplomacy, but the argument that eating animals is the only way to end the corn menace is not exactly true.

B.R. Myers’ contrarian review in the September 2007 Atlantic stands out as the most thoroughgoing examination—and pillory—of The Omnivore’s Dilemma yet written. (Reviews in The Atlantic and The New York Review of Books appeared just this past summer, as if publications were waiting for the NPR blitz and assorted other cultural effervescence to settle down before weighing in.) In a long, passionate piece titled “Hard to Swallow,” Myers’ joins his views on The Omnivore’s Dilemma with those on what he considers the specious and even insulting writing found in the Best Food Writing 2006 anthology. He takes issue with the inherent peculiarities of food writing language, finding it to be morally bankrupt. Myers begins:

For centuries civilized society took a dim view of food lovers, calling them “gourmands” and “gluttons” and placing them on a moral par with lechers. They were even assigned their own place in hell, and I don’t mean a table near the kitchen: They were to be force-fed for eternity.

It is not long after this that Myers discloses the message of one essay in particular from the Best Food Writing 2006. It’s from an essay called “Lobster Killer” written by Julie Powell, who notably bylined a review of The Omnivore’s Dilemma review for The Boston Globe. “It’s a brave, quietly revolutionary act,” Powell writes in praise of Pollan’s attempt to feel out every individual link on the food-supply chain, “and one he encourages all of us to attempt.”

However, in “Lobster Killer,” Myers might say, there are no brave, quietly revolutionary acts. Flagging Powell’s essay about a home cook’s experience (or comical inexperience) cooking lobster, he points out that the anthology’s editor is particularly “hilarious.” In one excerpted passage, Myers quotes Powell:

People say lobsters make a terrific racket in the pot, trying- reasonably enough- to claw their way out of the water. I wouldn’t know. I spent the next twenty minutes watching a golf game on the TV with the volume turned up… When I ventured back into the kitchen, the lobsters were very red, and not making any racket at all… Poor little beasties.

The beast this time is an animal that suffers when it dies, not one waiting to be born. “The gourmet’s response is to giggle at the plight of the ‘beasties’ in hopes that others will follow suit,” Myers writes. He goes on to identify an unusual side effect of modern food writing: via lengthy, seemingly thoughtful prose pieces, “the American meat eater begins to sense that his values are not so far away from the vegetarian’s after all.” Still on the concept of food writing itself, Myers begins to set up another side of the omnivore’s dilemma, one with hollow motions and a self-satisfied conclusion:

People are more concerned about animal welfare than they used to be. They also know that the more humanely the average animal is treated, the better it will taste. Thus it is that Gourmet magazine recently ran an unflinching expose of the conditions in chicken slaughterhouses.

In order to preemptively expiate the guilt of killing and eating animals, gourmands themselves have become crusaders and philosophers concerned with the ethical treatment of animals. This is Myers’ problem with Pollan, whom he sees as offering up a Costco sized package of nonpareil hand wringing as a prologue to jaunting off to a boar hunt. Soul searching and good intentions only serve to soften the reader’s defenses. No further action is necessary: You’ve done all your homework, you know that suffering exists, let’s eat. But, Myers’ continues, “some things cannot be produced humanely; to taste the way it should, the foie-gras duck must be force-fed, the lobster must be boiled alive, and so on.” No amount of verbiage can make an immoral act moral.

Just before the end of his review, Myers block-quotes (with three ellipses) Pollan’s wishy-washy argument against vegetarianism: It alienates him from other people as a dinner guest, and basically amounts to a faux pas. Plus, Pollan writes, it prevents him from partaking in “family traditions like my mother’s beef brisket at Passover.” Intellectually, this is feeble stuff, and Myers gleefully pounces on it in his review’s clincher:

It is common these days to see moral arguments veer off into appeals to self-interest. We have reached a pretty pass when they start veering off into the realm of self-etiquette. The bit about Passover surprised me a little, Pollan having just tacitly admitted what he thinks of Orthodox Jews, but perhaps for him it’s all about the brisket. A record of the gourmet’s ongoing failure to think in moral terms, The Omnivore’s Dilemma helps one to understand why no reformer ever gave a damn about fine dining—or the family dinner table either. When Jesus vowed to turn children against their parents, he knew he’d be ruining an untold number of perfectly good meals.

If nothing else, Pollan’s book has succeeded in giving its reviewers an opportunity to take to the soapbox, and a favorite object of lusty denunciation is naturally fast food. McDonald’s is a good culprit for these reviews because it’s a huge corporate entity with fictional characters for mascots. The reviews overwhelmingly deem Pollan’s McDonald’s chapter to be among the book’s strongest. In Business Week, John Carey admires how Pollan “deconstructs a McDonald’s (MCD) meal, showing that it contains scary ingredients such as a toxic chemical similar to butane and sits atop a food chain largely based on corn.” “In the McNugget alone,” Christine Sismondo notes in the Toronto Star, “Pollan totals 13 ways corn is present in the meal.” “The first section is a wake-up call for anyone who has ever been hungry,” writes Bunny Crumpacker, and as mentioned previously, that two later sections of The Omnivore’s Dilemma lack “the anger beneath the surface” found in the book’s first, where Pollan is found dissecting the constituent parts of his Happy Meal.

At the same time—just under the surface as it were—fast food has become the perfect thorny issue for a predictable debate. The mascot-heavy mythologies and fictional characters that appear in advertising have a sinister connection in the mind to the faceless mass of overweight eaters. Such easy targets result despite Pollan’s best attempts to personalize his account as an individual eater of four distinct meals. For reviewers, because so many industrial processes are easily damnable, we return to the familiar bull’s-eyes. The part of Hans Rolfe in tonight’s production of Judgment at Nuremberg will be played by Mayor McCheese.

And how many of our dietary woes have been precipitated by cartoons! Popeye came along in the 30s, forearms ablaze and yelling “I yam what I yam,” a phrase somewhat parallel to “you are what you eat.” The sailor man popularized canned spinach, a foodstuff that turned out to have a huge environmental cost, but that’s not all. His wife’s name preceded the phenomenon of globalization, our newfound ability to efficiently jet olive oil across oceans. His son Swee’ Pea preceded the greenmarket revolution of the late 20th century, and its ability to convince eaters they were doing the ethical and environmentally supportive thing. Even Popeye’s lethargic friend Wimpy (n.b—it’s the carbs, stupid) has a UK-based hamburger chain named after him, and it continues to expand, foisting corn-bred fast food on unsuspecting innocents in the remotest corners of the world.

Hugh Merwin is a freelance writer and food critic living in Brooklyn.

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