The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals | Review

The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ maps out the eating habits of Americans and the various idiosyncrasies that go along with it. Michael Pollan starts off with the perennial problem that reverberates through American homes and that is what to eat for a meal. The extent of the availability of choices for people and his detachment from the contents and the origin of what he consumes is exemplified throughout the book. The shift on nutrient conception demonstrates how Americans’ eating behavior is easily malleable compared to others. Nothing demonstrates this more than the sudden aversion to carbohydrates as principal nourishment which manifested in 2002 as the author points out. From the previous viewpoint of steering away from meat and fat, the popularity of diet programs promoting the awareness that it is not protein but carbs that fatten caused the downfall of bread and pasta on the dinner tables(Pollan, 2007). The book begins and allots a great space of the book on the importance of corn and presents a study that evokes focus on the scientific which is specifically deductive, to the historic relation of corn and then to the plant’s unusual reproduction process which gave birth to its capitalistic thrust.

The first part gives a logical sequencing on the scientific determination of available foods, processed or not, and how they affect our selections in what we ingest but definitively how a majority of these products are infused with corn. The products available in the supermarket may seem daunting to ascertain what they contain but exploration would reveal that almost all of them contain corn by-products, a seemingly inconspicuous plant. The same is true for poultry which feeds on corn and also of seafood which has been cultured and harvested. In essence, even dairy has corn in its manufacturing. The ever-popular and insidious chicken nugget are ta good example given by Pollan of how corn is overly used. The chicken which is the main ingredient has corn since it feeds on it while the corn starch for its batter evidences the same and the oil wherein it is fried in will also most likely be corn including all the other preservatives the processed food contains. He further makes a keen observation that “To wash down your chicken nuggets with virtually any soft drink in the supermarket is to have some corn with your corn” because soda has HFCS or high-fructose corn syrup (Pollan, 2007). All these points out to how ubiquitous corn has become to the American nation.

Historically, the settlers are not originally corn eaters because they are more akin to eating wheat. The Mayans of Mexico are the ones known as corn people for several millennia. They have continually relied on corn as their staple food and this has persisted to date appears in the eating habits of the average Mexican. Columbus reported to Isabella’s court of his encounter with the corn plant describing it as “a towering grass with an ear as thick as a man’s arm, to which grains were ‘affixed by nature in a wondrous manner and in form and size like garden peas, white when young’” (Pollan, 2007). The Indians have also been maize planters prior to the arrival of the colonizers and have thereafter been responsible for teaching colonists of this important plant. In 1621, it was Squanto who taught the Pilgrims how to grow corn which further proves how significant it has evolved mostly due to the conducive habitat for its vast yield as compared to wheat. The originally termed ‘Zea mays’ has then been dubbed corn which directly translates to grain (ibid.).

But corn has a peculiar reproduction process which made man’s intervention indispensable to its breeding. The corncob cannot survive and germinate on its own successfully. It has to be gathered from the husk and its seeds separated prior to planting the same. Without doing this, the kernels inside that have germinated will cluster and smother each other leading to subsequent decay. Consequently, there will be no natural propagation of the plant to speak of. Absent of the attention provided by Americans, corn may have early on suffered extinction. The male organs of the plant are on the top while the female organs are below. This distance poses the difficulty for the development of the kernels. Pollan describes it wittingly “Every kernel of corn is the product of this intricate ménage à trois; the tiny, stunted kernels you often see at the narrow end of cob are flowers whose silk no pollen grain ever penetrated” (Pollan, 2007). The corn as it was had undergone modifications in the human hand that most of what is available today is hybrid. This has become subject to patent that farmers must now purchase seeds to plant for the next season. Growing corn, from being a trade taught to settlers has evolved into a business from planting to manufacturing.

Corn, without our knowledge, has become an imperative plant that completes the food we eat. Food choices are decisions and the contents of supermarkets suggest a plethora of selections for which the buyer must come to terms with in order to find the most suitable and healthiest choices. The notion that Americans are not primarily corn eaters is a misconception as the author points out. This may be a dumbfounding proposition but it is true nevertheless. The extent of processing that our food undergoes inevitably renders a similarity in components out of necessity and for convenience. In this regard, corn has proved to be the star of the supermarket racks. The Americans’ obliviousness to the presence of corn by-products on the food he buys further proves how unaware people are on what he eats. Ultimately, it is not only on changing eating habits depending on the latest findings provided by a study but on understanding what we eat and how we eat that determines the people’s health.

Pollan, M. (2007). The omnivore’s dilemma. New York: Penguin Press.

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