Corn: A Vital Part of Everyday Life

Plants and People Blog

Entry # 5 – The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Pollan, M. 2006. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York (NY): Penguin Group. 15-119 P.

Pollan is a breath of fresh air. In the Omnivores Dilemma by Michael Pollan, he attempts to trace our food and determine where it actually comes from. After deducing that the majority of our food comes from corn, he spends a large amount time of talking about its relationship to humans throughout history and its role to us today. Pollan then talks about the relationship between corn and meat, as he tracks a steer (steer 543 to exact) through the process of living on a feedlot. He then talks about how plants are then engineered into the many foods we eat today. Finally, he looks at “us” the consumers and the truly atrocious food we have become accustomed to like soft drinks and fast food meals. Pollan tries to makes us open our eyes to not only what is in our food but the path it takes to arrive on our plate.

Pollan is one of the best authors I have read in a long time, his writing style is so intoxicating that I can’t help but get sucked into the story and truly care about what he has to say. His lyrical descriptions throughout the book have the ability to transport you through time and space so it’s as if you are right there alongside him. Pollan has excellent character development and great pieces of dialogue that help submerge the reader into the story. My favorite aspect of this book are his amazing chapter and sub-chapter titles, which are intriguing yet concise. Pollan is an excellent author who has the ability to intrigue and educate his readers on the origins of food at every step of the manufacturing process.

I am such a fan of Pollan’s work that I have yet to find something that I do not like. One of my favorite aspects of Pollan’s writing is his amazing descriptive abilities and his use of metaphor and simile.  An example that illustrates both is the passage at the beginning of chapter 2: “To take the wheel of clattering 1975 International Harvester tractor, pulling a spidery eight-row planter through an Iowa cornfield the first week of May, is like trying to steer  boat through a softly rolling sea of dark chocolate.” (pg. 32) This simile is one of my favorites, maybe because I was reading this book on an empty stomach but I also love the way it rolls off the tongue.  This example is one of many that illustrates his descriptive ability, he even does again in the same chapter when he describes the character of George Naylor. He not only describes what he looks like, but what he wears and the way his voice sounds and even gives a quote that speaks volumes to his personality “that is just the biggest bunch of bullshit! Only the New York Times would be dumb enough to believe the Farm Bureau still speaks for American Farmers!” (pg. 33) As soon as I read that passage, I immediately could think of at least 3 family members that matched that character description. It gave me a real sense of connection to the story, so much so that it made me sad when Pollan disclosed that Naylor was barely able to feed his family. It’s so sad that someone who provides a fundamental plant for society, cannot even feed his own family. All of the little descriptive details Pollan adds to the story really make me feel like I am right there with him at the Naylor farm or at the feedlot. It made me so immersed in the story that I would totally lose track of my surrounding in the real world, and get sucked into the world of the Omnivores Dilemma. I think this ability to suck readers into the story is a very important skill that Pollan defiantly possesses.

Another aspect of the book that I really enjoyed is Pollan’s excellent chapter and sub-chapter titles. They are very short and concise; so you know vaguely what subject matter to expect but at the same time very creative and intriguing. An example I really liked was in chapter 1- sub-chapter 2: Corn walking, I set the book down on the table and had to ponder that title for a moment before deducing that I had no idea what that meant but I wanted to find out. It was not until the end of that sub-chapter that I read this quote and it all made sense: “we North Americans look like corn chips with legs.” (pg. 23) He words the titles in a particular way the increases intrigue like in the sub-chapter: Corn Sex. He could of easily gone very scientific and named the chapter “Copulation in the family Poaceae” or something along those lines, but he didn’t because it wouldn’t of been as striking or had as deep of an impact. His intriguing titles pull you in so you need to read the chapter in order to decipher what the sub-chapter title really means. It’s kind of like a murder mystery, where you get all of these clues and then at the end it all comes together and makes sense.

Pollan has a way of making his writing feel very relatable and welcoming to a variety of readers. He chooses subject matter that everyone can relate to such as a soft drink, or a McDonald’s chicken nugget or even just a kernel of corn. He then takes this simple and relatable subject matter and looks at it from a different way.  When we discussed his ability to “tell it slant” in lecture I didn’t really fully understand the concept, partially because I was brain dead from reading Jared Diamonds work. However, after reading this book I totally understand what “telling it slant” really means, he takes a simple concept such as a supermarket or corn and approaches it from a different way and therefore makes his readers look at it in different way.  He did this from the very first chapter when he takes this idea of a supermarket and compares it to a landscape of plants and animals, which makes logical sense I just never thought of a supermarket in that way before. (pg.15) He does this throughout the first 7 chapters as he takes something as simple as corn and looks at it from all different angles. When I think of corn, I think about how much I like it popped and with melted butter or how I eat it directly off the cob and the juice drips down my chin. I never think about how fundamental it is not only to my current eating habits but also to the course of history. This quote stopped me dead in my tracks “[maize,] the greatest gift god ever gave to man.” (pg. 26) Pollan has forever changed my view of corn and I will never again underestimate its importance in history and daily life.

As a child coming from a hunting oriented family, my dad always tried to educate me on how supermarket meat is usually prepared. So that I could understand why hunting is important and how much cleaner and healthier it can be. As I grew up however, I tend to suppress the information of how animals are raised and processed for food because it’s depressing to think about and processed meat is convenient and tasty. Pollan defiantly educated me and re-opened my eyes to a lot of concepts that I tend to forget. He does and amazing job at tracking the food pathways in detail that most people wouldn’t even attempt. I look forward to reading more and of this book and others in future weeks.

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