The Omnivore’s Dilemma


Michael Pollan

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The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Chapter 14 Summary & Analysis

Pollan decides to cook a meal for some friends in Charlottesville after a week working at Polyface Farm. He gathers some eggs, sweet corn, local produce, and chocolate for a soufflé (he notes that eating locally allows buying special commodities, like tea, coffee, and chocolate, not produced in one’s region). Since chicken is the only meat in season, he also brings home chicken from the farm—but feels uneasy about eating it, after his experience in the slaughterhouse. Pollan decides to take a few hours to brine the chicken, removing the flavors of the slaughterhouse that had so disgusted him. He reflects that the tradition of salting and cooking meat is so widespread in many cultures partly because it distances the consumer from what is in fact a brutal transaction between human and animal.
Pollan notes that he takes care to distance this meal from his experience in the slaughterhouse. It made him uncomfortable to kill an animal with his own hands, so by cooking the chicken, he transforms it into something less like a dead animal and more like food. At the same time, however, this discomfort reminds him of the essential interconnectedness between humans and animals. It is easy to forget that grocery store meat came from a real chicken; not so with this chicken, which Pollan watched die with his own eyes.
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Pollan makes the soufflé with his friends’ young son, marveling at how easy the eggs are to bake, with their supple and creamy texture. He explains that everything, even the corn, is part of the same food system, since the corn was grown in chicken manure. He admires the sweetness of the corn, which is sweet in a fresher, more “earthy” way than the processed corn syrup made from industrial corn.
This food that is undoubtedly better and tastier for being grown in a more natural way, without genetic engineering. Pollan notes that the corn is sweet in an earthier way than corn sweetened with artificial, human-invented compounds.
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Although Pollan has made this meal before, he notices some differences. It isn’t clear whether organic food is necessarily “better” than industrial food, but pastured (i.e. grass-fed) food certainly is. For one, grass-fed milk, beef, and eggs are lower in saturated fats and contain vitamins that are better for humans—which isn’t surprising, since humans evolved to subsist on grass-fed meat and industrial food is a “biological novelty.”  Pastured foods are also higher in omega-3s, essential fatty acids that contribute to brain cell development in humans. One consequence of the shift from a plant-based to a grain-based diet is that the proportion of omega-6s (an inflammatory found in grains like corn) to omega-3s in human bodies has increased. The result is higher incidence of blood clots, heart disease, and even behavioral and emotional problems in humans. In this sense, one of Joel’s eggs (which contains omega-3s) and a supermarket egg (which doesn’t) “aren’t the same food at all,” in terms of nutritional value.
Joel’s food has higher nutritional value for humans because it contains more of the essential compounds that humans have coevolved with animals to eat. Animals that are raised in a more natural and sustainable way will be, ultimately, healthier for humans to eat. For example, there is significant evidence that naturally-occurring fatty acids help stimulate human brain development more so than the artificial compounds in industrial food. This is one result of a farming philosophy that is more in touch with nature. In this sense, too, Joel’s food is more “efficient”—humans will derive more valuable nutrients from one of Joel’s eggs than a grocery store-bought egg.
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Pollan’s dinner guests agree that the food is delicious and that the chicken tastes more like chicken—that is, like the idea of chicken people remember from their childhood. They have a long, leisurely meal, and Pollan reflects on the way that humans are unique in taking pleasure from “animal appetites” and transforming it into a social ritual, turning “eating” into “dining.”
For Pollan, another joy of Joel’s food is that it reminds him of one of the essential pleasures of eating: dining in company. This is as much an ancient evolutionary urge as anything else, since humans are the only species to transform eating into a ritualized social occasion.
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