The Omnivore’s Dilemma


Michael Pollan

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The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Chapter 15 Summary & Analysis

1. Serious Play. Pollan decides to make one last meal: a meal entirely made up of ingredients he has hunted, gathered, and prepared himself. For Pollan, such a meal seems nearly impossible. He’s never hunted in his life, and his attempts at foraging have raised fears of poisonous mushrooms and berries. Furthermore, hunting and gathering is hardly a sustainable model of feeding ourselves now, when there aren't enough wild fruits and animals to go around, and fishing remains the last economically important hunter-gatherer food chain (and even that is increasingly turning to an “aquaculture” industrial model).
Pollan admits that his foraged meal is the least compromising of all the food chains he has followed throughout this project. In most of the developed world, hunting and gathering has long since become economically and physically impractical. Pollan is thus deliberately choosing a food chain that makes no compromises at all with the demands of modern life.
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The chief value of hunting and gathering at this point, Pollan argues, is “didactic”—which is to say, it can teach us something. He hopes that undertaking this project will help him understand more about how humans fit into the food chain. It will also help him take more “direct, conscious responsibility” for the killing of the animals he eats. In this way, he can "recover the fundamental biological realities" of how we eat that are currently obscured by the industrial food chain.
Pollan finds the idea of a foraged meal appealing because he will, for once, be able to see all the connections in the food chain and trace every ingredient to its origins. He has been disturbed by the obfuscations of most industrial food chains, and he hopes that this experience will allow him to think more critically and rigorously about where his food comes from.
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2. My Forager Virgil. Pollan knows that, given his ignorance about foraging practices, he will need help—a guide that he calls his “forager Virgil” (in reference to the classical Roman author who guides Dante through hell in the Inferno). Luckily, Pollan meets Angelo Garro, an Italian immigrant with a passion for producing his own food. When Pollan hears Garro speaking on the radio about seasonal food in Sicily and his “passion for foraging,” he gets in touch and asks Garro if he can join his next foraging expedition.
Paradoxically, although hunting and gathering is the oldest way humans have fed themselves, modern humans don’t know anything about it. The fact that Pollan needs a guide to help him learn how to acquire his own food in the wild demonstrates the extent of the contemporary gap between the spheres of nature and human agriculture.
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3. Hunter Ed. As Pollan prepares to get his hunter's license, he begins seeing nature in a new way. When he takes a walk near his home in Berkeley, for instance, he starts searching for potentially edible plants.  One day he thinks he's found a chanterelle, a mushroom described in his field guides. When he gets home, however, he has doubts about whether he really should sauté and eat a possibly poisonous plant. In the end, he throws it out. This, Pollan writes, is a prime example of the omnivore’s dilemma.
Pollan tries to use human-produced field guides to identify the possibly poisonous mushroom he finds in the wild. His attempt to use the accumulated wisdom of other people to avoid ingesting a harmful food is one strategy humans have developed for coping with the natural evolutionary problem of the omnivore’s dilemma.
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