DSQ > Summer 2007, Volume 27, No.3

Given the dazzling array of foods available to middle class consumers these days, how are they to choose? Should they be led to purchase by artful narratives of organic farms, or food that is conventionally grown and marketed? Still more perplexing is the question of convenience and fast foods.

Michael Pollan wrestles with some of these issues in The Omnivore's Dilemma. The omnivore's dilemma is that humans can eat almost anything found in nature (or produced in a lab these days), yet experience anxiety about how to choose what to eat. (3) In search of the origins and virtues of particular ways of growing and consuming food, Pollan traces each food chain — industrial, organic or alternative, and hunter-gatherer — from hoof to fork. As he explains, "Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world — and what is to become of it." (11). He emphasizes the connection between the health of the things we eat and our own wellness. (81, 148)

In his car, Pollan feasts on a McDonald's meal, noting the irony of eating it on the freeway. At his local Whole Foods, he purchases "industrial organic" ingredients to make the second meal. Pollan experiences trepidation as he joins mushroom foragers, worried that he might choose poison over pleasure. In the forests of Sonoma County, California, he chases wild pigs with a gourmand friend. The pigs will be incorporated into the "perfect meal" that Pollan chooses as his last of the culinary explorations.

Pollan's insightful humor and adventurous spirit lead him from the cornfields of the Midwest to the restaurant tables of Virginia. Along the way, he rises with farmers, exposes nutritional conspiracies and tries to find strategies for addressing the omnivore's dilemma. He introduces the reader to some terrifying facts about food and an endearing slate of characters — such as Joel Salatin, the "beyond organic" farmer, and Angelo, the foodie friend and future hunting partner. The word "characters" seems fitting, even in this work of non-fiction.

Pollan's take on disability surfaces in several different ways. At first blush, he explores how dietary choices play into evolutionary hierarchies among creatures. He also notes how manufactured foods may lead to disabling health conditions, such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. (102) He blames the food industry's proliferation of corn syrup in almost every food as the perpetuator of overeating. At the same time, he notes the difficulty in proving that "cleaner" or "safer" foods, such as organics, lead to improved health. (177)

The other part of the book most concerned with disability is Pollan's discussion of philosopher Peter Singer's arguments for vegetarianism in Animal Liberation. If eating animals is based on the idea that humans are somehow more intelligent and possess higher awareness than them, individuals should take pause. Animals possess intelligence and awareness, too, according to Singer, and therefore, society cannot justify a morality in which animals must die for food, but people of lower cognitive abilities are not exploited under the same assumptions. "After all, people are not, as a matter of fact, equal at all — some are smarter than others, handsomer, more gifted, whatever." (307). All animals should receive equal consideration, according to the philosopher. Equal consideration, however, is not equal treatment. While many of Pollan's arguments in this chapter are based on natural order, Singer's positions cause him to pause — perhaps, not long enough.

More generally, Pollan's language about disability seems uninformed. He does not hesitate to describe the food industry as practicing "blind-man's accounting." (201). Pollan also describes the "brain drain" in rural America, where "D students [are] left on the farm today" (Salatin's words, 220). He discusses "the moral status of the retarded and the insane," grouping people together as one, based on impairments, not to mention dated terminology. (311)

The problem with The Omnivore's Dilemma, is that for all the education about food it offers to the average reader, it reifies and almost fetishizes the natural order — an order in which people with disabilities are not always autonomous agents. While Pollan may scoff at Singer's comparison of people with disabilities to animals, he is too quick to ignore how his own model might reinforce subjugated positions in the food chain and society. If we are to embrace all that is natural — to realize "what we're eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world" — then nothing less is required of us. (411)

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Copyright (c) 2007 Carrie Griffin Basas

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ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)