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Pollan v. Kingsolver: A Food Writer Showdown

Pollan v. Kingsolver: A Food Writer Showdown post image

I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle back-to-back earlier this year as part of my semester-long class on food writing. While both look at what we eat, they approach the issue from very different directions. Pollan’s book is a more academic look at the structures and politics that make up the food system, while Kingsolver’s memoir applies some suggested reforms to her family’s food choices for a year.

If you’re a foodie, or someone just interested in learning about how the food system works, then I recommend taking a look at both books. But if you’re just casually interested in the whole food issue, I hope this comparison will help you figure out which book suits your interests better.

Summaries and Scope

the ominvore's dilemmaFor The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan decides to take on the question of what we have for dinner by following three different food chains — the industrial food chain, represented by corn; the pastoral food chain, represented by grass; and the personal food chain, represented by the forest. In each section Pollan picks a food and tries to trace it from origin to table. He travels around the country looking at corn fields and feed lots, big and small organic farms, and foods grown as close to his home in Berkley, California as possible. The book is expansive, trying to answer big questions with exploratory and, often, open answers.

animal vegetable miracleOn the other hand, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has a much smaller scope while still trying to answer big questions. In this memoir, Kingsolver’s chronicles her family’s challenges eating only locally-grown foods for a single year after moving from Arizona to the family farm in southern Appalachia. it’s not a perfect system — each family member gets one cheat item, plus a few exceptions during the year — but in general they’re able to make due, even thrive, on food from their garden and community with a lot of hard work and quite a bit of celebration. Kingsolver’s husband, Steven L. Hopp, and her daughter, Camille Kingsolver, also contribute to the book, providing context and local food recipes, respectively.

Variations on a Theme

At first, these books seem to have very little in common other than the fact that they are about food. However, I think they hold similar values and come to many of the same conclusions. Although a more journalistic piece, Pollan’s book clearly comes down as a critique of the industrial food system and a compliment towards people working outside that system. His profiles of farmers growing organic and working family farms are written with a sense of awe, while he expresses disgust and trepidation from his visit to an industrial feedlot:

So this is what commodity corn can do to a cow: industrialize the miracle of nature that is a ruminant, taking this sunlight- and prairie grass-powered organism and turing it into the last thing we need: another fossil fuel machine. This one, however, is able to suffer.

Standing there in the pan alongside my steer, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to eat the flesh of one of these protein machines. Hungry was the last thing I felt.

By the time Pollan get’s to his final meal, one where he grew or killed or foraged for almost every ingredient on the table, it’s clear that this type of meal is the one he holds as being better for us. While he doesn’t expressly come out and say it, I think the argument of the book is that local, fresh, organic, responsible eating is the way we should go.

Kingsolver’s book doesn’t have the expanse that Pollan’s does, but the entire premise of the memoir is that eating locally is something good we should aspire to do. Because it’s a memoir, Kingsolver doesn’t take on the assumption of journalistic independence or investigation, although she’s clearly done a lot of research as background for the book and for her project. The book is a celebration of family and locality and knowing who grows your food and where it comes from. A running theme of the book is the importance of community, both the community of a family working together on a farm, but also the community created by networks of food and the food chain that binds people together.

A major difference between the two book is the view of what food represents. For Pollan, food is political and eating is a political act. What you choose to eat has broader implications than just the taste or your health — your choice is part of, or against, the industries behind food. But in Kingsolver, food is a much more personal thing. Certainly what you eat and how you consume has political implications, but the emphasis on the book is more about how food can preserve and maintain family, community, history, and connections. The argument of the book is emotionally driven:

What the fad diets don’t offer, though, is any sense of national or biological integrity.  A food culture is not something that gets sold [in advertisements] to people.  It arises out of a place, a soil, a climate, a history, a temperament, a collective sense of belonging… A sturdy food tradition even calls to outsiders; plenty of red-blooded Americans will happily eat Italian, French, Thai, Chinese, you name it.  But try the reverse: hand the Atkins menu to a French person, and run for your life.

Although you can see the impact of politics on Kingsolver’s argument, the message of this section and the book is how much what we eat is a part of who we are.

Theme’s Impact on Tone

Given the difference and scope and theme, it’s inevitable that the tone of each piece would be different. Pollan’s piece is more like journalism that Kingsolver’s book. He tends to get to the point, although certainly injects humor when necessary. Kingsolver’s prose tends to move along slowly, basking in scene setting and storytelling. You get lovely insights into her family, humorous stories about her youngest daughter’s work in the business of chicken farming, and extended descriptions of the garden throughout the year.

Which Book to Read?

If the previous sections haven’t been enough to convince you which book (or both) to pick up, I’ll try to leave with a few short anecdotes to help you figure it out.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is journalism on a mission, showing the political and social impacts of an industrial food system. It’s punctuated with some self-deprecating humor, but the book mostly focuses on tracing the broadest possible scope of where food comes from. The book isn’t practical, or full of advice, it’s an exploration of a system.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is much closer, a memoir about how a family tries to live out the food ideals many people aspire to. Kingsolver’s prose is lush, slow-moving, and personal. While there are some notes about the impact of local foods on a larger food system the book doesn’t go far with that issue, choosing instead to write about making artisan cheeses and choosing a turkey for Thanksgiving Dinner.

So there you have it — a Pollan v. Kingsolver showdown. I’m not sure which book I enjoyed more, as I felt like both of them had some good and bad qualities. The biggest thing I wanted from both was more practicality — neither book does an especially good job addressing how the average person can change their food habits to thwart the system, but perhaps that’s a job for In Defense of Food or some other such book.

Robot Photo Credit: BruceTurner via Flickr

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Andi January 28, 2010, 10:46 am

    I adored Animal, Vegetable, Mineral for that sense of community and fulfillment that it fostered. It was definitely not practical, but somehow that didn’t seem to matter so much by the end, and I took what tips I could from it. I haven’t read The Omnivore’s Dilemma just yet, but it’s waiting on my shelves. I think I’ll love it for those reasons that you mentioned. I’m fascinated by food choices and eating as a political statement.

    • Kim January 31, 2010, 10:18 am

      Andi: I too enjoyed the sense of community in the Kingsolver book. Reading it made me more inclined to go to the Farmer’s Market, to think more locally about my food, which is something I enjoy. It’s sort of intimidating though, thinking how much they’re doing and how impossible that seems for someone like me.

  • Fyrefly January 28, 2010, 12:21 pm

    I haven’t read either of these, despite the fact that Kingsolver’s one of my favorite authors, and I have A,V,M sitting in my TBR pile. I’m very sensitive to even the slightest hint of a lecturing tone when it comes to food and what I eat, and the few essays in Kingsolver’s Small Wonder that were food-related really put me off – so I’ve been avoiding anything that even seems like it might get lecture-y.

    • Kim January 31, 2010, 10:19 am

      Fyrefly: I can’t remember the Kingsolver book being lecture-y, more preachy-y if anything. Like, if I met her and we were talking about this, I don’t think she would tell me what I do is wrong, but I do think she’d go on and on about why her way is a good thing, if that distinction makes any sense.

  • Heather January 28, 2010, 12:24 pm

    I haven’t read either, but both look good. Thanks for your notes.

    • Kim January 31, 2010, 10:19 am

      Heather: Sure, I hope you get to read one (or both) soon.

  • Kathy January 28, 2010, 4:08 pm

    I read Kingsolver’s book last year or the year before and really enjoyed it. Pollan’s might be a little too scientific for me. Great review!

    • Kim January 31, 2010, 10:20 am

      Kathy: The Pollan book is more political than scientific, I think. He doesn’t spend a lot of time on nutrition science, more on the political machines and implications of food choices.

  • Teresa January 28, 2010, 5:35 pm

    I read the two of these within a few months of each other (actually listened to them on audio), and I strongly preferred Pollan’s approach. Kingsolver, I’m afraid, just came across to me as preachy. I was fine when she just talked about her family’s experience, but whenever she broadened the discussion, it grated on me. Pollan, though, just seems to be about sharing facts and letting the reader decide what to do about it.

    • Kim January 31, 2010, 10:21 am

      Teresa: When compared, Kingsolver is definitely more evangelical in her approach since she’s living what she’s writing about. I felt like Pollan was more neutral at the beginning, but also got a little preachy near the end of the book as he wrapped things up. But yes, overall the tones of the books are quite different and I’m sure people prefer them differently.

  • Ali (worducopia) January 29, 2010, 1:51 am

    I enjoyed both of these, but found the Kingsolver to be more readable. The Pollan took me a while to get through, but it was worth it.

    • Kim January 31, 2010, 10:22 am

      Ali: Kingsolver does have more of a story arc, and her family as characters are lovely. Pollan doesn’t spend as much time with that, although the information is a little more intense.

  • Aarti January 29, 2010, 11:37 am

    I read Kingsolver’s book. I had Pollan’s on my shelf for a while, borrowed from a friend, but after reading one, didn’t feel I needed to be convinced again. It definitely made me look harder at the way I eat, and while I don’t make preserves for the winter, I am all about farmers’ market in spring, summer and fall.

    • Kim January 31, 2010, 10:23 am

      Aarti: Exactly, they both are sort of making the same point, just in different ways. If one convinces you of the message, they other probably would too. I try to get to the Farmer’s Market, but don’t go as often as I should. In the summer though, I get there a lot.

  • Jeane January 29, 2010, 12:45 pm

    I really enjoyed both of these books, so I liked seeing your comparison of them. Pollan made me think more about the foods I choose from the store, where they come from and what that implies; Kingsolver encouraged me on my own modest gardening attempts in the backyard.

    • Kim January 31, 2010, 10:25 am

      Jeane: I like that point of the differences, the books do sort of set up different ideas about what to do to change your personal behaviors.

  • Kailana January 29, 2010, 5:56 pm

    I want to read both of these books, but haven’t got around to either yet.

    • Kim January 31, 2010, 10:25 am

      Kailana: Good luck finding the time 🙂

  • Colleen (Books in the City) January 29, 2010, 8:40 pm

    Thanks for the great review – it is interesting to compare and contrast the two books. I have been meaning to read both books – the issue of where our food comes from is so important to both the environment and our health.

    • Kim January 31, 2010, 10:26 am

      Colleen: It’s a really important issue, and one that has a lot of facets. Both books do a good job showing just how simple and how complicated trying to change what we eat can be.

  • Jennifer February 10, 2010, 9:41 pm

    I love that you did this. I’ve read bits and pieces of An Omnivores Dilemma and other works by Pollan and I love his writing style and sense of humor. I’ve also read some Kingsolver, but it’s mostly been her fiction writing. I have both of these books sitting on my bookshelf begging to be read, but I have yet to get around to them. You have definitely re-inspired my desire to read them.

    • Kim February 12, 2010, 5:41 pm

      Jennifer: I’m glad you enjoyed it. I hope you can get to one or both of them soon — they’re a little much to read at the same time, but definitely worth it.

  • Kate {The Parchment Girl} September 29, 2011, 11:58 am

    What you said about Pollen’s book being more journalistic and Kingsolver’s book being more experiential is why I think Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a good follow up to Omnivore’s Dilemma. When I first started making an effort to buy more local foods, it was a political statement. With each beep of the supermarket scanner I was telling big agriculture that I didn’t want its chemical-laced, hormone-enhanced products. But the further I move into a local food culture the less it becomes about making a political statement and the more it becomes about the joy of eating produce lovingly grown by a farmer I know personally. My motivation for eating local food has changed from a hate of big agriculture to a love of small farmers.

    • Kim September 29, 2011, 8:46 pm

      That’s a great point about the order of the books. They definitely take on the issue differently and with, I think, different motivations. Kingsolver’s is more memoir-y than Pollan’s, which would connect it more to your changed thinking on local foods. I think that’s the kind of approach Kingsolver takes to the idea, too, if I’m remembering correctly.

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