- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 29, 2006


By Michael Pollan

Penguin Press, $26.95, 450 pages


“What should we have for dinner?” asks Michael Pollan in the first chapter of his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” It seems a simple enough question but when you can eat just about anything nature offers, deciding what to eat “will inevitably stir anxiety,” he writes — especially if you live in these United States.

Mr. Pollan’s premise is that the lack of a traditional food culture, combined with a bewildering number of food choices (including 17,000 new products on supermarket shelves each year), contradictory scientific studies and diets galore have caused Americans to be abnormally concerned about what they eat. Obsessed with getting thin while becoming ever fatter, they bounce from one food fad (margarine is good for you) to another (carbs are bad for you).

Faced with the same confusion at the supermarket as everyone else (Organic or conventional apples? Local or imported? Wild or farmed fish? Transfats or butter or the “not butter?”), Mr. Pollan concluded that before settling the dinner question he needed answers to two other questions: “What am I eating? And where in the world did it come from?”

He decided that the best way to find out was to follow the three food chains that sustain us today — industrial, organic and hunting-and-gathering — right up to the dinner plate. His book tells the saga of his five-year quest and divides into three sections, each ending with a cooked meal.

The first takes place in his car where he, his wife and son scarf down $14 worth of fast food from McDonald’s while driving along a California freeway at 65 miles an hour. (It struck me that this meal on wheels — like it or not — is as much a part of America’s food culture as the Thanksgiving turkey or hot dogs at the ballgame. After all, 19 percent of American meals are eaten in the car.)

The food fills without satisfying and the back story just might make you forgo the Golden Arches for a while. Scary chemicals abound, particularly in the Chicken McNuggets, described by a federal judge in New York (even as he dismissed a suit against McDonald’s) as “a McFranksteinian (sic) creation of various elements not utilized by the home cook.”

To educate himself about meat production, Mr. Pollan buys a steer and tries to follow its short life, beginning on a South Dakota ranch, continuing on a teeming feedlot by a lake of manure in Kansas and ending on the “kill floor” of the National Beef Plant.

But he’s not allowed to watch the steer’s date with the stunner, relying instead on reports from witnesses like Temple Grandin, an animal-handling expert who designed the killing machinery at the plant, and who “audits” the slaughter there for McDonald’s. Having Mr. Grandin there at all is an improvement on the past, Mr. Pollan concedes.

The second section includes a visit to a Whole Foods supermarket followed by a dinner of organic chicken and vegetables. Everything tastes better than the fast-food fling, especially the organic vegetables, grown without pesticides. But asparagus at six dollars a pound flown in from Argentina in January “tasted like damp cardboard,” leading Mr. Pollan to question the transportation of fruits and vegetables for thousands of miles, even if they’re organic. Local is fresher, he concludes.

At self-sustaining Polyface Farm, he meets Joel Salatin, a self-described “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer.” Their meeting comes about when Mr. Salatin refuses to FedEx Mr. Pollan a chicken, explaining: “I don’t believe it’s sustainable — or ‘organic’ if you will — to FedEx meat all around the country.”

So Mr. Pollan drives down to the Virginia farm and stays for a week to help with farm chores, including killing a few chickens. Afterwards he cooks one of those free-range birds and whips up a chocolate souffle with fresh farm eggs. As you’d expect, the chicken tastes really chickeny and the souffle sublime.

The final “hunter-gatherer” meal consists almost entirely of ingredients that Mr. Pollan (with a borrowed gun and a little help from friends and their all-terrain vehicle) shot dead or foraged near Berkeley, Calif. The meal of boar pate, mushrooms and wild pig, salad and cherry tart, comes with a helping of windy philosophizing about what it means for non-hunter Mr. Pollan to kill a pig.

In contrast, his Italian hunting buddy, Angelo, who is passionate about food in a way that Americans think of as quintessentially European, has a more pragmatic view. Asked why he hunts wild boar, he kisses the tips of his fingers and says, “Because it is the most delicious meat. And there is nothing that tastes so good as boar prosciutto.”

For Mr. Pollan, the meals are less important than their journey to the table. Most of the first section recounts the dark side of that wholesome American crop, corn. In fact, the biggest surprise in this book is how much of America’s industrial food system is based on processed corn.

Despite its image of golden goodness, corn has become a menace, dangerously dominating the food supply, the author argues. He describes the many ways in which government policy since the Nixon era — to grow as much corn as possible, subsidized with federal money — is totally at odds with nature and the nutritional needs of the American public.

When processed, corn is transformed into numerous edible, if not always nutritious, products, like the modified cornstarch that glues together a chicken nugget, and the ubiquitous sweetener known as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). A newcomer to the American market in 1980, HFCS is today found in thousands of food products, most notably soft drinks and snack foods, and Mr. Pollan points to it as the prime cause of the nation’s obesity epidemic.

Michael Pollan is not the first writer to follow the food from its source up to its final appearance on the table. Margaret Visser’s 1988 book, “Much Depends on Dinner,” related (with swipes at modern technology and agribusiness on the side) the history of nine ingredients of a simple meal.

More recently, Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer and coauthor Jim Mason visited three American families, ate with them, shopped with them, then traced the contents of their meals back to their origins in farms and factories in “The Way We Eat,” published this year.

And several recent books, notably nutritionist Marion Nestle’s “What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating,” aim to guide consumers among bewildering food options. All of which suggests a healthy appetite for books of this kind. But do we pay attention?

It’s true that the number of farmers’ markets nationwide has increased from 1,755 ten years ago to 3,137 at last count. Joel Salatin, the ebullient Virginia farmer, believes that the Internet is a force to be reckoned with, allowing like-minded people to find their way to sustainable farms like his. More and more chefs buy their ingredients from small farms.

But real-food fans remain a minority. Mr. Pollan gloomily prophesizes, “Once the last barrier to free trade comes down, and the last program of government support for farmers ends, our food will come from wherever in the world it can be produced most cheaply … in the future all our food may come from elsewhere.”

Perhaps the answer for those who care about food, as it was for Candide, is to cultivate your own garden.

Lorna Williams is a Washington writer.

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