A long, strange trip down the food chain

Michael Pollan is a magician. In his previous book, “The Botany of Desire,” he turned apples and potatoes into a best-seller. Now he turns corn and cows, pigs and chickens into a brilliant, eye-opening account of how we produce, market and agonize over what we eat. If you ever thought “what’s for dinner” was a simple question, you’ll change your mind after reading Pollan’s searing indictment of today’s food industry — and his glimpse of some inspiring alternatives.

“Imagine for a moment,” Pollan beckons, “if we once again knew, strictly as a matter of course, these few unremarkable things: What it is we’re eating. Where it came from. How it found its way to our table. And what, in a true accounting, it really cost.” His ingenious way of answering these questions was to take four very different meals “” a McDonald’s lunch eaten in the car; a dinner assembled from organic ingredients purchased at Whole Foods; a dinner built around chicken and eggs from an alternative farm where he volunteered for a week; and a feast he had hunted and foraged himself near his home in Berkeley — and trace their components all the way back through their various food chains. Sounds simple and straightforward enough — but in fact it ended up being a long, strange trip indeed.

The strangest, and darkest, part came first. Pollan, to his dismay, learned that most of what he was eating at McDonald’s was corn: Thirteen of the 38 ingredients of a Chicken McNugget are derived from corn; processed corn is the prime ingredient in soft drinks, a component of salad dressing and hamburger buns; and of course the cow that supplied the burger meat was fattened, quickly and efficiently, on corn — along with the cocktail of antibiotics that becomes necessary once you move a cow from the grass it was intended to eat to a grain it can’t digest healthily. Chemical fertilizer, rampant hybridization and genetic modification, industrial processing, ever increasing inputs of government subsidies and fossil fuels — That’s what we’re biting into at McDonald’s.

The picture is only slightly less depressing when he scrutinizes those bright and pricey organic vegetables and glossy “fear and stress free” natural meats on display at Whole Foods. Rosie the free-range chicken from Petaluma in fact lives in a shed jam-packed with 20,000 other Rosies and eats corn-based feed (albeit from certified organic corn) just like a regular industrial chicken. As for the free-range bit, it “turns out to be not so much a lifestyle for these chickens,” writes Pollan, “as a two-week vacation option.” Anyone harboring illusions that certified organic means pure and natural and free of corporate control would do well to read Pollan’s account of how Cascadian Farm in the Skagit Valley went from supplying Bellingham hippies with fresh produce to becoming another profitable General Mills brand. “Thus is a venerable ideal hollowed out, reduced to a sentimental conceit,” writes Pollan as he picks at an organic TV dinner laced with xanthan gum and “natural chicken flavor.”

The last two meals — from an alternative farm in Virginia and from the woods, fields and backyards of Northern California — finally give Pollan the chance to relax and enjoy himself. Well, maybe not relax, since a considerable amount of time and sweat went into these repasts. To learn about “grass farming,” the agricultural cutting edge beyond organic, Pollan endured a week of chores and rhetoric on Polyface Farm, a 550-acre utopia of sustainably raised chickens, cows, pigs and produce run by self-described “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer” Joel Salatin. In a scene worthy of George Plimpton, Pollan took his turn on the chicken processing line, slitting the throats of Salatin’s happy broilers while the farmer peppered him with diatribes against the evils of “the organic empire” and big government regulation.

But for sheer narrative thrill, the high point of the book is the semi-comic epic of the Sonoma pig hunt. Determined to “see what it’d be like to prepare and eat a meal in full consciousness of what was involved,” Pollan set out to shoot, pluck, snip, pry, peel and bag an entire dinner with his bare hands. And so the erstwhile gardener becomes the rifle-toting sidekick to a cast of Bay Area prosciutto and chanterelle nuts. Almost as riveting as the hunt is the D-day of the final meal when Pollan single-handedly transforms pig, fava beans, wild yeast, foraged cherries and homegrown lettuce into an “Omnivore’s Thanksgiving” feast for his tribe of hunter-gatherer gurus.

“No other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do,” Pollan writes. But beyond lashing out at our “perfect ignorance” of what really goes on in the nation’s feedlots, slaughterhouses, cages and farm fields, he pretty much lets the facts speak for themselves. In the end, I was hungry for more — a closing of the circle, a deeper historical perspective, a vision of the future. But perhaps I just loved this book so much I didn’t want it to end.