Deconstructing Dinner

Life is confusing atop the food chain. For most animals, eating is a simple matter of biological imperative: if you’re a koala, you seek out eucalyptus leaves; if you’re a prairie vole, you munch on bluegrass and clover. But Homo sapiens, encumbered by a big brain and such inventions as agriculture and industry, faces a bewildering array of choices, from scrambled eggs to Chicken McNuggets, from a bowl of fresh strawberries to the petrochemically complex yellow log of sweet, spongy food product known as the Twinkie. “When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer,” Michael Pollan writes in his thoughtful, engrossing new book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” “deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety.”

Nowhere is this anxiety more acute, Pollan says, than in the United States. Wealth, abundance and the lack of a steadying, centuries-old food culture have conspired to make us Americans dysfunctional eaters, obsessed with getting thin while becoming ever more fat, lurching from one specious bit of dietary wisdom (margarine is better for you than butter) to another (carbs kill). Pollan diagnoses a “national eating disorder,” and he aims to shed light on both its causes and some potential solutions. To this end, he embarks on four separate eating adventures, each of which starts at the very beginning — in the soil from which the raw materials of his dinners will emerge — and ends with a cooked, finished meal.

These meals are, in order, a McDonald’s repast consumed by Pollan with his wife and son in their car as it vrooms up a California freeway; a “Big Organic” meal of ingredients purchased at the upmarket chain Whole Foods; a beyond-organic chicken dinner whose main course and side dishes come from a wondrously self-sustaining Virginia farm that uses no pesticides, antibiotics or synthetic fertilizers; and a “hunter-gatherer” feast consisting almost entirely of ingredients that Pollan has shot dead or foraged himself.

Even if the author weren’t a professor of journalism at Berkeley, and therefore by definition a liberal foodie intellectual, you could guess how this scheme will play out: the McDonald’s meal will be found wanting in terms of nutrition and eco-sustainability; the Whole Foods meal will be decent but tainted with a whiff of corporate compromise; the Virginia farm meal will be rapturously flavorful and uplifting; and the hunter-gatherer meal will be a gutsy feast of wild boar and morels, with a side of guilt and some squirmy philosophizing on what it means to take a pig’s life.

But for Pollan, the final outcome is less important than the meal’s journey from the soil to the plate. His supermeticulous reporting is the book’s strength — you’re not likely to get a better explanation of exactly where your food comes from. In fact, the first quarter of the book is devoted to a shocking, page-turning exposé of the secret life of that most seemingly innocent and benign of American crops, corn.

The species Zea mays, for all its connotations of heartland goodness and Rodgers and Hammerstein romance (“as high as an elephant’s eye”), has been turned into nothing less than an agent of evil, Pollan argues. Expanding on his articles for The New York Times Magazine, he lays out the many ways in which government policy since the Nixon era — to grow as much corn as possible, subsidized with federal money — is totally out of whack with the needs of nature and the American public.

Big agribusiness has Washington in its pocket. The reason its titans want to keep corn cheap and plentiful, Pollan explains, is that they value it, above all, as a remarkably inexpensive industrial raw material. Not only does it fatten up a beef steer more quickly than pasture does (though at a cost to ourselves and cattle, which haven’t evolved to digest corn, and are therefore pre-emptively fed antibiotics to offset the stresses caused by their unnatural diet); once milled, refined and recompounded, corn can become any number of things, from ethanol for the gas tank to dozens of edible, if not nutritious, products, like the thickener in a milkshake, the hydrogenated oil in margarine, the modified cornstarch that binds the pulverized meat in a McNugget and, most disastrously, the ubiquitous sweetener known as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Though it didn’t reach the American market until 1980, HFCS has insinuated itself into every nook and cranny of the larder — in Pollan’s McDonald’s meal, there’s HFCS not only in his 32-ounce soda, but in the ketchup and the bun of his cheeseburger — and Pollan fingers it as the prime culprit in the nation’s obesity epidemic.

Against this backdrop of cynicism and big bellies, Pollan finds his hero in Joel Salatin, an “alternative” farmer in Virginia who will sell his goods only to local customers. A cantankerous self-described “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic,” Farmer Joel has ingeniously marshalled the rhythms and symbioses of nature to produce a bounty of food from his hundred acres. For example, his cattle graze a plot of grass for a day or two and are then succeeded by several hundred laying hens, which not only nibble on the clipped grass but pick grubs and larvae from the cowpats, thereby spreading the manure and eliminating parasites. The chickens’ bug-laden, high-protein diet results in fantastically flavorful eggs, while their excrement enriches the pasture with nitrogen, allowing it to recover in a matter of weeks for the cows to revisit.

Salatin seems to have found the secrets of sustainable agriculture. The shocker is that he doesn’t want to be part of any national solution. He’s an off-the-grid crank who hates the government, home-schooled his kids and declares to Pollan: “Why do we have to have a New York City? What good is it?” But Pollan, a nice-guy writer whose awe of Salatin is palpable, lets the farmer off lightly, saying that his provocative words “made me appreciate what a deep gulf of culture and experience separates me from Joel — and yet at the same time, what a sturdy bridge caring about food can sometimes provide.”

If I have any caveats about “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” it’s Pollan’s tendency to be too nice. He doesn’t write with the propulsive rage that fueled Eric Schlosser’s blockbuster “Fast Food Nation,” nor does he take a firm stand on figures like the “Big Organic” pioneer Gene Kahn, an ex-hippie farmer from Washington State who decided that the only way to sustain his company, Cascadian Farm, was to sell it to General Mills. Pollan wryly notes that Kahn drives a late-model Lexus with vanity plates that say ORGANIC, but he calls Kahn “a realist, a businessman with a payroll to meet.” Does this mean that Kahn is striking the right balance between mammon and the mission, or does Pollan think he’s a hypocrite?

Likewise, I wish Pollan would stick his neck out and be more prescriptive about how we might realistically address our national eating disorder. We can’t all go off the grid like Salatin, nor can we just wish away 200 years of industrialization. So what to do? Is the ever-growing organic-food industry already on the right path? Or is more radical action needed? Should the Department of Justice break up giant, soil-exhausting factory farms into small, self-sustaining polycultural organic farms? Perhaps it’s greedy to demand more from a book already brimming with ideas, but what can I say? I’m an American, and I’m still hungry.