Dining Dilemmas: How Shall We Then Eat?

True confessions: I love McDonald’s French fries. They’re a guilty pleasure. I also enjoy shopping at Whole Foods, the organic grocery chain in my neighborhood. I feel virtuous loading my cart with brown eggs laid by happy chickens in comfortable nests, or eating beef from free-range cows. When I pull a can of Amy’s Organic Soup from the shelves I envision Amy and her grandma in an 18th-century restored farmhouse kitchen chopping tomatoes and adjusting spices.

Whole Foods makes a large dent in my pocketbook that I rationalize by saying I’m supporting family farms and putting my money where my mouth is about agricultural reform and organics. Very righteous of me, I’m sure. But true culinary sainthood arrives when I make a pot of chili with the heirloom tomatoes frozen from my garden last summer, or pull a few green spring onions for a dinner salad. I’ve even been known to fry up some “dandelion fritters” from our yard, in which the yellow flowers are a star attraction. (We’re on shaky terms with some of our suburban neighbors.) This, I think, is eating at its best–fresh, local, and organic.

When I began reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan, I realized I had some rethinking to do. In this doorstopper of a book, Pollan, a longtime contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and now a professor of journalism at University of California in Berkley, traces the path of four meals through their various systems: organic food, alternative food, industrial food (such as fast food), and food we forage for ourselves. Each system exploration results in a meal: cheap fast-food take-out from McDonalds eaten in the car; a pricey repast from Whole Foods consumed at the dinner table; a grilled chicken and a chocolate souffle made from sustainable farm animals and local ingredients; and a meal he foraged and hunted and ate with some help from friends, right down to mushrooms and wild pig.

Pollan isn’t new to writing about food and environmental ethics. His book career began with Second Nature, a classic on the challenge of making a garden and attempting to live in harmony with creation; it’s a book I re-read every spring. His engrossing third book, The Botany of Desire, traces the co-evolution of society with four plants (tulips, apples, potatoes, and marijuana). In all of his books, including this one, Pollan brings lucid and rich prose to the table, an enthusiasm for his topic, interesting anecdotes, a journalist’s passion for research, an ability to poke fun at himself, and an appreciation for historical context.

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan tackles some daunting questions. What ethics are involved in our food choices? What impact do they have on the environment? And who or what are we subsidizing with our food choices?

This is not Fast Food Nation; Pollan tends to be more thoughtful than reactive, and he takes things far beyond the golden arches and having it your way. In his first section, devoted to convenience food, he traces much of the cheap food America eats (and the plight of American agriculture) to the super-abundance and government subsidizing of corn. His research is startling. Corn has found its way into a large percentage of the foods we eat: canned fruit, mayonnaise, vitamins, and cake mixes just for starters, raising a myriad of questions. How could a McDonald’s chicken nugget be composed of 38 ingredients, 13 derived from corn? What does it mean to eat beef, chicken, or even salmon largely raised on corn?

Pollan shows that corn-fed animals and fish don’t have the same nutritional value as grass-fed animals; farmed salmon, for example, do not have the same omega-3 levels as their wild counterparts. By changing the diet of the animals we raise, we are changing ourselves. And it only takes a look at the soaring obesity rates to realize it is not for the better.

But the two portions of The Omnivore’s Dilemma that I found most engaging explored the organic food industry (an oxymoron in itself) and sustainable farming. In the segment on sustainable agriculture (which he comes closest to idealizing of any of the four food systems), Pollan lauds a small Christian operation called Polyface Farms in Virginia as a model of what agriculture can aspire to. By using a more holistic, humane approach to land use and consuming locally and seasonally, rather than globally, sustainable farming seems to solve many of the problems created by industrial agriculture. Good reading, although many will wonder if it’s viable on a large scale. To function on an ongoing basis, this sort of agriculture requires a heart-and-mind change on the part of the consumer. No small thing.

When Pollan examines the organic grocery business “Big Organic” he had me from the first page. What does organic really mean? With Wal-mart’s recent announcement that it’s jumping into the organic foods world, we need to know. And if I’m justifying my budget-busting trips to Whole Foods in the name of God, small-farming, and sustainable agriculture, I don’t want to be hoodwinked.

Pollan traces the organic foods movement back to the writings of Sir Albert Howard, whose 1940 Testament informed Rodale’s magazine Organic Gardening and Farming and the writings of Wendell Berry (who is quoted liberally through Pollan’s book). Howard had the arresting idea that we need to treat “the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man as one great subject.” With this in mind, Pollan takes a deeper look at where the food from places such as Whole Foods now comes from. He also looks at such oddities as “organic microwavable TV dinners” and the article by nutritionist Joan Dye Gussow, “Can an Organic Twinkie Be Certified?” (The answer is yes.) This is journalism at its best.

Then Pollan, a master wordsmith, takes on the genre he calls Supermarket Pastoral, “a most seductive literary form, beguiling enough to survive in the face of a great many discomfiting facts.” Why so? “I suspect ” it gratifies some of our deepest, oldest longings, not merely for safe food, but for a connection to the earth and to the handful of domesticated creatures we’ve long depended on. Whole Foods understands all this better than we do.” What about dairy farms where cows have “access to pasture?” What exactly is “pasture?’ and what is “access?” What is a “free-range chicken?” (The term, Pollan shows through a fascinating trip through a poultry house, is largely a joke, an empty conceit.)

Petroleum is another problem. What about the ethics of trucking “organically grown asparagus from Argentina” to America’s suburbs in January? What are the economics of fuel and the cost to the people of Argentina, whose land is feeding Americans? The food industry, Pollan points out, burns nearly a fifth of all the petroleum consumed in the United States. And most “organic farming” is done on organic industrial farms, a contradiction in terms that Pollan explores at length in the fields of California. “Is there anything wrong with this picture? I’m not sure, frankly,” Pollan concludes. What he finds is “a much greener machine, but a machine, nonetheless.”

I won’t feel nearly so virtuous the next time I shop at Whole Foods.

Foraging is the subject of the last section of the book, which owes most of its charm to Pollan’s willingness to learn to hunt wild game, something he’s fairly squeamish about. Vegetarians may take issue with some of Pollan’s conclusions (although his arguments with Peter Singer’s animal ethics are difficult to refute). Some of his writing as he forages for mushrooms is particularly lyrical.

So what do we do with this information? How shall we then eat? If I’m honest, I’ll confess that I probably won’t give up my occasional bag of McDonald’s French fries, and I’ll still cruise the aisles at Whole Foods, albeit less sentimentally. How do I redeem this?

Perhaps, as Pollan writes, the best way to fight industrial eating is to recall people to the superior pleasure of traditional foods enjoyed communally. Then, our eating contributes to the survival of landscapes and species and traditional foods that would otherwise succumb to the “one world, one taste” fast food ideal. Having a diversified food economy where consumers have access to thriving alternative food sources, he concludes, allows us to withstand shocks to the system: outbreaks of mad cow disease, petroleum running out, pesticides that quit working.

It’s possible to live with contradictions in how we eat, Pollan believes, but important that we face up to our compromises. For me, this means planting a little more garden to offset my occasional golden arches French fry consumption; thinking more seriously about taking out that local farm share at the cooperative down the road; and inviting friends over for “slow” dinners and conversation more often. In a fallen world, we take baby steps on the journey back to wholeness.