Eating Blind

AFTER READING “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” I went out to dinner at a bistro in Greenwich Village, where I faced some dilemmas of my own. The waiter brought over the menu. Steak? Too much to worry about: hormones, antibiotics, E. coli and mad-cow disease. Tuna? Mercury. Salmon? PCBs. Chicken? Could be one of the brands treated with arsenic. Mussels? Polluted waters. Salad? Pesticides. While the waiter stood there, pencil poised, I fretted over making any choice from a menu that I normally would have read with enthusiasm.

Eating is no longer a simple pleasure, if it ever was. It is fraught with predicaments and technical imperatives. Should I be a carnivore, vegetarian or vegan? Should I leave out fat or carbs? When you shop in a supermarket you are confronted by mind-boggling choices and shelves of packages that ring with phrases like “heart-healthy,” “no trans-fats,” “cage-free” and “range-fed.” Even buying a carton of milk involves an inner debate: regular or organic? The organic, if you read carefully, may be ultra-pasteurized, with a sell-by date a month away (which, of course, would be a badge of quality and safety in some quarters but is anathema to those who care about the quality of the taste of their milk).

Of course, the more anxious we are about what we eat, the more we fall prey to the seductions of marketers. Take those “healthy” protein bars and shakes. They are healthy only when compared with something already loaded with calories. Things could be worse, we tell ourselves. And more and more it is only ourselves who are there to listen. “Consuming these neo-pseudo foods alone in our cars,” writes Michael Pollan, “we have become a nation of antinomian eaters, each of us struggling to work out our dietary salvation on our own.” In other words, we have a national eating disorder.

To make his case, Mr. Pollan — whose other books include “The Botany of Desire,” a “plant’s-eye view of the world” — follows America’s food chains from earth to table. He traces the provenance of what we eat, making a depressing pilgrim’s progress through the worlds of industrialized food, organic food and the food that a few people harvest for themselves from the wild. He winds up each section with a meal — from McDonald’s, from Whole Foods, from a small organic farm in Virginia, even from his own hunting and gathering efforts. Along the way, he raises a lot of disturbing questions about how we eat and how we think about food today.

American eaters are overwrought in part because our culture isn’t rooted in a culinary tradition. If I’d been a Frenchman sitting down to a meal in that bistro, I doubt that I’d have given a second thought to the provenance of my steak frites (cooked rare, of course). The French drink gallons of wine, consume smelly raw-milk cheeses and eat leisurely communal meals, and they don’t have our rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. (Three of every five Americans are overweight; one of every five is obese; Type 2 diabetes, previously the bane of adults only, is now showing up in children.) While the French dine as they please, we battle over the precise design of the government’s eat-healthy food pyramid, all the while consuming more and more stuff that seems far removed from nature but close to the factory floor.

Part of the marketing logic regarding American food is to turn it into something beyond its strictly culinary value — into a brand name, a convenience (such as TV dinners) or, in the case of apples from a company called TreeTop, into a “nutraceutical food,” that is, a food that is engineered to offer extra health benefits. TreeTop’s apple pieces are “low moisture,” “naturally sweetened” and “infused with a red-wine extract.” Just 18 grams of them, according to Food Technology magazine (cited by Mr. Pollan), provide as many “flavonoid phenols as five glasses of wine and the dietary fiber equivalent of one whole apple.” The implicit message of turning something as ordinary as an apple into something so specialized and high-tech is clear, Mr. Pollan believes. It is: “We need food scientists to feed us.” But of course we don’t.

So whatever happened to real food? A leading villain, says Mr. Pollan, is the corn industry, a subsidized monoculture that produces 10 billion bushels a year. High fructose corn syrup has insinuated itself into everything from mustard and bread to cereal and ham, either giving America a sweet tooth or satisfying the one it already had. Most of the beef sold in America is fed corn because it’s the cheapest way of stuffing cattle with calories.

To see how the system works, how “the industrial food chain transforms bushels of corn into steaks,” Mr. Pollan bought a steer — No. 534 — at a ranch in South Dakota. He says he’d envisioned that his steer would be peacefully grazing among other cattle in a green pasture. But when he headed out to Kansas six months after its birth, he found out that grass had nothing to do with it.

No. 534 is penned in a feedlot, sleeping on its own manure and eating 25 pounds of corn a day. Cattle are by nature not corn eaters; it’s too starchy, and they become vulnerable to disease, especially liver abscesses, so they have to be given antibiotics. And because of the manure, there is the increased danger of E.coli infections, which has led to the irradiation of raw meat to kill the bacteria.

Mr. Pollan notes as well that raising corn and transporting it — as opposed to letting the sun grow grass under a steer’s feet — make petroleum “one of the most important ingredients in the production of modern meat.” He estimates that when No. 534 had reached the weight of 1,200 pounds, he would have prompted, over the course of his short life (about two years), the consumption of “the equivalent of 35 gallons of oil — nearly a barrel.”

But it’s not only industrial farmers who are burning up diesel fuel. Mr. Pollan also targets what he calls “big organic,” a $10 billion dollar industry that would seem attuned to the sensibilities of its health-minded customers — unless they also have environmental concerns. Big organic’s far-flung trucking operations often use more fuel than its conventional-food counterparts. “The word organic has been stretched and twisted to admit the very sort of industrial practices for which it once offered a critique and an alternative,” says Mr. Pollan. Don’t be fooled by that cheery picture on your organic egg carton of hens scratching in the barnyard. The 20,000 “organic” birds he observes in a California shed “did pretty much everything except step outside the little doors located at either end.”

What to do? Mr. Pollan argues that some of our problems with food can be solved by simply buying locally. To do so is an act of conservation (not in the least for the savings on transport gasoline) as well as an aesthetic one, because locally produced food is more likely to be fresher and taste better than industrial-made foodstuffs. Chefs are increasingly taking up the practice of using local foods — hence those menus with sometimes hilariously detailed resumes of ingredients.

Mr. Pollan ends up cooking a meal that he has gathered entirely himself. Alone in the woods with his conscience, he shoots a wild pig and cooks it, along with the morels he found, finishing with a galette of cherries picked from a tree overhanging a street in his hometown of Berkeley, Calif. It was the other end of the spectrum from a McDonald’s meal. “The pleasures of one are based on a nearly perfect knowledge, the pleasure of the other on an equally perfect ignorance.”

He doesn’t dismiss fast food entirely: He says it’s OK once a year. Mr. Pollan is not allowed into the Kansas slaughterhouse where his steer meets its end, but he talks to an animal-handling expert there who designed the ramps and slaughtering machinery for McDonald’s National Beef Plant. As far as the treatment of the animals goes, the man says that it is much better than it used to be. “There is a pre-McDonald’s era and the post-McDonald’s era — it’s night and day.”

Mr. Pollan acknowledges that his own wild-pig experiment is not a perfect model for a country of 300 million people, most living in cities and suburbs. It’s unrealistic to send us all out foraging in the wild. But he wants us at least to know what it is we are eating, where it came from and how it got to our table. He also wants us to be aware of the choices we make and to take responsibility for them.

It’s an admirable goal, well met in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” There is much to be worried about: corn overload, fertilizer runoff, marketing gimmicks and other such aspects of the modern food chain. But at the same time, commerce and technology have made food abundant in the U.S. and — if we buy with care — often very good.

In that Village bistro, the site of my indecision, I ended up having the scallops. Diver-caught. From the bottom of the sea. Was I still taking a chance? After all, who knows what really goes on down there?