What we eat, why, and where it really comes from

Dinner is such a conundrum. Cook or order? Fast or slow? Lean or indulgent? Once the problem has been dispatched and the dishes dried, the questions return, with alarming regularity.

I thought it was just me. But now that I’ve cleared time from my heavy schedule of fretting and shopping and cooking to read Michael Pollan’s new book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” I realize I’m in crowded company. Deciding what to eat isn’t just a personal quandary; it’s a burden to our species.

Take a panda to the food court and he’ll choose the bamboo, every time. Doesn’t give the rice pudding or waffle fries a second thought. The human, on the other hand, can eat anything–but maybe shouldn’t. We have to suss out which mushroom is lethal and how to crack a lobster and whether a diet of nachos and beer is a good long-term strategy. Deciding what to eat is so vexing it’s the reason (some say) we come equipped with big brains. The social scientist calls this quandary “the omnivore’s dilemma.” It’s a dilemma Pollan takes on in all its complexity.

Pollan, who teaches journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, bit off meaty topics in his other books, “Second Nature,” “A Place of My Own” and “The Botany of Desire.” This time he offers “A Natural History of Four Meals,” start to finish. Start being sunlight (which feeds plant, which feeds animal, which feeds us). Finish being a dinner he makes (or buys). En route, Pollan manages a Paris Hilton: He sows corn, buys a steer and bales hay. He also reads up on the biological, cultural, economic and philosophic pressures that congeal into the Chicken McNugget or wild boar prosciutto. It’s a good show, watching the city boy with the book smarts get his hands dirty. All in the interest of figuring out why we eat what we eat.

Fast food comes first. Pollan follows one meal from a kernel in an Iowa cornfield to a chemical-sprayed box of McNuggets–which taste, according to Pollan’s 11-year-old, Isaac, ” `like what they are, which is nuggets.’ ” As Isaac explains in two syllables: “Duh.” The revelation here is how much industrial food–for all its crunchy variety and alluring packaging–is, in one form or another, corn. Corn we produce too much of, then invent ways to use. Corn (as chicken feed) is turned into chicken nugget as well as many of the nugget’s addititves, breading, oil, packaging and the gasoline needed to transport it. Corn fattens cattle that spend most of their lives in what is called a confined-animal feeding operation, hoof-deep in excrement, eating antibiotic-laced corn. Not because cattle are supposed to eat corn–they’re not. But because, Pollan says, someone’s got to.

Pollan distills a lot of complicated botany and works a neat trick of assuming the perspective of corn, which, amazingly, can’t reproduce without human help. He argues that industrial agriculture produces cheap food, yet ultimately impoverishes farmer, land and (in the form of obesity and other diseases) consumer.

It’s maddening–or heartbreaking–to watch farmers planting more and more of a crop that Pollan argues is making them poorer and poorer. Corn, Pollan says, now sells for less than it costs to grow. And yet it keeps rolling off the farm. Presumably such a system can’t last indefinitely. Pollan chalks it up to “the perverse economics of agriculture,” “the psychology of farmers” and a tangle of misguided government farm policy. Which still left me wondering what keeps this house of cards upright.

The second meal is provisioned by “big organic”–which is to say, Whole Foods. Pollan cleverly identifies what the grocery chain sells: an appealing story. He calls this art form “supermarket pastoral,” the reassuring tale that backs the happy cow grazing on the milk carton, or the label attached to “Rosie,” the ” `sustainably-farmed’ `free-range chicken.’ ” Then Pollan tracks down cow and chicken. He finds that organic milk is often produced on factory farms where cows never see grass. Rosie “lives in a shed with twenty thousand other Rosies, who, aside from their certified organic feed, live lives little different from that of any other industrial chicken.” Her “free-range” lifestyle is afforded by a door at the end of her coop, unlatched during the last two weeks of her life.

Pollan watches that unused door. “I finally had to conclude that Rosie the organic free-range chicken doesn’t really grasp the whole free-range conceit. The space that has been provided to her for that purpose is, I realized, not unlike the typical American front lawn it resembles–it’s a kind of ritual space, intended not so much for the use of the local residents as a symbolic offering to the larger community. Seldom if ever stepped upon, the chicken-house lawn is scrupulously maintained nevertheless, to honor an ideal nobody wants to admit has by now become something of a joke, an empty pastoral conceit.”

Pollan doesn’t leave big organic entirely disillusioned. Organic products, he concludes, often taste better and tend to be produced in a way that is healthier for the farmer, consumer and planet.

Pollan prepares the third meal after a week working on a small farm in Virginia. He struggles out of bed early to bale hay and move cows. He watches the pigs wallow in manure, happily making compost. He listens to Joel Salatin, “self-described `Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer.’ ” He tends the chickens, then kills, cooks and serves one. Pollan finds this type of intensive farming–”beyond organic” as Salatin would say–inspiring.

“Salatin reached down deep where his pigs were happily rooting and brought a handful of fresh compost right up to my nose. What had been cow manure and woodchips just a few weeks before now smelled as sweet and warm as the forest floor in summertime, a miracle of transubstantiation. As soon as the pigs complete their alchemy, Joel will spread the compost on his pastures. There it will feed the grasses, so the grasses might again feed the cows, the cow the chickens, and so on until the snow falls, in one long, beautiful, and utterly convincing proof that in a world where grass can eat sunlight and food animals can eat grass, there is indeed a free lunch.”

For the last meal, Pollan hunts and gathers his own groceries. He infiltrates California’s humorless mushroom foragers, nabbing morels and chanterelles. He collects foul brown salt from a polluted pond. And, dramatically, he shoots his own pig.

It’s a pleasure to read the well-read writer who can breezily summon Brillat-Savarin or Rousseau. You gotta love that Pollan is willing to find Rosie and wrap his arms around a bloody pig. Still, for all the discusion of the brutality of industrial meat production, I wish he had managed to get inside a big abattoir to look around.

Pollan serves his hard-fought braised leg and grilled loin of wild Sonoma pig to the hunters and gatherers who tutored him. He calls it a “perfect meal”–full of good flavors, good conversation and the good feeling of self-sufficiency. It is, he concludes, its own form of grace. To Pollan its success also springs from its “transparency.” He knows where this meal came from–which specific pig, cherry tree and mushroom patch.

Transparency is also the achievement of this book. At McDonald’s, I now see not just limp burger but more: cattle crowded into feedlots, cities of corn straight and silent on the Iowa landscape. At Whole Foods, I notice that nearly all the organic produce has been trucked in from two California farms. When the fine-dining fine print lists the provenance of beet or rabbit, I see more than sales pitch. And though I may never fell my own prosciutto, I am happy to see dinner as grace.

Pollan quotes anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who said food must be ” `not only good to eat, but also good to think.’ ” Pollan–who eats and thinks heartily–makes food good to see.