Anatomy of a Meal

UC Berkeley's Michael Pollan examines what we eat, and how to decide what to eat.

That we are living beings who must, to continue living, physically consume other living organisms, is one of the most fundamental facts about our lives. If, as a matter of habit, comfort and self-protection, we allow ourselves to remain less than fully conscious of the biological origins of our food, and of the nature of the processes and industries that bring that food to our plates, this does not alter the fact that eating constitutes one of the most significant links between each of us and the larger world. As Emerson wrote, “You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.”

One must not underestimate the effects of Emerson’s “graceful distance of miles.” Most of what we eat today is produced by an immense industrial system that aims to strip its product of any characteristic that might indicate where it originated or how it might have been transformed along the way. As Michael Pollan writes in his new book, “What is perhaps most troubling, and sad, about industrial eating is how thoroughly it obscures all these relationships and connections. To go from the chicken (Gallus gallus) to the Chicken McNugget is to leave this world in a journey of forgetting that could hardly be more costly. … But forgetting, or not knowing in the first place, is what the industrial food chain is all about, the principal reason it is so opaque, for if we could see what lies on the far side of the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture, we would surely change the way we eat.”

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is an ambitious and thoroughly enjoyable, if sometimes unsettling, attempt to peer over these walls, to bring us closer to a true understanding of what we eat — and, by extension, what we should eat. That last phrase risks making the book sound like a diet plan; but whereas the typical diet book begins with the availability of a plethora of foods as an unquestioned given, and moves forward from the act of eating to its effects on the body, the project of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” is to trace the chain that connects the origin (pasture, feedlot, forest) to the meal. It is interested not only in how the consumed affects the consumer, but in how we consumers affect what we consume as well.

Pollan distinguishes three types of food chain: the industrial, the pastoral and the personal. The personal food chain is, in essence, pre-agricultural, involving what one has hunted, gathered or grown oneself. As such, it is by far the tiniest of the three chains, in terms of how most Americans sustain themselves, and involves the shortest physical distance between the food’s source and the dinner plate. The industrial food chain, by contrast, feeds the most Americans and sends its food on the farthest journey: the McDonald’s cheeseburger, which Pollan chooses as his representative industrial meal, is eaten in California, but the corn from which most of its ingredients are composed or derived was presumably grown in or near Iowa.

The industrial chain also utilizes the least diverse set of initial ingredients. “The great edifice of variety and choice that is an American supermarket,” Pollan writes, “turns out to rest on a remarkably narrow biological foundation comprised of a tiny group of plants that is dominated by a single species: Zea mays, the giant tropical grass most Americans know as corn.” As a result, this chain involves the greatest amount of processing. Pollan’s account of corn cultivation in the United States — the technological developments that enabled it, and the quirky economic policies that encourage its vast overproduction — is fascinating and disturbing. Corn’s ascendancy, he writes, “is one of the plant world’s greatest success stories. I say the plant world’s success story because it is no longer clear that corn’s triumph is such a boon to the rest of the world. … Indeed, there is every reason to believe that corn has succeeded in domesticating us.”

As Pollan convincingly demonstrates, the corn-based industrial food chain does a poor job of giving its consumers what they want: healthy food produced and delivered in healthy ways. (In contrast to the so-called “French paradox” — how can people eat like that and be so healthy? — Pollan proposes “an American paradox — that is, a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily.” )

Indeed, this country’s overproduction of corn is a major segment of our fossil fuels problem, not only because of the amount of fuel it takes to move trucks over those vast distances, but because the nitrogen fertilizer that makes the production of corn in huge quantities possible is derived from petroleum. (Thus, the industrial food chain is in reality even longer than stated above: It stretches back not just to Iowa, but to the Persian Gulf.) Moreover, it is impossible to opt out entirely of the system: Those who choose to eat only organic food are still very much affected by the negative consequences of waste runoff from fertilizer, overuse of antibiotics in animals (which encourages the development of medicine-resistant microbes) and other such practices.

Pollan follows his account of the industrial food chain by exploring a number of alternatives, from “big organic” companies such as Whole Foods and Horizon all the way down to personal hunting and gathering. Regarding the big organic firms, Pollan expresses ambivalence: While it is true that their products are preferable in some ways to those of the industrial food chain (they tend to avoid harmful pesticides, hormones and antibiotics), their practices are in many other ways indistinguishable from the larger nonorganic producers against whom they set themselves. Like the largest producers, they are committed to economies of scale, tend to transport their goods over large distances, and, contrary to the “happy cows” image they covet and cultivate through the use of such comforting but misleading phrases as “access to pasture,” often house animals in inhumane factory-farm conditions.

At the other extreme, sustaining oneself by hunting and foraging is hardly a realistic option for most Americans, as the author himself is the first to point out. He does, though, make a compelling case that an occasional venture of this sort might do wonders for individuals in terms of re-establishing genuinely conscious relationships with their food. In any event, Pollan’s account of hunting, cooking and serving a wild boar (along with wild mushrooms and bread baked from “wild” yeast), with which he ends his book, is entertaining and memorable.

The most promising alternative, though, would seem to be the in-between option: small, off-the-grid operations such as Polyface Farm, described by its proprietor, Joel Salatin, as “beyond organic.” Actually, the methods used by Salatin, a libertarian Christian given to long and inspired anti-governmental harangues, are simultaneously radically innovative and deeply traditional. Through various pasture and animal management methods, he achieves truly sustainable farming in which the soil gives up no more energy than can be replenished through its natural cycles, and in which animals are allowed to live and behave according to their natural predilections. Thus Polyface manages to avoid the use of petroleum-derived fertilizer, antibiotics and a great many other deleterious practices common in larger producers. And, according to Pollan, the food tastes better, too.

Farms such as Salatin’s represent a tiny minority of food producers in the United States, and given competition from bottom-line industrial producers, resistance from various government agencies and American consumers’ general lack of interest in peering over the high walls separating them from what they eat, it is most unlikely that those farms will come to dominate the field. Still, as long as they exist, those who do desire a more meaningful, more responsible relationship to their food will have the option to opt out of at least some of the more negative aspects of industrialized farming.

Some might worry, perhaps, that to learn too much about one’s food, and to consider it as yet one more area of life in which one has to behave responsibly, might drain the very pleasure from the act of eating. But this worry rests on the dubious assumption that these pleasures are, by nature, shallow and would be undermined by understanding. Readers of this intelligent and admirable book will almost certainly find their capacity to delight in food augmented rather than diminished. “To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life afford quite as much satisfaction … in the end this is a book about the pleasures of eating, the kind of pleasures that are only deepened by knowing.”