Food for thought: What we eat can be not only nourishing, but edifying as well

Ten years ago, we hosted a student from France at our home. Cecile enjoyed seeing the Arch and Forest Park and all the standard tourist stuff, but only one sight made her eyes pop open wide: the soft drink aisle at Dierbergs. So much choice, so much carbonated pleasure–it was more than her Gallic soul could take in.

It also typifies the dilemma that Michael Pollan dissects in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” his incisive and insightful look at the American diet that, like any good meal, consists of different yet complementary parts that blend in a satisfying, filling, nourishing and enjoyable whole.

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Pollan says, is the problem faced by any modern eater who contemplates the seemingly inexhaustible range of foods available. From fast to slow, from packaged to homemade, from organic to artificial and every gradation in between, Americans in particular have the kind of freedom of choice that overwhelmed Cecile in the soda aisle. How should you decide the simple dilemma of what to eat?

One reason for the problem, Pollan says, is that Americans are too far divorced from where their foods actually come from. So he devised a plan to bring himself–and his readers–closer to the source. His quest includes three primary food chains: the industrial, as typified by corn; the organic, which he alternately labels the pastoral or the biological; and the most interesting, the hunter-gatherer.

For each section, Pollan ends up with the perfect meal, not necessarily in terms of flavor or cost but in how the meal exemplifies the food chain at hand.

With his broad base of knowledge and his graceful writing, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” gets across a wide range of facts without seeming to be teaching a lesson. So the reader will get minitutorials on subjects as diverse as corn sex, synthetic nitrogen, the history of supersizing and the role of the People’s Park in Berkeley, Calif., in organic food. Instruction in CFAOs, TBHQ and other alphabet topics are stirred in along the way.

For the industrial food chain, Pollan visits an Iowa cornfield, shows how high-fructose corn syrup has practically taken over the American diet and winds up eating a meal from McDonald’s in the family car.

The organic meal, selected after Pollan tries his hand at killing chickens in Virginia, is made up of food “within a leisurely drive of the farm where it had been grown.”

His biggest challenge emerges in the hunter-gatherer stage, where he comes face-to-face with whether he can go hunting for a wild pig to slaughter and serve. Examining his attitude toward animals, he notes wryly that “half the dogs in America will receive Christmas presents this year, yet few of us ever pause to consider the life of a pig–an animal easily as intelligent as a dog–that becomes the Christmas ham.”

Between learning how to stalk, shoot and dress a pig, Pollan’s stint as a hunter-gatherer makes up the most intriguing and absorbing part of the book. And the meal that results is by far the most inventive and elaborate: from fava bean toasts with boar pate to grilled pork loin to egg fettucine with morel mushrooms.

Such a meal isn’t a true solution to the omnivore’s dilemma, of course, and Pollan acknowledges as much. But, he says, at some point we all need to take a much closer look at where our daily sustenance comes from.

Then, he concludes, “we would no longer need any reminding that however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.”