Seconds, Anyone?

A new book suggests we need to look closer--much closer--at what we eat.

Consider the Chicken McNugget. What’s in it exactly? There’s some chicken, of course. Salt, no doubt. And then there’s all that mysterious stuff identified in the ingredients brochure. Sodium aluminum phosphate–what is that, and where does it come from? For that matter, where does the chicken come from?

Right there, Michael Pollan tells us, is the problem with the way we eat now. We’re clueless. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Penguin Press; 450 pages), he tries to cut through this fog of unknowing. The title refers to the predicament of animals, including rats and humans, that can eat just about anything, whether it’s bad for them or not. He has no doubt that much of what we eat is bad for us, for the animals we feed on and for the environment. The author of Second Nature and The Botany of Desire, Pollan is willing to go to some lengths to reconnect with what he eats, even if that means putting in a hard week on an organic farm and slitting the throats of chickens. He’s not Paris Hilton on The Simple Life.

Pollan divides our food sources into four categories. One is industrial, meaning giant agribusiness. Then there are the two kinds of organic, large and small scale. Finally there’s anything hunted and foraged. He goes on an adventure down each food chain, fattening a beef calf for market or following the path of industrial corn all around the country. Each trip ends in a meal made of foods from that category.

Modern agriculture leaves him deeply troubled. He marvels at how massive surpluses of corn, made possible by the use of noxious chemical fertilizers and pesticides, have led to the rise of huge feedlots where cattle are pumped full of antibiotics and corn-based feed to hasten them to their fate as cheeseburgers. Organic farming? It has its virtues, but he discovers that our visions of contented cows and free-range chickens don’t always match the realities. In a final lunge toward authenticity, he forages for mushrooms in a burned-over pine forest and shoots a wild pig, a primal confrontation that briefly reduces Pollan, an inexperienced hunter, to a state of near panic as he pulls the trigger while the pigs madly scatter. But in this clearheaded and sometimes heartbroken book, that would be the only time he gets seriously confused.