You Are What You Read

On occasion in this column, I like to bring to readers attention the works of good food writers, cookbook authors, chefs and the like. Not many of these books will change the quality of your life, although they might change the quality of your cooking. On the other hand, Michael Pollan’s new book might indeed be life-changing. Unlike most food books I write about, this one is that important.

Ever since the brilliant Stephen Jay Gould began writing layman-friendly natural history books like The Flamingo’s Smile, Dinosaur in a Haystack and The Panda’s Thumb, publishers have been printing and selling “science-lite”? books with similarly clever and catchy titles. A few are worth reading; most are not. My worry is that with a title like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan’s groundbreaking book might be dismissed as just another pseudo-science meets literature stab at The New York Times bestseller list. That would be a pity.

The full title of Pollan’s new work is The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. And the omnivore’s dilemma is this: What should we have for dinner? I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets since the very first sentence of the introduction to Pollan’s book poses this exact question: What should we have for dinner? The answer to that deceptively simple question, however, takes up the next few hundred pages of this lengthy but fascinating and thought-provoking super-size journey into food and the American diet.

One of Pollan’s missions in The Omnivore’s Dilemma is to attempt to understand how deciding what to eat could have become so complicated. He writes that the “native wisdom”? we once had regarding food choices “has been replaced by confusion and anxiety.”? Pollan asks, “How did we ever get to a point where we need investigative journalists to tell us where our food comes from and nutritionists to determine the dinner menu?”? The answer, in part, is that melting pot America has “never had a single, strong, stable culinary tradition to guide us.”? And in Pollan’s estimation, this lack of “steadying”? food cultures leaves consumers “vulnerable to the blandishments of the food scientist and the marketer.”? Thus, we tend to find ourselves bewildered at the range of choices available in the local supermarket.

Provoked partly by the apparent goofiness of the recent fad of Americans to eschew bread (a staple of the human diet for thousands of years) in favor of Atkins’ meals, Pollan decides to tackle the American meal from the very beginning. He traces, for instance, the Chicken McNugget””a prime example of what the author calls “industrial eating”?””to its very source in the food chain, attempting to untangle the “relationships and connections”? that culminate in a chicken-like piece of industrialized foodstuff being served to us via a take-out window in a paper bag. How far is the Chicken McNugget from the actual chicken (Gallus gallus)? You might not want to know.

Unlike Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation though, Pollan isn’t an activist. Tracing four different meals, beginning with a McDonald’s lunch, to their origins, Pollan’s journey is more that of the anthropologist or archaeologist. Dr. Andrew Weil says Pollan has “the skill of a professional detective”? in exploring “the worlds of industrial farming, organic and sustainable agriculture, and even hunting and gathering.”? In the process, he discovers, among other things, that corn accounts for the majority of what Americans eat. The burger at McDonald’s comes from a corn-eating steer, which also becomes frying oil and sweeteners for things like milkshakes, desserts and sodas. In his deconstruction of what a McDonald’s meal is really made of and where it comes from, we learn that one-third of the 38 ingredients in a Chicken McNugget comes from corn and that of the approximate 45,000 food items in a typical supermarket, more than 25 percent contain corn.

Maybe that doesn’t seem so important, until you realize (thanks again to Pollan’s rigorous research) that it takes the equivalent of about a third of a gallon of oil to grow each industrialized bushel of corn. That oil then finds its way back into our ecosystems: running into rivers and streams, evaporating into acid rain, seeping into water tables and so on. More than any book I’ve read since being moved by Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet back in high school, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, with its clear-headed reasoning and lack of pedantics, really makes the reader think about what’s for dinner. And care.

Luckily, the solution isn’t necessarily to relocate to New Guinea and adopt a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. It’s true that Pollan’s book raises critical political, economic, nutritional and moral questions about how and what we eat. But the author finds encouragement in places like local farmers markets, organic farming, sustainable agriculture and the growing “slow-food”? movement. And, in the end, this sometimes terrifying and always eye-opening book is a hopeful one. I think Alice Waters, the owner of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse restaurant sums The Omnivore’s Dilemma and its author up best when she says of Pollan, “He’s the kind of teacher we probably all wish we had: one who triggers the little explosions of insight that change the way we eat and the way we live.”?