Michael Pollan goes to great lengths to dissect the food chain, even killing a wild boar
The diet of your average American omnivore has long been a mixed bag of foods with various origins: spaghetti on Monday night followed by tamales on Tuesday. Maybe we’ll have fried chicken on Wednesday? An Italian doesn’t have this quandary. He knows he’ll be having pasta every day and he doesn’t have a problem with it.
Faced with a literal smorgasbord of dining options, figuring out what to eat can be more than a little perplexing. Perhaps to bring some order to the dining process, Americans have long been keen to embrace the fad diet du jour.
One of the popular diets to hit these shores occurred in the late ’90s, when the late Dr. Robert Atkins’s high-fat, low-carbohydrate regimen resurfaced (Atkins originally published his diet, Dr. Atkins’s Diet Revolution, in 1972). The idea really took hold in 2002 when the New York Times Magazine got behind the phenomenon with the cover story entitled “What If Fat Doesn’t Make You Fat?” Soon afterward many bakeries and pasta companies across the country went belly up.
The country’s sudden onslaught of acute “carbo-phobia” caught journalist Michael Pollan, an avowed pasta lover, off-guard. You’ve probably heard or read about Pollan recently, discussing his latest book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin, 2006). An investigative/participatory reporter, Pollan has turned his gaze to an impressive range of topics. A longtime contributing writer to the very same New York Times Magazine, he has several books to his credit including Second Nature, about rethinking gardening and self-discovery; A Place of My Own, a chronicle of his adventures building a backyard writing cabin; and The Botany of Desire, a look at man’s connection to plants. Pollan, who lives with his wife and son in Rockridge, teaches at Cal’s Graduate School of Journalism.
In Omnivore’s Dilemma Pollan takes readers on a journey to see how the ingredients for four distinct meals are grown, processed, and cooked: a McDonald’s lunch, an organic dinner from Whole Foods, a meal made from food produced on a sustainable farm in Virginia, and one Pollan hunted and foraged for himself.
The trip brings us face-to-face with the truth about our nation’s food supply, and the news ain’t good. American food production has become industrialized beyond recognition, tilting much of our nation’s ecosystem out of whack, and ignoring much of the sensible practices of smaller-scale farming.
Pollan, who has no special background in science and studied English as a grad student, describes today’s Midwest as a monoculture of cornfields fed on petroleum-based fertilizers. Soft drinks are sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup instead of sugar, and cattle are fattened on corn-based feed in crowded lots. Pollan writes that Americans are literally “corn walking” (something Mexicans say about themselves, but the corn they eat isn’t processed beyond recognition).
It isn’t natural for one type of food to become so dominant in the food chain. A cow’s rumen (part of the stomach) was designed to digest grass, not corn. Feeding cattle corn helps make beef cheaper, but it also pollutes the environment with lagoons of stinky cow manure (if you’ve ever driven past the Harris Ranch on Interstate 5, you’ll catch my drift). Corn also makes cows
sick, giving them so much gas, Pollan
notes, that it can become trapped in their stomachs, press against their lungs, and lead them to suffocate.
All this corn-filled beef and soda has one thing to be said for it: it’s cheap. But along with the colors and flavors, the low price is artificial, Pollan argues. Subsidies paid to corn farmers give them an incentive to overproduce the crop. With so much supply, processed corn finds its way into just about everything, from Twinkies to Coke to quarter-pounders. Grass-fed beef and organic food can hardly compete. It’s bound to be more expensive, but then again it’s priced to reflect what it actually costs to produce.
The so-called alternatives don’t get off scot-free in Pollan’s book either. His visit to Petaluma Poultry, home of “Rosie the Organic Chicken,” reveals that the birds almost never roam the small strip of lawn outside the chicken coop that constitutes their “range.” But it’s not really in a chicken farmer’s best interest to provide an actual range for these birds, Pollan notes. If they did, and a chicken brought even one microbe back into the crowded coop, the whole flock could get sick, not having been fed antibiotics.
He concludes that the term “free-range” is nothing more than an “empty pastoral conceit.” He also faults Whole Foods and other supermarkets for selling organic food grown thousands of miles away that’s “drenched in diesel fuel” used to ship it to the store.
After reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it’s tempting to label Pollan “America’s chief food cop,” out to condemn the junk-food junkie and deflate the Whole Foods shopper’s sense of righteousness. But actually Pollan, reached in Seattle before giving a lecture, is loath to tell people what to eat.
“ I don’t bust anybody,” says Pollan, whose own food experience is hardly prudish. As a kid growing up on Long Island, he ate his fair share of McDonald’s and was known to plow through half a box of Yodels (the Northeast’s version of the Ho Ho) in one sitting. Today, he shops at Whole Foods in Berkeley, despite the fact that they sell farmed Atlantic salmon (a species that has to be dyed pink to obscure the fish’s natural gray color). He even allows his son Isaac to indulge the occasional Chicken McNugget craving.
“ All I ask is that people think a little bit about it,” says Pollan, whose course at Cal, “Following the Food Chain,” features People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) videos of horrible animal slaughters and reading assignments on organic and pasture-bred food. “I’m sorry to put a wrench in the works. I guess I have complicated some people’s lives, but it’s all in a good cause.”
Specifically, what Pollan suggests is that we get out of the supermarket whenever possible. “Try to buy some food from another source. Try to buy it from a farmers’ market, from a farmer, or from a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture],” says Pollan, who gets a box of seasonal fruits and veggies from Full Belly Farms every week for $15 a pop.
When you leave the supermarket and the industrial demands it makes on its suppliers, “you’ll find yourself eating with the seasons,” says Pollan. “Suddenly you discover, ‘Oh, this is how a strawberry should taste. I forgot. I was eating those winter strawberries from Mexico and this is so much better.’ Suddenly you’re cooking again because you’re not going to find any microwaveable products in the farmers’ market. Suddenly you’re eating something you hadn’t thought you were going to eat because there’s kohlrabi [akin to a mild radish] in the CSA box, and you don’t know what the hell to do with it so you’ve got to consult your cookbooks.”
Actually cooking may be the key to reconnecting with our food, and ultimately the planet. To do this, though, would involve reacquainting yourself with the kitchen—you know, that room you had remodeled recently with the granite countertops and the professional-grade Garland stove? As far as Pollan, an accomplished cook, is concerned, finding the time to cook a meal is essential.
“ When food has been completely washed, cut, packaged, made ready to eat, it costs more. If you’re willing to cook you can save a lot of money,” says Pollan. “So, why aren’t we willing to cook? It’s kind of a paradox because we’re a culture obsessed with cooking at this point. We watch cooking as a spectator sport on television. We idolize chefs. We go to cooking school. We have these incredibly well-equipped professional kitchens, yet we don’t cook. It’s become a form of pornography, I think. It’s kind of a fantasy life for people. I don’t really get it.”
Pollan dabbled in vegetarianism a while for journalism’s sake while writing Omnivore, but makes a 180-degree turn later in the book. With the help of a hunter friend, he even tracks down and kills a wild boar in Sonoma County. The experience brings Pollan as close as he’s ever been to his carnivorous side and in doing so gives the writer a newfound reverence for the animals we eat—something you don’t get when you hunt down a steak at Albertsons. Hunting the wild boar, he writes, transported him to a time when humans “looked at the animals they killed, regarded them with reverence, and never ate them except with gratitude.” It also tasted pretty darn good barbecued in his backyard.
Some feel Pollan’s approach to eating is elitist. After all, buying produce from a CSA and driving out to the country to a sustainable farm for a chicken is definitely going to cost you more than cruising down to your local supermarket. But Pollan counters that paying more for food is actually a good thing. For folks with money, he says, high-quality food should be a priority worth stretching your budget for, “in the same way we stretch for cable television or cell phones or all the other stuff we spend our money on.”
Average, everyday working people are already paying a premium for food they can believe in, Pollan notes, pointing to the sustainable farm in Virginia he chronicles in his book where the majority of the customers are “factory workers, schoolteachers, metal workers, and all different kinds of people. And they were spending more than they would have to at the supermarket, but they felt strongly that they were getting a better product and it was valuable to them,” he says. “I think that you’re finding such unease with the industrial food system that people at all levels of society are looking for a way out.”
High-quality food may soon become more affordable, Pollan says. With Wal-Mart poised to jump on the organic bandwagon, prices for organic food will have to come down. In effect, Whole Foods’ nickname, “Whole Paycheck,” may become a thing of the past. But Pollan is a realist about changing the nation’s eating habits. He sees it happening in incremental steps.
“ People aren’t going to make the optimal decision with every food purchase. People are still going to want their fast food hit. People are still going to find themselves buying the long-distance salad or whatever it is,” he says. “But we have three food votes a day and if you cast one of them in a thoughtful manner—whether it’s to buy organic or grass-fed or local or whatever it is—you’ll be making a tremendous contribution because this is how alternative food chains are built. If you live in the Bay Area they’re not hard to find. We have it really easy. All I’m suggesting is if you make a choice in full consciousness of what’s involved, you’ve probably done a lot and you can feel better about eating your candy bar.”
A regular contributor to The Monthly, Kilduff allows himself the occasional Jumbo Jack but only when all other sustainably farmed, pasture-fed alternatives have been exhausted.
=FREESTYLE COOKERY | What good are markets filled with organic produce if only a few can afford the prices? Chef and author Bryant Terry writes about the resurgence of food co-ops and buying-clubs, where high-quality food is sold just above wholesale cost. By Rachel Sarah
=FULL MOON RISING | A modern-day forager, Jessica Prentice hunts for food from local producers and tries to eat seasonally. Prentice shares her knowledge with guests at feasts, sometimes serving only food found within a 100-mile radius. The most difficult things to find? Pastured chicken, good salt, and pepper. By Angela Hunnicutt