Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Naked lunch

The Omnivore's Dilemma A Natural History of Four Meals Michael Pollan Penguin Press: 450 pp., $26.95

April 09, 2006|Patric Kuh | Patric Kuh is the restaurant critic for Los Angeles Magazine.

MICHAEL POLLAN has perfected a tone -- one of gleeful irony and barely suppressed outrage -- and a way of inserting himself into a narrative so that a subject comes alive through what he's feeling and thinking. He is a master at drawing back to reveal the greater issues. At one point in his new book, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," he stands in the shed of a Virginia farm, knife in hand, trying to not make eye contact with the chicken he is about to kill: "It seemed to me not too much to ask of a meat eater ... that at least once in his life he take some direct responsibility for the killing on which his meat-eating depends."

Although Pollan has watched these chickens ("an eager, gossipy procession of Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds and New Hampshire Whites") fan out across pastures as they feed, they are technically not organic. That's because the farmer who raises them would rather buy feed corn from a local grower, who may have used a nonorganic herbicide, than buy "pure product" transported from so far away that it's "coated in diesel fuel." This is vintage Pollan; he closes in on a single chicken and broadens out to engage the larger argument. What does "organic" mean? How is the term abused and how did it become both a code word for purity and integrity and the rubric of a huge enterprise as beholden to fossil fuels and aggressive a marketer as the industrialized food chain it opposes?

A journalism professor at UC Berkeley, Pollan is a writer for whom structure is particularly important. Because he deals with nature and ideas, which don't have ready-made frames to drape a story on, he must come up with one. In his last book, "The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World," he did so brilliantly. Its thesis is that plants are smarter than we are and that by domesticating them we've fallen in with their master plan to increase their habitat. His present book, about the American appetite, lacks the charm of that conceit but is more important. He asks us to consider our everyday decisions about eating: How do we make them, and what are the moral and ecological repercussions?

The book is divided into three sections, each on one of "the three principal food chains that sustain us today: the industrial, the organic, and the hunter-gatherer." Each culminates in a meal (two, in the organic section). First stop is the supermarket, the cornfield's point of sale. (Oh, would that he were talking about just-picked ears of corn, their silk still warm, kernels waiting for a knob of butter to make them perfect!) Everything we eat seems to come from the crop. "Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak. Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon.... The eggs are made of corn. The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives tethered to machines, eating corn."

The invention of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer by Fritz Haber (a German chemist who also invented Zyklon B) marks the moment when "the basis of soil fertility shifted from a total reliance on the energy of the sun to a new reliance on fossil fuel." The "flood tide of cheap corn" this produced "made it profitable to fatten cattle on feedlots instead of on grass.... Iowa livestock farmers couldn't compete with the factory-farmed animals their own cheap corn had helped spawn." With that, Pollan is standing in a CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) on "the high plains of western Kansas," unsuccessfully looking for the cow he has bought and intends to follow until it comprises the patty of a McDonald's meal.

The second section centers on the aforementioned Virginia farm, owned by one Joel Salatin, an endearingly pugnacious man who classifies himself as "beyond organic." Their relationship gets off to a rocky start when Salatin refuses to FedEx a chicken and a steak to Pollan because the requisite dry ice, Styrofoam and jet fuel imperil environmental sustainability, which is much more important to him. When Pollan presses the "what is organic?" issue, Salatin obligingly explodes: "A ten-thousand-bird shed that stinks to high heaven or a new paddock of fresh green grass every day? Now which chicken shall we call 'organic'? I'm afraid you'll have to ask the government, because now they own the word."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|