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Michael Pollan traces four meals back to their beginnings in 'Omnivore's Dilemma'

In ''The Omnivore's Dilemma," journalist Michael Pollan turns his attention to the question: When we can eat anything we want, what should we have for dinner? He sees a national eating disorder at work in the United States, a deeply rooted anxiety about the planet's health, and our own, as we choose from a bewildering array of processed, organic, and locally raised foods.

Pollan traces three food chains -- what he calls industrial, organic, and hunter-gatherer -- from source to table. He tries to track commodity corn from an Iowa field to a McDonald's drive-through; calculates the environmental cost of organic asparagus flown from Argentina to his local Whole Foods Market; cooks a dinner from chicken killed, eggs gathered, and corn picked off one Virginia farm; and prepares another from a wild pig he killed and mushrooms he foraged in California.

Along the way, he has plenty to say about what it is we eat and where it comes from. He spoke to the Globe by phone from California, where he teaches journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

Q. I'm 100 pages in, and this book is already affecting how I think about food, maybe profoundly. Did the project have that effect on you?

A. It had a profound effect on my own eating. And not all negative. I really can't eat industrial meat. I try to eat whole foods.

Q. Lower-case whole foods, right?

A. Right. I try to avoid food that my great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food, which is a good rule of thumb I heard from a nutritionist. I've joined a CSA (community-supported agriculture). I get my weekly box of produce. I've gotten out of the supermarket to the extent that I can. I try to avoid high-fructose corn syrup, too, because it's such a marker of highly processed food. I'm not going to eat any food that needs to make a health claim. If you think about it, the really healthy food doesn't have any writing on it.

Q. Except for those stickers on the produce.

A. Yeah, but mostly it's the whole-grain Cocoa Puffs making the claims. More philosophically, though, this has made me more conscious about eating. We've been brainwashed to think that thinking about your food and spending time preparing it is this unbearable weight of work. It's one of the great pleasures of your life. So even though I have this burden of knowing too much, it's only increased my enjoyment of eating.

Q. No guilt?

A. I'm not Taliban about this. We all make compromises. I still like my occasional hit of junk food. I think some people throw up their hands at the complexity and say, ''If I can't eat right or buy right all the time, then what's the point?" and give up. But you get three food votes a day, and if you cast one of them in the right way, that's great. It's not all or nothing.

Q. Of the four meals you wrote about, which was your favorite to eat?

A. Oh, it would have to be the last one: the hunted, gathered meal. I describe it as the perfect meal, not because it was so amazing to eat, even though it was, but because it became a ritual. You didn't have to say grace; it was grace. This is a difficult idea to explain, but I knew the true cost of everything in that meal. Every story could be told in the first person by me or the people I was eating with, and there's something very fulfilling about that.

Q. Have you gone hunting since?

A. No. I said this to [''Fresh Air" host] Terry Gross, but it was a ritual, like my bar mitzvah, and I don't need to have another one. But I may go again with Angelo [Garro, who led the hunting expeditions in the book]. I had boar meat the other night that he shot, and it was delicious. I have been mushroom hunting since. I found I really like that. It's not quite as angst-filled as hunting, although you don't want to blow it, either.

Q. What surprised you most during your research?

A. There was a surprise in every section, but the biggest was on Joel Salatin's farm [in Virginia]. There is a free lunch in nature if we can define it properly, and the free lunch is based on grass. It suggests a path brimming with hope.

Q. Do you eat only grass-fed beef now?

A. Yeah. And you can find a lot of it around now. It's not quite in every supermarket, but it is in Whole Foods, even though they get it from New Zealand. If you can buy local New England grass-fed beef, you're supporting what we like about the New England landscape. ''Eat your view" is a beautiful bumper sticker I saw in England. If you like the view, eat from the system that produced it.

Q. The fact that the Whole Foods beef is from New Zealand brings me to the issue of organic versus local. You write about organic factory farms, the very idea of which some people might find surprising.

A. These are words we never expected to link. Organic, which was designed as an alternative to industrial processes, has itself been industrialized. That's not a completely negative thing. It's better than conventional in various ways -- less pesticides, more land protected -- but it's not what people think. Given a choice, yeah, if I can buy local, I will. If you buy organic at the supermarket in Boston, you're doing a very nice thing for the land out here in California, but you could instead be doing something nice for the land a day's drive from Boston.

Q. You have it easier in California than we do, though.

A. I just moved from New England, and it is easier here. Our farmers' markets are 12 months of the year. I can get local grass-fed beef in the supermarket. Eating locally in New England is more challenging, but there's a good chunk of the year you can do it.

Q. The inner jacket of the book lists two definitions of omnivore: one, an animal that feeds on any kind of food, and, two, someone who will read, study, or absorb anything. Are you referring to yourself in both?

A. It's the editor's reference to me. I'm interested in food because food connects to everything. We're defined by what we eat, not just biologically but culturally. It's a doorway to so many other aspects of life. It seems like a narrow door, but you pass through it, and you can go anywhere.

Joe Yonan can be reached at yonan@globe.com.

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