How the Upper Crust Eats

Food as a status symbol


The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan, New York: Penguin Press, 450 pages, $26.95

They say you're not supposed to talk about religion or politics at the dinner table, but these days just complimenting the cook might mean broaching both. The question of what to serve for dinner is increasingly fraught with moral considerations, and every aisle of the grocery store seems politically charged. Should the coffee be Fair Trade, or is generic organic adequate? Must I buy only locally grown apples, or can I add Chilean grapes to my fruit salad (especially now that Pinochet is dead)? What the hell is "farm-raised salmon"? Low fat? Low sugar? Fake fat? Fake sugar? More Omega3s?

As any TV news junkie could tell you, American food is a world in disarray. We're fat, sick, and sick of being fat, thanks to partially hydrogenated soybean oil, hormone-laden beef, and pesticide-coated cauliflower. Every local news station runs a weekly horrifying food-related exposé—some true, some false, all accompanied by a B-roll of big bellies. And when our food isn't a threat to us, we're a threat to our food: Chickens and cows, we're told, are being mistreated nationwide. The proposed solutions run the gamut from big government to huge government: new labeling requirements, bans on trans fats and soda machines in schools, lawsuits against McDonald's.

In the midst of all the chaos sits Michael Pollan, calmly nibbling a piece of homemade boar prosciutto and ruminating, "Let them eat cake made with unbleached organic flour and fresh butter from the local creamery." Pollan is the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, an irritatingly excellent book. The reporting is illuminating, the writing is clear and swift, and I'm furious at myself for not having thought of the concept first. In this "Natural History of Four Meals," Pollan traces the ingredients of four meals from field to table: an industrial fast food lunch at McDonald's, a "big organic" winter supper from Whole Foods, a "local" dinner from a small farm in Virginia, and a final meal that he hunts, gathers, and cooks himself.

In the raucous public debate over what we should eat, Pollan has a lot of clout. His articles appear on the cover of The New York Times Magazine with astonishing frequency; he blogs for the Times too, and his books sell like organic hotcakes. Among them: Second Nature, a gardening memoir, and The Botany of Desire, an account of plant domestication from the plants' perspective. (See "The Potato Whisperer," February 2002.)

In an effort to reconnect us with where our food comes from, Pollan pries into everything from corn subsidies to wild pig proliferation in California. He reveals the secret life of fungi (surprisingly fascinating) and describes the role of a "killing cone" in chicken slaughter (just as gross as it sounds). Pollan adeptly analyzes "our national eating disorder"—cyclical food faddism, overeating, and guilt—from political, agricultural, anthropological, and evolutionary psychological perspectives. Virtually every page contains an interesting factual tidbit or a clever turn of phrase about what we eat and why. Of his McDonald's meal, for example, Pollan writes: "If you include the corn in the gas tank (a whole bushel right there, to make two and a half gallons of ethanol), the amount of corn that went into producing our movable fast-food feast would easily have overflowed the car's trunk, spilling a trail of golden kernels on the blacktop behind us."

So what's the agenda lurking behind the author's engaging narration and common-sense tone? Doritos, he declares, are disgusting, and imported grapes from Chile are almost as bad. It's best to prefer food from farms less than 100 miles from your home. Pollan loves the local food movement's battle cry "Eat your view!" but acknowledges that view eating doesn't happen overnight. In fact, he writes, "a successful local food economy implies not only a new kind of food producer but a new kind of eater." Pollan's omnivorous New Man (homo culinarus) "won't find a tomato in December" and "will have to become reacquainted with his kitchen." His "sense of taste has ruined him for a Big Mac, and [his] sense of place has ruined him for shopping for groceries at Wal-Mart."

This last example was turned on its head when, shortly after Pollan's book appeared, Wal-Mart announced plans to introduce more than 1,000 new organic products this year. Pollan, already disdainful of the industrial organic offerings from Whole Foods, was not impressed. Addressing this development on his blog, Pollan briefly nods to the fact that having more organic options for more people is probably a good thing. "Oh, wait," he writes, "I was talking about the good that will come of Wal-Mart's commitment to organic. Sorry about that." But then he returns his attention to his real passion: What will happen to local eaters like him? He frets that Wal-Mart's promise to cap the premium for organic foods at 10 percent above the price of conventional foods "virtually guarantees that Wal-Mart's version of cheap, industrialized organic food will not be sustainable in any meaningful sense of the word." Wal-Mart, he worries, will drive down prices and standards worldwide. "We don't think you should have to have a lot of money to feed your family organic foods," the company's CEO has said. To Pollan, that's a threat.

Industrial food, he writes, "only seems cheap, because the real costs are charged to the environment (in the form of water and air pollution and depletion of the soil); to the public purse (in the form of subsidies to conventional commodity producers); and to the public health (in the cost of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease), not to mention to the welfare of the farm- and food-factory workers and the well-being of the animals." Though the travel and packaging costs of local food are dramatically lower than those of industrial organics, local products tend to carry a higher price tag, and Pollan is worried that Wal-Mart will drive them out. After all, when was the last time you heard someone talk about the great bargain they found at a farmer's market? Wal-Mart's business model has no room for local or nonstandard products, and Wal-Mart has no intention to buy from roadside stands.

Pollan chooses not to tell us how he would feed everyone ethically, if big companies like Wal-Mart aren't allowed to lend a hand. He laments the fact that ordinary Americans eat crap, and he frequently returns to the dubious claim that intensive local organic farms produce more calories per acre than industrial cornfields. But that's as far as he ventures into the question of how the common people might be able to afford to eat the way he prefers.

Even to other, lower-ranking elites, Pollan can be less than sympathetic. A woman calling herself "sustainablemom" wrote in to Pollan's blog to ask: "What does a mother supporting a family on a budget do? I can't research all the farms." Pollan's response to the mom with no time? She should check out the links he provides to 14 Web sites, then read five books.

What Pollan fails to explicitly acknowledge, or perhaps even to concede at all, is that his brand of boutique eating is a luxury good. He's rich (not that there's anything wrong with that), so he can afford to refuse beef when he isn't sure the cows have been allowed to graze on grass their entire lives. He has time to keep a vegetable garden. When he turns up his nose at "jet-setting Argentine asparagus" from Whole Foods because it "tasted like damp cardboard," he demonstrates a refined palate that separates him not only from the masses shopping at Wal-Mart but from the yuppies shopping at Whole Foods. When he further frets that such veggies are "floating on a sinking sea of petroleum" he demonstrates a refined political sensibility. And while Pollan is free to hope that someday everyone will be able to eat just as he does, he can't make a useful connection with sustainablemom.

When Pollan ate an organic TV dinner as part of his research, he wrote that "peeling back the polyurethane film covering the dish" made him feel "a little like a flight attendant." But for many of America's "industrial eaters," peeling back the plastic on a TV dinner doesn't make them feel like they're on a flight to Paris. It just makes them feel like dinner's ready. Pollan's positions are shaped by his exquisitely refined political and gastronomical sensibilities, to be sure, but a huge aesthetic component seems to be lurking beneath the surface, mostly unacknowledged by Pollan himself. Food, like other cultural artifacts, is freighted with symbolism, and The Omnivore's Dilemma could easily serve as a how-to guide for elite eating. As each trend spreads, the upper crust goes from whole wheat to organic to local, always trying to stay a step ahead of what's readily available to the average Josephine for Tuesday dinner. You get the sense that we're moving toward a world where the only really refined cuisine will be turnips, pulled from our own gardens in front of our dinner guests and cooked on the spot in butter churned at home earlier that day.

At the same time, Pollan couldn't be clearer about the benefits of culinary pluralism—the idea that many different food cultures can peaceably coexist. In the best chapter of the book, Pollan spends several days at Polyface Farm, a smallish homestead owned by Joel Salatin, who calls himself a "Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer." Salatin is the good guy of the book, if it has one.

Pollan lovingly describes intensive farming practices like wagons full of laying hens rotated into pastures four days after cows have been through to eat the larvae that appear in cowpies. At Polyface, pigs are used as composting machines. Along with teaching Pollan about farming, Salatin teaches him about the importance of reputation in trade, of being able to opt out of mass culture, and of other ideas that libertarians hold dear.

And Pollan gets it. He writes: "Of course! Joel saw himself as more of a Luther than a Lenin; the goal wasn't to blow up the Church but simply to step around it. Protestantism also comes in many denominations, as I suspect will the future of food. Deciding whether that future should more closely resemble Joel's radically local vision or Whole Foods' industrial organic matters less than assuring that thriving alternatives exist."

But time and time again, Pollan functionally turns up his nose at first-class seats for the organic revolution because he prefers to fly only on private jets. Whole Foods isn't good enough; only local markets will do. While Pollan writes about what's happening in Lear jets across America, the real revolution is taking place in commercial coach class. Normal grocery shoppers no longer have to agonize over the choice between settling for mealy apples or springing for the pricier exotics like mangoes or hothouse strawberries. These days even the most run-down corner grocery offers shoppers apricots, cartons of blueberries, and ripe cherries out of season. Soon Wal-Mart shoppers might even be able to get an organic pineapple if the mood strikes them. This explosion in choice for the American people is heady stuff—but for some reason, the most Pollan can muster in response is mild hostility bracketed by a general lack of interest about broader social implications.

They say it's not fair to criticize an author for the book he didn't write, but in Pollan's case, the problem is the book he almost wrote. Pollan chronicles the whole spectrum of food issues in such charming, reasonable, colorful prose that the reader longs for him to help unravel some of the messy (and ubiquitous) questions about America's food politics and food culture. Instead, he gives us 400 pages of fantastic reportage in the service of a question that troubles only a small subculture of ethical eaters, all the while pretending to answer a question asked by everyone: "What's for dinner?"