A Natural History of Four Meals
Penguin Group, 2006
Haven’t you walked into a suburban grocery store, been overwhelmed by the quarter acre of produce and thought, “ Wow! All this food, aisles and aisles of it, is right here for me to choose from!” What’s more, less than two miles away there’s another store with as many items or more. It stands to reason such opulence of choice has a cost.
Michael Pollan first takes the reader through a maze of the industrial food chain that makes up most of what is in a grocery store. Next is a bucolic visit (with expected work duties)through the emerging grass fed farming culture. Last, we accompany him in a throwback quest to hunt one’s own meat and gather wild edibles for side dishes. Each information gathering expedition ends in a meal resulting from its industry network and labor. Throughout, the emotionally involved Pollan generously sprinkles his sensual reactions to industry, the farm, hunting, and his philosophy of eating.
Not as graphic as Upton Sinclair’s industry changing The Jungle that was the watershed for regulating the meat industry, it is still eye-opening and informative for anyone interested in the quality of the nation’s food. The ever-shortening life span of a steer from five years in the early part of the last century to the current fourteen months, has been the result of diet and farming techniques that have relied on artificial diet, hormones, and very unpleasant living conditions. Farming of produce has also changed the farm and food to make it easier to harvest and better suited for shipping. Necessity’s volume and market forces reduce nutrition to lip service, but Pollan recognizes the industry does not work alone or in a vacuum. The American public loves fast food and it has become part of our national cuisine. Of course Pollan’s resulting meal is an outing to the iconic McDonald’s.
The organic or natural food market that he covers in the grass fed culture is emerging as a result of the industrial pitfalls. It is in great flux that has yet to be well-directed, if it ever is. Individualism and experimentation are different on every farm Pollan visited for research. Some seemed truly successful, healthy, and “in keeping” with pastoral fantasy. Others, bending to the demands of distribution and demand, settle in the grey areas between industrial and pastoral, or local. To show the variety and lack of standards he had a meal involving grocery organic that brushes shoulders with the standard grocery food chain and one from an independent farm that only sells locally.
Last was the hunter gatherer meal which loomed as the most hands-on, difficult to assemble, and emotionally traumatic for Pollan. With each foray into the food chain Pollan generously gave his research quips and personal thoughts, but with this last meal it seemed to reach deeper into his sense of self and what he regarded as slaughter vs. a human’s need to eat. His hand-holding “Virgil” named Angelo (how appropriate) appeared just in time. For his meal that included wild pig, mushrooms, and cherries, he printed a menu card and philosophized over the genesis of prayer before meals as a way of settling one’s conscience about killing.
There isn’t a specific call to action in this extensively researched book, but there is a mountain of information gathered into one spot for a reader new to the subject of the modern food chain. It is well-written, thoughtful, and chock full of conversational tidbits that gave me insight into “animal happiness.”