“Industrial food,” Michael Pollan writes in this adventurous, inventive and fascinating exploration of what Americans eat, “is food for which you need an investigative journalist to tell you where it came from.” And Pollan is that journalist, but he's a bit of a poet and philosopher as well, with the capacity to turn the meal on your plate into a thought experiment or a paean to the paradoxes of biology. Are we not men? Or are we instead a tremendously efficient reproductive device for a formerly obscure South American grass that has manipulated us into making it one of the most successful plants on earth: King Corn — it's in nearly every processed food we eat, from cookies and breakfast cereal to hamburgers. Speaking of meat, how much oil gets spent in the raising of the average, conventionally raised American steer? About a barrel it turns out, when you get done adding up the costs not just of shipping it from the farm where it's raised to the factory where it's fattened for the slaughter, but also the fuel that goes into growing and processing its feed — which is, of course, corn. It takes a lot of oil to manufacture the fertilizer that makes all that corn possible, and if it were not for Fritz Haber, the early 20th-century German chemist who figured out how to synthesize the nitrogen in that fertilizer, the earth could not feed the billions of people it now supports. As Pollan points out, Haber probably did more to change the planet than many other, far more famous scientists.
And that's just from the first part of this endlessly surprising (and occasionally mind-blowing) book, specifically the section that describes the provenance of a meal from McDonald's. The other three repasts described in “The Omnivore's Dilemma” include a “industrial organic” dinner whose ingredients are purchased from a Whole Foods supermarket, a meal from a “beyond organic” pasture farm and finally a strange, primordial supper composed only of items Pollan hunted and gathered himself. Along the way, he poses some provocative questions: Is the meat of a cow raised on organic grain truly organic when the cow's body is designed to consume grass instead? Is a chicken “free-range” when it shares a tiny lawn with 20,000 other birds, all of whom are too afraid to go outside because they've spent their entire lives indoors? What's a principled omnivore to eat if he'd rather live in a big city than run a self-sustaining farm in rural Virginia? Somehow, in negotiating this tricky territory, Pollan miraculously manages to avoid the two deadly poles of food writing: the precious navel-gazing of the foodie gourmet and the dreary jeremiad of the environmental advocate. Not only does he offer us a new way to think about food, he also shows us a new way to write about this most basic of human needs.