Posted November 9,
2006: One summer evening when I lived in Crown Heights,
Brooklyn, I was snipping basil from the potted herb garden
that I kept on the stoop in front of my brownstone apartment.
Kids were playing on the sidewalk, their high-spirited shouts
echoing through the dense, humid air. I absently popped a
basil leaf in my mouth, savoring its flavor.
One kid took note. "Oooh!" he shouted. "He
ate a plant!" Suddenly, seven or eight ten-year-olds
were pointing and gaping at me. I had done something exotic,
strange, suspect even: I had eaten plant matter.
For me, the story illustrates how far we in the so-called
advanced economies have traveled from our agricultural roots.
In 1930, 20 percent of Americans owed their livelihoods to
farming. Today, fewer than 2 percent do. Nearly 40 percent
of food is consumed outside the home. In essence, we've entered
a post-agricultural age. Knowledge about food production,
which used to come from direct experience in the field or
in the kitchen, now comes from food-industry marketing execs
and government directives.
Where does our food come from?
For most Americans, the answer is simple enough: supermarkets
and restaurants. In a nation in which almost nobody farms
and few regularly cook, that's a fair response. Of course,
such skim-level reasoning hides vast social, ecological, and
economic chains that ultimately tether us to the earth. People
can blithely devour, say, Chicken McNuggets dipped in ketchup,
without ever thinking about the lot of factory-farmed chickens,
working conditions in slaughterhouses or on farms, or the
chemicals used to fertilize fields and kill weeds and pests.
Happily, a cottage industry has emerged within the publishing
world to right the matter. Eric Schlosser, in his groundbreaking
Food Nation, brought an investigative reporter's zeal
to tracing the holy trinity of American eating—burger,
fries, and a Coke—back to the far-flung fields, factories,
corporate marketing meetings, and laboratories from which
they hail. Fast Food Nation, a best seller soon to
hit the big screen as a fictionalized film, reminded many
Americans that what's on their plate has a history worth thinking
about. And it taught New York book editors that food politics
This year has been a watershed in the food-politics publishing
boom. No fewer than four books released in 2006 tread down
the path broken by Schlosser. The best-known, Michael Pollan's
Dilemma, is probably also the best. The author provides
an exhaustive "natural history of four meals." Broadening
Schlosser's mandate, Pollan trains a hungry eye not just on
industrially produced fare, but also on the alternatives that
have arisen over the past few decades. He subjects the various
U.S. food chains not just to a cold reporter's eye, but also
to his gourmand's palate. He reminds us that the industrialization
of the food supply has caused more than just environmental
and bodily damage. It's also ruined many people's ability
to take real pleasure in food.
Pollan's analysis implies something hopeful, though: that
by reclaiming the pleasures of the table, we can reverse much
of the environmental and social wreckage we create in feeding
ourselves. Hedonism, he implies, always suspect in the vague
but persistent Puritanical strain that runs through American
culture, may be socially useful after all.
For Peter Singer and Jim Mason, the veteran animal-rights
polemicists, the pleasure principle doesn't matter much. They've
come out with The
Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, a book similar
in ambition and scope to Omnivore's Dilemma. But
if Pollan returns again and again to aesthetics— parsing,
say, the subtle differences in flavor between a grain-fed
Whole Foods organic chicken and a pasture-raised one slaughtered
on the farm—Singer and Mason focus solely on ethics.
What are the costs, and who (or what) pays them, when I choose
between, say, a meal based on meat procured at Wal-Mart or
made from tofu bought at Whole Foods?
As a framing device, the authors devote major sections to
three families: one that eats the "standard American
diet" of industrially produced fare; another made up
of "conscientious omnivores" who eat "humanely
produced" meat and mostly organic vegetables; and (clearly
closest to the authors' hearts) a family of strict vegans.
Singer and Mason tag along with each family on grocery-shopping
ventures and hang out in the kitchen to cook and eat. Then
they trace the major food items to their origins, exhaustingly
documenting the production conditions.
While the wealth of information on display here is impressive—anyone
who takes the ethics of eating seriously will want to own
this book—the authors' lack of regard for aesthetics
and pleasure occasionally leads them into odd territory. At
one point, they applaud an effort to conjure up "animal-free
meat," which they describe as a "vast lump of meat,
hundreds of feet across, growing in a culture fed on algae."
They fret that with current technology, "producing muscle
tissue in a laboratory equates to $5 million per kilogram,"
but hold out hope that one day such a process will be economical
enough to "supply the entire world with meat." They
award the project their highest accolade: "we can see
no ethical objection to it."
Yet the moral calculus here seems shaky. Do we really want
food corporations leaching cells from animals and creating
"food" in vast petri dishes? To remedy the ravages
of industrial food production, Singer and Mason prescribe
more industrial food production. The pasture-based, agrarian
approach to meat championed by Pollan, predicated on moderation,
seems to me more morally robust—and certainly more palatable.
Another book released this year, Samuel Fromartz's Organic,
Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew, focuses on the
rapidly growing organic-food industry. Unfortunately for Fromartz,
Omnivore's Dilemma, which came out a couple of months
earlier, covers much of the same ground. But Organic,
Inc. remains worth a read. A veteran business reporter,
Fromartz knows how to lay out an industry's history in compelling
fashion. His chapter on California's organic baby-lettuce
business—responsible for those bags of pre-washed, flavorless
salad greens now found everywhere from Whole Foods to Wal-Mart—should
be required reading for anyone interested in the commodification
Fromartz details how the baby lettuce craze started when
Berkeley restaurateur Alice Waters ate a peppery mesclun salad
in Nice in the early '80s. Her will to recreate that experience
in Northern California helped catalyze what's now a $2.5 billion
industry. Fromartz describes how the mass production of baby
lettuce drove prices down, making the product widely accessible
but compromising its flavor and driving many small producers
out of business. These same processes, though, provided opportunities
for new growers who sell direct to consumers in local markets,
competing with the California giants based not on price but
on flavor. Thus Waters' vision of peppery Nice-style greens
lives on in niches—for those who can afford it.
In Organic, Inc.'s most important chapter, Fromartz
profiles Pennsylvania farmers Jim and Moie Crawford, one of
the great success stories of the U.S. farmers' market movement.
The Crawfords were among the back-to-the-landers who pioneered
the practice of selling directly to consumers. Fromartz is
excellent at teasing out the incredible amount of drive, tenacity,
and innovation it takes to create a successful local-oriented
farm business -- and conveying how even the best-established
operations rest on shaky economic ground. After 35 years of
farming and now approaching 60, the Crawfords are still waking
up at 3:30 a.m. to make the two-and-a-half hour trek to their
Washington, D.C., farmers' market stand. And they still have
yet to build a comfortable retirement fund. Such are the sacrifices,
Fromartz implies, needed to create a robust local food economy
in a market dominated by giant retailers and megafarms.
Of all the food-politics books released in 2006, the one
with the most impact may end up being the one that seems the
least significant. Eric Schlosser himself, teaming up with
journalist Charles Wilson, has come out with Chew
on This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food.
Like fast-food marketing execs, Schlosser and Wilson know
that the easiest way to affect U.S. eating habits is to focus
on the young and impressionable. The fast-food industry has
pursued this goal by directing hundreds of millions of marketing
dollars toward the young. Schlosser and Wilson have responded
by repackaging Fast Food Nation to appeal to young
readers. Their goal: to make kids who have been drawn in by
the fast-food industry's well-engineered aromas "turn
and walk out the door" without ordering.
Chew on This is a tour de force of agitprop, backed
by 30 pages of footnotes and the reportorial integrity that
made Fast Food Nation impervious to the industry's
attempts to discredit it. I have no idea how kids will respond,
but I found the book's straight-talk style and simple, jokey
prose irresistible. Under assault by Schlosser and other sources,
the industry has strained over the past few years to burnish
its image. Parts of McDonald's website these days read as
though they were written by the Sierra Club. Chew on This
shreds this empty rhetoric like a factory cutter preparing
iceberg lettuce for its place on a million Big Macs. I hope
the book finds a wide audience among kids—and their
parents and teachers too.
Despite the publishing blitz, it remains unlikely that many
Americans know or care much about where their food comes from.
But these books may represent stirrings of a new, or at least
long-repressed, hunger—a desire to reconnect to the
sources of our subsistence. The more we know about how our
food is produced, the less likely we'll be to accept the slop
cooked up by industry—or the environmental and social
damage caused in the process.