Kirkus Star


A Natural History of Four Meals


The dilemma—what to have for dinner when you are a creature with an open-ended appetite—leads Pollan (Journalism/Berkeley; The Botany of Desire, 2001, etc.) to a fascinating examination of the myriad connections along the principal food chains that lead from earth to dinner table.

The author identifies three: the one controlled by agribusiness; the pastoral, organic industry that has sprung up as an alternative to it; and the very short food chain Pollan calls “neo-Paleolithic,” in which he assumes the role of modern-day hunter-gatherer. He demonstrates the dependence of the agribusiness system on a single grain, corn, as it passes from farm to feedlot and processing plant. The meal that concludes this section is takeout from McDonald’s and includes among other foods a serving of Chicken McNuggets. Of the 38 ingredients that make up McNuggets, 13, he notes, are derived from corn. This fact bolsters an earlier, startling statistic: Each of us is personally responsible for consuming a ton of corn each year. Pollan’s exploration of the pastoral food chain takes two roads. Investigating “industrial organic,” he assembles a meal composed entirely of ingredients from a Whole Foods supermarket. But he also visits a single, relatively small farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where grass, not corn, is the basis of production, and cattle, chickens and pigs are raised through management of the natural ecosystem. Pollan joins in the farm work and is clearly impressed by what he learns, observes and eats here. In the final section, he learns how to shoot a wild pig and how to scavenge for forest mushrooms. The author’s extraordinarily labor-intensive final meal provides a perfect contrast to the fast-food takeout of Part I. Pollan combines ecology, biology, history and anthropology with personal experience to present fascinating multiple perspectives.

Revelations about how the way we eat affects the world we live in, presented with wit and elegance.

Pub Date: April 11th, 2006
ISBN: 1-59420-082-3
Page count: 434pp
Publisher: Penguin Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2006


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