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Reading this book is a wonderful, life-changing experience. To read more of his work, go to www. This book is a long and fairly involved answer to this seemingly simple question. Along the way, it also tries to figure out how such a simple question could ever have gotten so complicated.

As a culture we seem to have arrived at a place where whatever native wisdom we may once have possessed about eating has been replaced by confusion and anxiety. Somehow this most elemental of activities--figuring out what to eat--has come to require a remarkable amount of expert help.

How did we ever get to a point where we need investigative journalists to tell us where our food comes from and nutritionists to determine the dinner menu? For me the absurdity of the situation became inescapable in the fall of , when one of the most ancient and venerable staples of human life abruptly disappeared from the American dinner table.

I'm talking of course about bread. Virtually overnight, Americans changed the way they eat. A collective spasm of what can only be described as carbophobia seized the country, supplanting an era of national lipophobia dating to the Carter administration. That was when, in , a Senate committee had issued a set of "dietary goals" warning beef-loving Americans to lay off the red meat. And so we dutifully had done, until now. What set off the sea change? It appears to have been a perfect media storm of diet books, scientific studies, and one timely magazine article.

The new diet books, many of them inspired by the formerly discredited Dr. Atkins, brought Americans the welcome news that they could eat more meat and lose weight just so long as they laid off the bread and pasta. These high-protein, low-carb diets found support in a handful of new epidemiological studies suggesting that the nutritional orthodoxy that had held sway in America since the s might be wrong. It was not, as official opinion claimed, fat that made us fat, but the carbohydrates we'd been eating precisely in order to stay slim.

So conditions were ripe for a swing of the dietary pendulum when, in the summer of , the New York Times Magazine published a cover story on the new research entitled "What if Fat Doesn't Make You Fat? The blamelessness of steak restored, two of the most wholesome and uncontroversial foods known to man--bread and pasta--acquired a moral stain that promptly bankrupted dozens of bakeries and noodle firms and ruined an untold number of perfectly good meals. So violent a change in a culture's eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder.

Certainly it would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating. But then, such a culture would not feel the need for its most august legislative body to ever deliberate the nation's "dietary goals"--or, for that matter, to wage political battle every few years over the precise design of an official government graphic called the "food pyramid.

It would not be susceptible to the pendulum swings of food scares or fads, to the apotheosis every few years of one newly discovered nutrient and the demonization of another. It would not be apt to confuse protein bars and food supplements with meals or breakfast cereals with medicines. It probably would not eat a fifth of its meals in cars or feed fully a third of its children at a fast-food outlet every day. And it surely would not be nearly so fat. Nor would such a culture be shocked to discover that there are other countries, such as Italy and France, that decide their dinner questions on the basis of such quaint and unscientific criteria as pleasure and tradition, eat all manner of "unhealthy" foods, and, lo and behold, wind up actually healthier and happier in their eating than we are.

Yet I wonder if it doesn't make more sense to speak in terms of an American paradox--that is, a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily. When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety, especially when some of the potential foods on offer are liable to sicken or kill you.

This is the omnivore's dilemma, noted long ago by writers like Rousseau and Brillat-Savarin and first given that name thirty years ago by a University of Pennsylvania research psychologist named Paul Rozin. I've borrowed his phrase for the title of this book because the omnivore's dilemma turns out to be a particularly sharp tool for understanding our present predicaments surrounding food. In a paper called "The Selection of Foods by Rats, Humans, and Other Animals" Rozin contrasted the omnivore's existential situation with that of the specialized eater, for whom the dinner question could not be simpler.

The koala doesn't worry about what to eat: If it looks and smells and tastes like a eucalyptus leaf, it must be dinner. The koala's culinary preferences are hardwired in its genes. But for omnivores like us and the rat a vast amount of brain space and time must be devoted to figuring out which of all the many potential dishes nature lays on are safe to eat.

We rely on our prodigious powers of recognition and memory to guide us away from poisons Isn't that the mushroom that made me sick last week? Our taste buds help too, predisposing us toward sweetness, which signals carbohydrate energy in nature, and away from bitterness, which is how many of the toxic alkaloids produced by plants taste. Our inborn sense of disgust keeps us from ingesting things that might infect us, such as rotten meat. Many anthropologists believe that the reason we evolved such big and intricate brains was precisely to help us deal with the omnivore's dilemma.

Being a generalist is of course a great boon as well as a challenge; it is what allows humans to successfully inhabit virtually every terrestrial environment on the planet. Omnivory offers the pleasures of variety, too. But the surfeit of choice brings with it a lot of stress and leads to a kind of Manichaean view of food, a division of nature into The Good Things to Eat, and The Bad.

The rat must make this all-important distinction more or less on its own, each individual figuring out for itself--and then remembering--which things will nourish and which will poison. The human omnivore has, in addition to his senses and memory, the incalculable advantage of a culture, which stores the experience and accumulated wisdom of countless human tasters before him.

I don't need to experiment with the mushroom now called, rather helpfully, the "death cap," and it is common knowledge that that first intrepid lobster eater was on to something very good. Our culture codifies the rules of wise eating in an elaborate structure of taboos, rituals, recipes, manners, and culinary traditions that keep us from having to reenact the omnivore's dilemma at every meal. One way to think about America's national eating disorder is as the return, with an almost atavistic vengeance, of the omnivore's dilemma.

The cornucopia of the American supermarket has thrown us back on a bewildering food landscape where we once again have to worry that some of those tasty-looking morsels might kill us. Perhaps not as quickly as a poisonous mushroom, but just as surely. Certainly the extraordinary abundance of food in America complicates the whole problem of choice.

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At the same time, many of the tools with which people historically managed the omnivore's dilemma have lost their sharpness here--or simply failed. As a relatively new nation drawn from many different immigrant populations, each with its own culture of food, Americans have never had a single, strong, stable culinary tradition to guide us. The lack of a steadying culture of food leaves us especially vulnerable to the blandishments of the food scientist and the marketer, for whom the omnivore's dilemma is not so much a dilemma as an opportunity.

It is very much in the interest of the food industry to exacerbate our anxieties about what to eat, the better to then assuage them with new products. Our bewilderment in the supermarket is no accident; the return of the omnivore's dilemma has deep roots in the modern food industry, roots that, I found, reach all the way back to fields of corn growing in places like Iowa. And so we find ourselves where we do, confronting in the supermarket or at the dinner table the dilemmas of omnivorousness, some of them ancient and others never before imagined. The organic apple or the conventional?

And if the organic, the local one or the imported? The wild fish or the farmed? The trans fats or the butter or the "not butter"? Shall I be a carnivore or a vegetarian? And if a vegetarian, a lacto-vegetarian or a vegan? Like the hunter-gatherer picking a novel mushroom off the forest floor and consulting his sense memory to determine its edibility, we pick up the package in the supermarket and, no longer so confident of our senses, scrutinize the label, scratching our heads over the meaning of phrases like "heart healthy," "no trans fats," "cage-free," or "range-fed. What is all this stuff, anyway, and where in the world did it come from?

MY WAGER in writing The Omnivore's Dilemma was that the best way to answer the questions we face about what to eat was to go back to the very beginning, to follow the food chains that sustain us, all the way from the earth to the plate--to a small number of actual meals. I wanted to look at the getting and eating of food at its most fundamental, which is to say, as a transaction between species in nature, eaters and eaten. My premise is that like every other creature on earth, humans take part in a food chain, and our place in that food chain, or web, determines to a considerable extent what kind of creature we are.

The fact of our omnivorousness has done much to shape our nature, both body we possess the omnicompetent teeth and jaws of the omnivore, equally well suited to tearing meat and grinding seeds and soul. Our prodigious powers of observation and memory, as well as our curious and experimental stance toward the natural world, owe much to the biological fact of omnivorousness. So do the various adaptations we've evolved to defeat the defenses of other creatures so that we might eat them, including our skills at hunting and cooking with fire.

Some philosophers have argued that the very open-endedness of human appetite is responsible for both our savagery and civility, since a creature that could conceive of eating anything including, notably, other humans stands in particular need of ethical rules, manners, and rituals. We are not only what we eat, but how we eat, too. Yet we are also different from most of nature's other eaters--markedly so. For one thing, we've acquired the ability to substantially modify the food chains we depend on, by means of such revolutionary technologies as cooking with fire, hunting with tools, farming, and food preservation.

Cooking opened up whole new vistas of edibility by rendering various plants and animals more digestible, and overcoming many of the chemical defenses other species deploy against being eaten. Agriculture allowed us to vastly multiply the populations of a few favored food species, and therefore in turn our own. And, most recently, industry has allowed us to reinvent the human food chain, from the synthetic fertility of the soil to the microwaveable can of soup designed to fit into a car's cup holder.

The implications of this last revolution, for our health and the health of the natural world, we are still struggling to grasp. The Omnivore's Dilemma is about the three principal food chains that sustain us today: Different as they are, all three food chains are systems for doing more or less the same thing: It might be hard to see how, but even a Twinkie does this--constitutes an engagement with the natural world. As ecology teaches, and this book tries to show, it's all connected, even the Twinkie. Ecology also teaches that all life on earth can be viewed as a competition among species for the solar energy captured by green plants and stored in the form of complex carbon molecules.

A food chain is a system for passing those calories on to species that lack the plant's unique ability to synthesize them from sunlight. One of the themes of this book is that the industrial revolution of the food chain, dating to the close of World War II, has actually changed the fundamental rules of this game. Industrial agriculture has supplanted a complete reliance on the sun for our calories with something new under the sun: Of course, even that energy originally came from the sun, but unlike sunlight it is finite and irreplaceable.

The result of this innovation has been a vast increase in the amount of food energy available to our species; this has been a boon to humanity allowing us to multiply our numbers , but not an unalloyed one. We've discovered that an abundance of food does not render the omnivore's dilemma obsolete. To the contrary, abundance seems only to deepen it, giving us all sorts of new problems and things to worry about.

Each of this book's three parts follows one of the principal human food chains from beginning to end: Reversing the chronological order, I start with the industrial food chain, since that is the one that today involves and concerns us the most. It is also by far the biggest and longest.

Since monoculture is the hallmark of the industrial food chain, this section focuses on a single plant: Zea mays, the giant tropical grass we call corn, which has become the keystone species of the industrial food chain, and so in turn of the modern diet. This section follows a bushel of commodity corn from the field in Iowa where it grew on its long, strange journey to its ultimate destination in a fast-food meal, eaten in a moving car on a highway in Marin County, California.

The book's second part follows what I call--to distinguish it from the industrial--the pastoral food chain. This section explores some of the alternatives to industrial food and farming that have sprung up in recent years variously called "organic," "local," "biological," and "beyond organic" , food chains that might appear to be preindustrial but in surprising ways turn out in fact to be postindustrial.

I set out thinking I could follow one such food chain, from a radically innovative farm in Virginia that I worked on one recent summer to an extremely local meal prepared from animals raised on its pastures. But I promptly discovered that no single farm or meal could do justice to the complex, branching story of alternative agriculture right now, and that I needed also to reckon with the food chain I call, oxymoronically, the "industrial organic.

The last section, titled Personal, follows a kind of neo-Paleolithic food chain from the forests of Northern California to a meal I prepared almost exclusively from ingredients I hunted, gathered, and grew myself. Though we twenty-first-century eaters still eat a handful of hunted and gathered food notably fish and wild mushrooms , my interest in this food chain was less practical than philosophical: I hoped to shed fresh light on the way we eat now by immersing myself in the way we ate then. In order to make this meal I had to learn how to do some unfamiliar things, including hunting game and foraging for wild mushrooms and urban tree fruit.

In doing so I was forced to confront some of the most elemental questions--and dilemmas--faced by the human omnivore: What are the moral and psychological implications of killing, preparing, and eating a wild animal? How does one distinguish between the delicious and the deadly when foraging in the woods? How do the alchemies of the kitchen transform the raw stuffs of nature into some of the great delights of human culture? The end result of this adventure was what I came to think of as the Perfect Meal, not because it turned out so well though in my humble opinion it did , but because this labor- and thought-intensive dinner, enjoyed in the company of fellow foragers, gave me the opportunity, so rare in modern life, to eat in full consciousness of everything involved in feeding myself: For once, I was able to pay the full karmic price of a meal.

Yet as different as these three journeys and four meals turned out to be, a few themes kept cropping up. One is that there exists a fundamental tension between the logic of nature and the logic of human industry, at least as it is presently organized. Our ingenuity in feeding ourselves is prodigious, but at various points our technologies come into conflict with nature's ways of doing things, as when we seek to maximize efficiency by planting crops or raising animals in vast monocultures.

This is something nature never does, always and for good reasons practicing diversity instead. A great many of the health and environmental problems created by our food system owe to our attempts to oversimplify nature's complexities, at both the growing and the eating ends of our food chain. At either end of any food chain you find a biological system--a patch of soil, a human body--and the health of one is connected--literally--to the health of the other. Many of the problems of health and nutrition we face today trace back to things that happen on the farm, and behind those things stand specific government policies few of us know anything about.

I don't mean to suggest that human food chains have only recently come into conflict with the logic of biology; early agriculture and, long before that, human hunting proved enormously destructive. Indeed, we might never have needed agriculture had earlier generations of hunters not eliminated the species they depended upon. Folly in the getting of our food is nothing new. And yet the new follies we are perpetrating in our industrial food chain today are of a different order. By replacing solar energy with fossil fuel, by raising millions of food animals in close confinement, by feeding those animals foods they never evolved to eat, and by feeding ourselves foods far more novel than we even realize, we are taking risks with our health and the health of the natural world that are unprecedented.

Another theme, or premise really, is that the way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world. Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds. Agriculture has done more to reshape the natural world than anything else we humans do, both its landscapes and the composition of its flora and fauna. Our eating also constitutes a relationship with dozens of other species--plants, animals, and fungi--with which we have coevolved to the point where our fates are deeply entwined.

Many of these species have evolved expressly to gratify our desires, in the intricate dance of domestication that has allowed us and them to prosper together as we could never have prospered apart. But our relationships with the wild species we eat--from the mushrooms we pick in the forest to the yeasts that leaven our bread--are no less compelling, and far more mysterious.

Eating puts us in touch with all that we share with the other animals, and all that sets us apart. What is perhaps most troubling, and sad, about industrial eating is how thoroughly it obscures all these relationships and connections. To go from the chicken Gallus gallus to the Chicken McNugget is to leave this world in a journey of forgetting that could hardly be more costly, not only in terms of the animal's pain but in our pleasure, too. But forgetting, or not knowing in the first place, is what the industrial food chain is all about, the principal reason it is so opaque, for if we could see what lies on the far side of the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture, we would surely change the way we eat.

It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world--and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction.

By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world; this book is probably not for them. There are things in it that will ruin their appetites. But in the end this is a book about the pleasures of eating, the kinds of pleasure that are only deepened by knowing.

And yet what is this place if not a landscape man-made, it's true teeming with plants and animals? I'm not just talking about the produce section or the meat counter, either--the supermarket's flora and fauna. Ecologically speaking, these are this landscape's most legible zones, the places where it doesn't take a field guide to identify the resident species. Over there's your eggplant, onion, potato, and leek; here your apple, banana, and orange.

Spritzed with morning dew every few minutes, Produce is the only corner of the supermarket where we're apt to think "Ah, yes, the bounty of Nature! Keep rolling, back to the mirrored rear wall behind which the butchers toil, and you encounter a set of species only slightly harder to identify--there's chicken and turkey, lamb and cow and pig. Though in Meat the creaturely character of the species on display does seem to be fading, as the cows and pigs increasingly come subdivided into boneless and bloodless geometrical cuts.

In recent years some of this supermarket euphemism has seeped into Produce, where you'll now find formerly soil-encrusted potatoes cubed pristine white, and "baby" carrots machine-lathed into neatly tapered torpedoes. But in general here in flora and fauna you don't need to be a naturalist, much less a food scientist, to know what species you're tossing into your cart.

Venture farther, though, and you come to regions of the supermarket where the very notion of species seems increasingly obscure: Though it might not always seem that way, even the deathless Twinkie is constructed out of We haven't yet begun to synthesize our foods from petroleum, at least not directly. If you do manage to regard the supermarket through the eyes of a naturalist, your first impression is apt to be of its astounding biodiversity.

Look how many different plants and animals and fungi are represented on this single acre of land! What forest or prairie could hope to match it? There must be a hundred different species in the produce section alone, a handful more in the meat counter. And this diversity appears only to be increasing: When I was a kid, you never saw radicchio in the produce section, or a half dozen different kinds of mushrooms, or kiwis and passion fruit and durians and mangoes.

Indeed, in the last few years a whole catalog of exotic species from the tropics has colonized, and considerably enlivened, the produce department. Over in fauna, on a good day you're apt to find--beyond beef--ostrich and quail and even bison, while in Fish you can catch not just salmon and shrimp but catfish and tilapia, too.

Naturalists regard biodiversity as a measure of a landscape's health, and the modern supermarket's devotion to variety and choice would seem to reflect, perhaps even promote, precisely that sort of ecological vigor. Except for the salt and a handful of synthetic food additives, every edible item in the supermarket is a link in a food chain that begins with a particular plant growing in a specific patch of soil or, more seldom, stretch of sea somewhere on earth.

Sometimes, as in the produce section, that chain is fairly short and easy to follow: As the netted bag says, this potato was grown in Idaho, that onion came from a farm in Texas. Move over to Meat, though, and the chain grows longer and less comprehensible: The label doesn't mention that that rib-eye steak came from a steer born in South Dakota and fattened in a Kansas feedlot on grain grown in Iowa.

Once you get into the processed foods you have to be a fairly determined ecological detective to follow the intricate and increasingly obscure lines of connection linking the Twinkie, or the nondairy creamer, to a plant growing in the earth someplace, but it can be done. So what exactly would an ecological detective set loose in an American supermarket discover, were he to trace the items in his shopping cart all the way back to the soil? The notion began to occupy me a few years ago, after I realized that the straightforward question "What should I eat? And where in the world did it come from?

The fact that today one so often does suggests a pretty good start on a working definition of industrial food: Any food whose provenance is so complex or obscure that it requires expert help to ascertain. When I started trying to follow the industrial food chain--the one that now feeds most of us most of the time and typically culminates either in a supermarket or fast-food meal--I expected that my investigations would lead me to a wide variety of places. And though my journeys did take me to a great many states, and covered a great many miles, at the very end of these food chains which is to say, at the very beginning , I invariably found myself in almost exactly the same place: The great edifice of variety and choice that is an American supermarket turns out to rest on a remarkably narrow biological foundation comprised of a tiny group of plants that is dominated by a single species: Zea mays, the giant tropical grass most Americans know as corn.

Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak. Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn. The eggs are made of corn.

The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn. Head over to the processed foods and you find ever more intricate manifestations of corn. A chicken nugget, for example, piles corn upon corn: Much less obviously, the leavenings and lecithin, the mono-, di-, and triglycerides, the attractive golden coloring, and even the citric acid that keeps the nugget "fresh" can all be derived from corn.

To wash down your chicken nuggets with virtually any soft drink in the supermarket is to have some corn with your corn. Since the s virtually all the sodas and most of the fruit drinks sold in the supermarket have been sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup HFCS --after water, corn sweetener is their principal ingredient. Grab a beer for your beverage instead and you'd still be drinking corn, in the form of alcohol fermented from glucose refined from corn. Read the ingredients on the label of any processed food and, provided you know the chemical names it travels under, corn is what you will find.

For modified or unmodified starch, for glucose syrup and maltodextrin, for crystalline fructose and ascorbic acid, for lecithin and dextrose, lactic acid and lysine, for maltose and HFCS, for MSG and polyols, for the caramel color and xanthan gum, read: Corn is in the coffee whitener and Cheez Whiz, the frozen yogurt and TV dinner, the canned fruit and ketchup and candies, the soups and snacks and cake mixes, the frosting and gravy and frozen waffles, the syrups and hot sauces, the mayonnaise and mustard, the hot dogs and the bologna, the margarine and shortening, the salad dressings and the relishes and even the vitamins.

Yes, it's in the Twinkie, too. There are some forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn. This goes for the nonfood items as well--everything from the toothpaste and cosmetics to the disposable diapers, trash bags, cleansers, charcoal briquettes, matches, and batteries, right down to the shine on the cover of the magazine that catches your eye by the checkout: Even in Produce on a day when there's ostensibly no corn for sale you'll nevertheless find plenty of corn: Indeed, the supermarket itself--the wallboard and joint compound, the linoleum and fiberglass and adhesives out of which the building itself has been built--is in no small measure a manifestation of corn.

Rather, it's meant to acknowledge their abiding dependence on this miraculous grass, the staple of their diet for almost nine thousand years. Forty percent of the calories a Mexican eats in a day comes directly from corn, most of it in the form of tortillas. So when a Mexican says "I am maize" or "corn walking," it is simply a statement of fact: The very substance of the Mexican's body is to a considerable extent a manifestation of this plant.

For an American like me, growing up linked to a very different food chain, yet one that is also rooted in a field of corn, not to think of himself as a corn person suggests either a failure of imagination or a triumph of capitalism. Or perhaps a little of both. It does take some imagination to recognize the ear of corn in the Coke bottle or the Big Mac. At the same time, the food industry has done a good job of persuading us that the forty-five thousand different items or SKUs stock keeping units in the supermarket--seventeen thousand new ones every year--represent genuine variety rather than so many clever rearrangements of molecules extracted from the same plant.

You are what you eat, it's often said, and if this is true, then what we mostly are is corn--or, more precisely, processed corn. This proposition is susceptible to scientific proof: The same scientists who glean the composition of ancient diets from mummified human remains can do the same for you or me, using a snip of hair or fingernail. The science works by identifying stable isotopes of carbon in human tissue that bear the signatures, in effect, of the different types of plants that originally took them from the air and introduced them into the food chain.

The intricacies of this process are worth following, since they go some distance toward explaining how corn could have conquered our diet and, in turn, more of the earth's surface than virtually any other domesticated species, our own included. After water, carbon is the most common element in our bodies--indeed, in all living things on earth.

We earthlings are, as they say, a carbon life form. As one scientist put it, carbon supplies life's quantity, since it is the main structural element in living matter, while much scarcer nitrogen supplies its quality--but more on that later. Originally, the atoms of carbon from which we're made were floating in the air, part of a carbon dioxide molecule. The only way to recruit these carbon atoms for the molecules necessary to support life--the carbohydrates, amino acids, proteins, and lipids--is by means of photosynthesis.

Using sunlight as a catalyst the green cells of plants combine carbon atoms taken from the air with water and elements drawn from the soil to form the simple organic compounds that stand at the base of every food chain. It is more than a figure of speech to say that plants create life out of thin air. But corn goes about this procedure a little differently than most other plants, a difference that not only renders the plant more efficient than most, but happens also to preserve the identity of the carbon atoms it recruits, even after they've been transformed into things like Gatorade and Ring Dings and hamburgers, not to mention the human bodies nourished on those things.

Where most plants during photosynthesis create compounds that have three carbon atoms, corn along with a small handful of other species make compounds that have four: The C-4 trick represents an important economy for a plant, giving it an advantage, especially in areas where water is scarce and temperatures high. In order to gather carbon atoms from the air, a plant has to open its stomata, the microscopic orifices in the leaves through which plants both take in and exhaust gases. Every time a stoma opens to admit carbon dioxide precious molecules of water escape. It's as though every time you opened your mouth to eat you lost a quantity of blood.

Ideally, you would open your mouth as seldom as possible, ingesting as much food as you could with every bite. This is essentially what a C-4 plant does. By recruiting extra atoms of carbon during each instance of photosynthesis, the corn plant is able to limit its loss of water and "fix"--that is, take from the atmosphere and link in a useful molecule--significantly more carbon than other plants. At its most basic, the story of life on earth is the competition among species to capture and store as much energy as possible--either directly from the sun, in the case of plants, or, in the case of animals, by eating plants and plant eaters.

Sample text for The omnivore's dilemma : a natural history of four meals / Michael Pollan.

The energy is stored in the form of carbon molecules and measured in calories. Though we twenty-first-century eaters still eat a handful of hunted and gathered food notably fish and wild mushrooms , my interest in this food chain was less practical than philosophical: I hoped to shed fresh light on the way we eat now by immersing myself in the way we ate then. In order to make this meal I had to learn how to do some unfamiliar things, including hunting game and foraging for wild mushrooms and urban tree fruit. In doing so I was forced to confront some of the most elemental questions—and dilemmas—faced by the human omnivore: What are the moral and psychological implications of killing, preparing, and eating a wild animal?

Sample text for Library of Congress control number

How does one distinguish between the delicious and the deadly when foraging in the woods? How do the alchemies of the kitchen transform the raw stuffs of nature into some of the great delights of human culture? The end result of this adventure was what I came to think of as the Perfect Meal, not because it turned out so well though in my humble opinion it did , but because this labor- and thought-intensive dinner, enjoyed in the company of fellow foragers, gave me the opportunity, so rare in modern life, to eat in full consciousness of everything involved in feeding myself: For once, I was able to pay the full karmic price of a meal.

Yet as different as these three journeys and four meals turned out to be, a few themes kept cropping up. One is that there exists a fundamental tension between the logic of nature and the logic of human industry, at least as it is presently organized.


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This is something nature never does, always and for good reasons practicing diversity instead. At either end of any food chain you find a biological system—a patch of soil, a human body—and the health of one is connected—literally—to the health of the other. Many of the problems of health and nutrition we face today trace back to things that happen on the farm, and behind those things stand specific government policies few of us know anything about. Indeed, we might never have needed agriculture had earlier generations of hunters not eliminated the species they depended upon.

Folly in the getting of our food is nothing new. And yet the new follies we are perpetrating in our industrial food chain today are of a different order. By replacing solar energy with fossil fuel, by raising millions of food animals in close confinement, by feeding those animals foods they never evolved to eat, and by feeding ourselves foods far more novel than we even realize, we are taking risks with our health and the health of the natural world that are unprecedented.

Another theme, or premise really, is that the way we eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world. Daily, our eating turns nature into culture, transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds. Agriculture has done more to reshape the natural world than anything else we humans do, both its landscapes and the composition of its flora and fauna.

Our eating also constitutes a relationship with dozens of other species—plants, animals, and fungi—with which we have coevolved to the point where our fates are deeply entwined. Many of these species have evolved expressly to gratify our desires, in the intricate dance of domestication that has allowed us and them to prosper together as we could never have prospered apart.

But our relationships with the wild species we eat—from the mushrooms we pick in the forest to the yeasts that leaven our bread—are no less compelling, and far more mysterious. Eating puts us in touch with all that we share with the other animals, and all that sets us apart. What is perhaps most troubling, and sad, about industrial eating is how thoroughly it obscures all these relationships and connections.

But forgetting, or not knowing in the first place, is what the industrial food chain is all about, the principal reason it is so opaque, for if we could see what lies on the far side of the increasingly high walls of our industrial agriculture, we would surely change the way we eat. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world—and what is to become of it. To eat with a fuller consciousness of all that is at stake might sound like a burden, but in practice few things in life can afford quite as much satisfaction.

By comparison, the pleasures of eating industrially, which is to say eating in ignorance, are fleeting. Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world; this book is probably not for them. There are things in it that will ruin their appetites. But in the end this is a book about the pleasures of eating, the kinds of pleasure that are only deepened by knowing. Though in Meat the creaturely character of the species on display does seem to be fading, as the cows and pigs increasingly come subdivided into boneless and bloodless geometrical cuts.

Venture farther, though, and you come to regions of the supermarket where the very notion of species seems increasingly obscure: If you do manage to regard the supermarket through the eyes of a naturalist, your first impression is apt to be of its astounding biodiversity. Look how many different plants and animals and fungi are represented on this single acre of land! What forest or prairie could hope to match it? There must be a hundred different species in the produce section alone, a handful more in the meat counter.

And this diversity appears only to be increasing: When I was a kid, you never saw radicchio in the produce section, or a half dozen different kinds of mushrooms, or kiwis and passion fruit and durians and mangoes. Indeed, in the last few years a whole catalog of exotic species from the tropics has colonized, and considerably enlivened, the produce department. Except for the salt and a handful of synthetic food additives, every edible item in the supermarket is a link in a food chain that begins with a particular plant growing in a specific patch of soil or, more seldom, stretch of sea somewhere on earth.

Sometimes, as in the produce section, that chain is fairly short and easy to follow: As the netted bag says, this potato was grown in Idaho, that onion came from a farm in Texas. Move over to Meat, though, and the chain grows longer and less comprehensible: Once you get into the processed foods you have to be a fairly determined ecological detective to follow the intricate and increasingly obscure lines of connection linking the Twinkie, or the nondairy creamer, to a plant growing in the earth someplace, but it can be done.

So what exactly would an ecological detective set loose in an American supermarket discover, were he to trace the items in his shopping cart all the way back to the soil? And where in the world did it come from? The fact that today one so often does suggests a pretty good start on a working definition of industrial food: Any food whose provenance is so complex or obscure that it requires expert help to ascertain. When I started trying to follow the industrial food chain—the one that now feeds most of us most of the time and typically culminates either in a supermarket or fast-food meal—I expected that my investigations would lead me to a wide variety of places.

And though my journeys did take me to a great many states, and covered a great many miles, at the very end of these food chains which is to say, at the very beginning , I invariably found myself in almost exactly the same place: The great edifice of variety and choice that is an American supermarket turns out to rest on a remarkably narrow biological foundation comprised of a tiny group of plants that is dominated by a single species: Zea mays, the giant tropical grass most Americans know as corn.

Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak. Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn. The eggs are made of corn. The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.

Head over to the processed foods and you find ever more intricate manifestations of corn. A chicken nugget, for example, piles corn upon corn: To wash down your chicken nuggets with virtually any soft drink in the supermarket is to have some corn with your corn. Since the s virtually all the sodas and most of the fruit drinks sold in the supermarket have been sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup HFCS —after water, corn sweetener is their principal ingredient.

Read the ingredients on the label of any processed food and, provided you know the chemical names it travels under, corn is what you will find. For modified or unmodified starch, for glucose syrup and maltodextrin, for crystalline fructose and ascorbic acid, for lecithin and dextrose, lactic acid and lysine, for maltose and HFCS, for MSG and polyols, for the caramel color and xanthan gum, read: Corn is in the coffee whitener and Cheez Whiz, the frozen yogurt and TV dinner, the canned fruit and ketchup and candies, the soups and snacks and cake mixes, the frosting and gravy and frozen waffles, the syrups and hot sauces, the mayonnaise and mustard, the hot dogs and the bologna, the margarine and shortening, the salad dressings and the relishes and even the vitamins.

There are some forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn. This goes for the nonfood items as well—everything from the toothpaste and cosmetics to the disposable diapers, trash bags, cleansers, charcoal briquettes, matches, and batteries, right down to the shine on the cover of the magazine that catches your eye by the checkout: Indeed, the supermarket itself—the wallboard and joint compound, the linoleum and fiberglass and adhesives out of which the building itself has been built—is in no small measure a manifestation of corn.

Forty percent of the calories a Mexican eats in a day comes directly from corn, most of it in the form of tortillas. For an American like me, growing up linked to a very different food chain, yet one that is also rooted in a field of corn, not to think of himself as a corn person suggests either a failure of imagination or a triumph of capitalism.

Or perhaps a little of both. It does take some imagination to recognize the ear of corn in the Coke bottle or the Big Mac.


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At the same time, the food industry has done a good job of persuading us that the forty-five thousand different items or SKUs stock keeping units in the supermarket—seventeen thousand new ones every year—represent genuine variety rather than so many clever rearrangements of molecules extracted from the same plant. This proposition is susceptible to scientific proof: The same scientists who glean the composition of ancient diets from mummified human remains can do the same for you or me, using a snip of hair or fingernail.

The science works by identifying stable isotopes of carbon in human tissue that bear the signatures, in effect, of the different types of plants that originally took them from the air and introduced them into the food chain. After water, carbon is the most common element in our bodies—indeed, in all living things on earth. We earthlings are, as they say, a carbon life form. The only way to recruit these carbon atoms for the molecules necessary to support life—the carbohydrates, amino acids, proteins, and lipids—is by means of photosynthesis.

Using sunlight as a catalyst the green cells of plants combine carbon atoms taken from the air with water and elements drawn from the soil to form the simple organic compounds that stand at the base of every food chain. It is more than a figure of speech to say that plants create life out of thin air. Where most plants during photosynthesis create compounds that have three carbon atoms, corn along with a small handful of other species make compounds that have four: The C-4 trick represents an important economy for a plant, giving it an advantage, especially in areas where water is scarce and temperatures high.

In order to gather carbon atoms from the air, a plant has to open its stomata, the microscopic orifices in the leaves through which plants both take in and exhaust gases. Every time a stoma opens to admit carbon dioxide precious molecules of water escape. Ideally, you would open your mouth as seldom as possible, ingesting as much food as you could with every bite.

This is essentially what a C-4 plant does. At its most basic, the story of life on earth is the competition among species to capture and store as much energy as possible—either directly from the sun, in the case of plants, or, in the case of animals, by eating plants and plant eaters. The energy is stored in the form of carbon molecules and measured in calories. The calories we eat, whether in an ear of corn or a steak, represent packets of energy once captured by a plant.

Few plants can manufacture quite as much organic matter and calories from the same quantities of sunlight and water and basic elements as corn. Ninety-seven percent of what a corn plant is comes from the air, three percent from the ground. The scientist can do this because all carbon is not created equal. Some carbon atoms, called isotopes, have more than the usual complement of six protons and six neutrons, giving them a slightly different atomic weight. C, for example, has six protons and seven neutrons. One would expect to find a comparatively high proportion of carbon 13 in the flesh of people whose staple food of choice is corn—Mexicans, most famously.

Americans eat much more wheat than corn— pounds of wheat flour per person per year, compared to 11 pounds of corn flour. The Europeans who colonized America regarded themselves as wheat people, in contrast to the native corn people they encountered; wheat in the West has always been considered the most refined, or civilized, grain. Beef people sounds more like it, though nowadays chicken people, which sounds not nearly so good, is probably closer to the truth of the matter.

Corn is the hero of its own story, and though we humans played a crucial supporting role in its rise to world domination, it would be wrong to suggest we have been calling the shots, or acting always in our own best interests. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that corn has succeeded in domesticating us. To some extent this holds true for all of the plants and animals that take part in the grand coevolutionary bargain with humans we call agriculture. More even than the rifle, it was this biotic army that did the most to defeat the Indians.

But corn enjoyed certain botanical advantages that would allow it to thrive even as the Native Americans with whom it had coevolved were being eliminated. Indeed, maize, the one plant without which the American colonists probably would never have survived, let alone prospered, wound up abetting the destruction of the very people who had helped develop it. In the plant world at least, opportunism trumps gratitude. Yet in time, the plant of the vanquished would conquer even the conquerors.

Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to plant maize in the spring of , and the colonists immediately recognized its value: No other plant could produce quite as much food quite as fast on a given patch of New World ground as this Indian corn. The fact that the plant was so well adapted to the climate and soils of North America gave it an edge over European grains, even if it did make a disappointingly earthbound bread. Centuries before the Pilgrims arrived the plant had already spread north from central Mexico, where it is thought to have originated, all the way to New England, where Indians were probably cultivating it by Along the way, the plant—whose prodigious genetic variability allows it to adapt rapidly to new conditions—made itself at home in virtually every microclimate in North America; hot or cold, dry or wet, sandy soil or heavy, short day or long, corn, with the help of its Native American allies, evolved whatever traits it needed to survive and flourish.

Planted, a single corn seed yielded more than fat kernels, often as many as , while the return on a seed of wheat, when all went well, was something less than At a time when land was abundant and labor scarce, agricultural yields were calculated on a per-seed-sown basis. Corn won over the wheat people because of its versatility, prized especially in new settlements far from civilization. This one plant supplied settlers with a ready-to-eat vegetable and a storable grain, a source of fiber and animal feed, a heating fuel and an intoxicant.

Mashed and fermented, corn could be brewed into beer or distilled into whiskey; for a time it was the only source of alcohol on the frontier.

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No part of the big grass went to waste: The husks could be woven into rugs and twine; the leaves and stalks made good silage for livestock; the shelled cobs were burned for heat and stacked by the privy as a rough substitute for toilet paper. The dual identity also made corn indispensable to the slave trade: Corn was both the currency traders used to pay for slaves in Africa and the food upon which slaves subsisted during their passage to America. Corn is the protocapitalist plant. Had maize failed to find favor among the conquerors, it would have risked extinction, because without humans to plant it every spring, corn would have disappeared from the earth in a matter of a few years.

The novel cob-and-husk arrangement that makes corn such a convenient grain for us renders the plant utterly dependent for its survival on an animal in possession of the opposable thumb needed to remove the husk, separate the seeds, and plant them. Plant a whole corncob and watch what happens: If any of the kernels manage to germinate, and then work their way free of the smothering husk, they will invariably crowd themselves to death before their second set of leaves has emerged.

More than most domesticated plants a few of whose offspring will usually find a way to grow unassisted , corn completely threw its lot in with humanity when it evolved its peculiar husked ear. Several human societies have seen fit to worship corn, but perhaps it should be the other way around: For corn, we humans are the contingent beings. So far, this reckless-seeming act of evolutionary faith in us has been richly rewarded. It is tempting to think of maize as a human artifact, since the plant is so closely linked to us and so strikingly different from any wild species.

The current thinking among botanists is that several thousand years ago teosinte underwent an abrupt series of mutations that turned it into corn; geneticists calculate that changes on as few as four chromosomes could account for the main traits that distinguish teosinte from maize. The male organs stayed put, remaining in the tassel. It is, for a grass, a bizarre arrangement with crucial implications: A mutation this freakish and maladaptive would have swiftly brought the plant to an evolutionary dead end had one of these freaks not happened to catch the eye of a human somewhere in Central America who, looking for something to eat, peeled open the husk to free the seeds.

What would have been an unheralded botanical catastrophe in a world without humans became an incalculable evolutionary boon. If you look hard enough, you can still find teosinte growing in certain Central American highlands; you can find maize, its mutant offspring, anywhere you find people. The tassel at the top of the plant houses the male organs, hundreds of pendant anthers that over the course of a few summer days release a superabundance of powdery yellow pollen: