“What makes a good steak?” asks Mark Schatzker in his new book, Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef (Viking, 2010). Schatzker is a man who loves steak, unambiguously and with abandon, and he makes the perfect guide for an adventure filled with cowboys, cattle and rib eyes. His devotion to his favorite food and his interest in how steak comes to be steak—good and bad— kicks off an always fascinating, often hilarious, around-the-world search for the best steak ever. More than just an excuse for the author to eat a variety of steaks of varying degrees of fabulousness, Steak is an exhaustive, highly entertaining study of the traditions and science of steak. In America, steak has a cultural reputation as weighty as Tiffany’s: both are symbols of prosperity and opulence. But like so many once-revered emblems of the good life, the quality of steak in the United States has steadily diminished, even if its reputation hasn’t.
Just about everyone has eaten something that comes from a crop doused with pesticides so toxic that no one is allowed in the field for five days after it is sprayed. Or that must be stored for six months after harvest to allow the pesticides to fade. What crop is it? Learn that and so much more in the Young Readers Edition of The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Dial Books) by Michael Pollan, adapted by Richie Chevat. Based on Pollan’s adult book of the same title, the new version is simplified and updated, contains informative side notes and visuals and concludes with a new afterward, eating tips, a question and answer section and empowering resources. Though intended for ages 10 and up, Pollan’s detective work, substantive content and eloquent writing will engage readers of all ages interested in food production.
To solve the modern “omnivore’s dilemma” (we can eat anything, but how do we know what to eat?), Pollan investigates four meals representative of four different food chains – the system for growing, making and delivery food. He wants to share with us where our food comes from and what exactly it is we are eating. So, he starts in the farms and fields where our food is grown and personably chronicles its creation and consumption.
First, Pollan documents the “industrial” food chain, which is where most of our food comes from today. This chain starts in giant fields of single crops and ends up in a supermarket or fast-food restaurant. Here we learn that corn is ubiquitous. More than a quarter of the forty-five thousand items in the average American supermarket contain corn. We also learn that “industrial” is synonymous with genetically modified food (food created by changing plant DNA in the laboratory), feeding animals antibiotics, and CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). It is here that Pollan documents the life of a steer traveling through the meat-making branch of the industrial food chain. After witnessing not only toxic pollution but the steer’s confinement and unnatural consumption of corn (not grazing grass as nature intended), he concludes that most people eat feedlot meat because they just don’t know where it comes from.
The second meal is the “industrial organic” meal in which food is grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides on industrial, monoculture farms (farms growing only one crop) far from the people who eat it. This food chain is an improvement over industrial agriculture because it helps keep more land free from pesticides and chemical fertilizer, but it is neither local nor seasonal and like industrial food it uses a tremendous amount of fossil fuel for refrigeration and delivery.
Next is “local and sustainable,” food grown on small farms that raise lots of different kinds of crops and animals. Food from this system doesn’t need to be processed, and it travels a short distance before it reaches the table. Unlike industrial production, local and sustainable does not contribute to water pollution, antibiotic resistance, foodbourne illnesses and higher taxes in the form of crop, oil and water subsidies. This type of production holds a lot of hope, but for it to be the best answer to the dilemma, it is essential that all aspects of animal production including breeds and slaughter methods are thoughtfully considered to ensure animal welfare.
Finally, the oldest type of food chain, “hunter-gatherer,” is explored. Here Pollan hunts, grows and finds his own food, and the account is educational even if the production itself is not sustainable. Undoubtedly, Pollan’s adventures mushroom hunting will create unlikely enthusiasts.
Pollan wants us to rediscover the pleasures of food and learn to enjoy meals in a new way. To this end, he exposes the impact different methods of food production have on animals, workers, the environment, food quality, and ultimately us. The knowledge he imparts enables us to be thoughtful eaters who actively support food production that is ethical and healthful, thereby nourishing a compassionate society.