by Michael Pollan
.......Animals raised outdoors on grass have a diet much more like that of the wild animals humans have been eating at least since the Paleolithic era than that of the grain-fed animals we only recently began to eat.
So it makes evolutionary sense that pastured meats, the nutritional profile of which closely resembles that of wild game, would be better for us. Grass-fed meat, milk, and eggs contain less total fat and less saturated fats than the same foods from grain-fed animals. Pastured animals also contain conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid that some recent studies indicate may help reduce weight and prevent cancer, and which is absent from feedlot animals. But perhaps most important, meat, eggs, and milk from pastured animals also contain higher levels of omega-3s, essential fatty acids created in the cells of green plants and algae that play an indispensable role in human health, and especially in the growth and health of neurons—brain cells. (It's important to note that fish contain higher levels of the most valuable omega-3s than land animals, yet grass-fed animals do offer significant amounts of such important omega-3s as alpha linolenic acid—ALA.) Much research into the role of omega-3s in the human diet remains to be done, but the preliminary findings are suggestive: Researchers report that pregnant women who receive supplements of omega-3s give birth to babies with higher IQs; children with diets low in omega-3s exhibit more behavioral and learning problems at school; and puppies eating diets high in omega-3s prove easier to train. (All these claims come from papers presented at a 2004 meeting of the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids.)
One of the most important yet unnoticed changes to the human diet in modern times has been in the ratio between omega-3 and omega-6, the other essential fatty acid in our food. Omega-6 is produced in the seeds of plants; omega-3 in the leaves. As the name indicates, both kinds of fat are essential, but problems arise when they fall out of balance. (In fact, there's research to suggest that the ratio of these fats in our diet may be more important than the amounts.) Too high a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 can contribute to heart disease, probably because omega-6 helps blood clot, while omega-3 helps it flow. (Omega-6 is an inflammatory; omega-3 an anti-inflammatory) As our diet—and the diet of the animals we eat—shifted from one based on green plants to one based on grain (from grass to corn), the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 has gone from roughly one to one (in the diet of hunter-gatherers) to more than ten to one. (The process of hydrogenating oil also eliminates omega-3s.) We may one day come to regard this shift as one of the most deleterious dietary changes wrought by the industrialization of our food chain. It was a change we never noticed, since the importance of omega-3s was not recognized until the 1970s. As in the case of our imperfect knowledge of soil, the limits of our knowledge of nutrition have obscured what the industrialization of the food chain is doing to our health. But changes in the composition of fats in our diet may account for many of the diseases of civilization—cardiac, diabetes, obesity, etc.—that have long been linked to modern eating habits, as well as for learning and behavioral problems in children and depression in adults.
Research in this area promises to turn a lot of conventional nutritional thinking on its head. It suggests, for example, that the problem with eating red meat—long associated with cardiovascular disease— may owe less to the animal in question than to that animal's diet. (This might explain why there are hunter-gatherer populations today who eat far more red meat than we do without suffering the cardiovascular consequences.) These days farmed salmon are being fed like feedlot cattle, on grain, with the predictable result that their omega-3 levels fall well below those of wild fish. (Wild fish have especially high levels of omega-3 because the fat concentrates as it moves up the food chain from the algae and phytoplankton that create it.) Conventional nutritional wisdom holds that salmon is automatically better for us than beef, but that judgment assumes the beef has been grain fed and the salmon krill fed; if the steer is fattened on grass and the salmon on grain, we might actually be better off eating the beef. (Grass-finished beef has a two-to-one ratio of omega-6 to -3 compared to more than ten to one in corn-fed beef.) The species of animal you eat may matter less than what the animal you're eating has itself eaten.
The fact that the nutritional quality of a given food (and of that food's food) can vary not just in degree but in kind throws a big wrench into an industrial food chain, the very premise of which is that beef is beef and salmon salmon. It also throws a new light on the whole question of cost, for if quality matters so much more than quantity, then the price of a food may bear little relation to the value of the nutrients in it. If units of omega-3s and beta-carotene and vitamin E are what an egg shopper is really after, then Joel's $2.20 a dozen pastured eggs actually represent a much better deal than the $0.79 a dozen industrial eggs at the supermarket. As long as one egg looks pretty much like another, all the chickens like chicken, and beef beef, the substitution of quantity for quality will go on unnoticed by most consumers, but it is becoming increasingly apparent to anyone with an electron microscope or a mass spectrometer that, truly, this is not the same food.
Okay, but what about to someone equipped with a more or less standard-issue set of human taste buds? How different does a pastured chicken actually taste? It certainly smelled wonderful when I raised the lid on the barbecue to put the corn on. The chicken was browning nicely, the skin beginning to crisp and take on the toasty tones of oiled wood. The corn, on which I'd rubbed some olive oil and sprinkled salt and pepper, would take only a few minutes—all it needed was to heat up and for a scattering of kernels to brown. The browning of the chicken skin and the corn looked similar but in fact it owed to completely different chemical reactions, reactions that were contributing to their flavors and smells. The corn was caramelizing, as its sugars broke apart under the heat and formed into hundreds of more complicated aromatic compounds, giving a smoky dimension to the corny sweetness. Meanwhile, the chicken skin was undergoing what chemists called the Maillard reaction, in which carbohydrates in the chicken react in dry heat with certain amino acids to create an even larger and more complicated set of compounds that, because they include atoms of sulfur and nitrogen, give a richer, meatier aroma and taste to the meat than it would otherwise possess. This, at least, is how a chemist would explain what I was seeing and smelling on the grill, as I turned the corn and chicken pieces and felt myself growing hungrier.
While the corn finished roasting, I removed the chicken from the grill and set it aside to rest. A few minutes later I called everyone to the table. Ordinarily I might have felt a litde funny serving as both dinner host and guest, but Mark and Liz are such close friends it seemed per-fecdy natural to be cooking for them in their home. That's not to say I didn't feel the cook's customary preprandial apprehension, compounded in this instance by the fact that Liz herself is such a good cook, and holds very definite opinions about food. I certainly hadn't forgotten the time she'd wrinkled her nose and pushed away a Polyface steak I'd served her. Grass-fed beef is flavored by the pastures it grows on, usually but not always for the best. It had tasted fine to me.
I passed the platters of chicken and corn and proposed a toast. I offered thanks first to my hosts-cum-guests, then to Joel Salatin and his family for growing the food before us (and for giving it to us), and then finally to the chickens, who in one way or another had provided just about everything we were about to eat. My secular version of grace, I suppose, acknowledging the various material and karmic debts incurred by this meal, debts which I felt more keenly than usual.
"At the beginning of the meal," Brillat-Savarin writes in his chapter "On the Pleasures of the Table" in The Physiology of Taste, "each guest eats steadily, without speaking or paying attention to anything which may be said." And so we did, aside from a few sublingual murmurs of satisfaction. I don't mind saying the chicken was out of this world. The skin had turned the color of mahogany and the texture of parchment, almost like a Peking duck, and the meat itself was moist, dense, and almost shockingly flavorful. I could taste the brine and apple wood, of course, but also the chicken itself, which more than held its own against those strong flavors. This may not sound like much of a compliment, but to me the chicken smelled and tasted exacdy like chicken. Liz voiced her approval in similar terms, pronouncing it a more chickeny chicken. Which is to say, I suppose, that it chimed with that capitalized idea of Chicken we hold in our heads but seldom taste anymore. So what accounted for it?The grass?The grubs?The exercise? I know what Joel would have said: When chickens get to live like chickens, they'll taste like chickens, too.
The flavors of everything else on the table had a similarly declarative quality: the roasted corn and lemony rocket salad, and even the peachy Viognier, all of them tasting almost flamboyantly themselves, their flavors forming a bright sequence of primary colors. There was nothing terribly subtle about this meal, but everything about it tasted completely in character.
Everyone was curious to hear about the farm, especially after tasting the food that had come off it. Matthew, who's fifteen and currently a vegetarian (he confined himself to the corn), had many more questions about killing chickens than I thought it wise to answer at the dinner table. But I did talk about my week on the farm, about the Salatins and their animals. I explained the whole synergistic ballet of chickens and cows and pigs and grass, without getting into specifics about the manure and grubs and composted guts that made the whole dance work. Thankfully all of that, the killing cones, too, had retreated to the mental background for me, chased by the smoky-sweet aromas of the meal, which I found myself able to thoroughly enjoy.
The unexpectedly fine wine helped too, as did the fact that the dinner table conversation drifted off as it will do, from my Paris Hilton adventures as a farmhand to Willie's songwriting (he is, mark my words, the next Bob Dylan), Matthew's summer football camp, Mark and Liz's books-in-progress, school, politics, war, and on and on, the topics spi-raling away from the table like desultory rings of smoke. Being a Friday late in June, this was one of the longest evenings of the year, so no one felt in a rush to finish. Besides, I'd just put the souffle in to bake when we sat down, so dessert was still a ways off.
In his chapter Brillat-Savarin draws a sharp distinction between the pleasures of eating—"the actual and direct sensation of a need being satisfied," a sensation we share with the animals—and the uniquely human "pleasures of the table." These consist of "considered sensations born of the various circumstances of fact, things, and persons accompanying the meal"—and comprise for him one of the brightest fruits of civilization. Every meal we share at a table recapitulates this evolution from nature to culture, as we pass from satisfying our animal appetites in semisilence to the lofting of conversational balloons. The pleasures of the table begin with eating (and specifically with eating meat, in Brillat-Savarin's view, since it was the need to cook and apportion meat that first brought us together to eat), but they can end up anywhere human talk cares to go. In the same way that the raw becomes cooked, eating becomes dining.
All such transformations were very much on my mind that evening, coming at the end of a week of farmwork that had put me in much closer touch with the biology of eating than the art. The line from composting chicken guts to gastronomy is almost unimaginably long, but there is a line. While we talked and waited for the souffle to complete its magic rise, the smell of baking chocolate seeped out of the kitchen and filled the house. When at last I told Willie the time had come to open the oven, cross your fingers, I saw his smile blossom first, then the great crown of souffle puffing out from the cinched white waist of its dish. Triumph!
Here was the most improbable transformation of all. There's something wondrous about any souffle, how a half dozen eggs flavored by nothing more than sugar and chocolate can turn into something so ethereally Other. Souffle, "to blow," comes from the Latin word for breath, of course, in recognition of the air that a souffle mostly is. But souffle has a spiritual sense, too, as in the breath of life (in English the word "spirit" comes from breath), which seems fitting, for isn't the souffle as close as cookery ever comes to elevating matter into spirit?
This particular souffle was good, not great; its texture was slighdy grainier than it should be, which makes me think I may have beaten the eggs a little too long. But it tasted wonderful, everyone agreed, and as I rolled the rich yet weightless confection on my tongue, I closed my eyes and suddenly there they were: Joel's hens, marching down the gangplank from out of their Eggmobile, fanning out across the early morning pasture, there in the grass where this sublime bite began.