The American food industry is like the plate-spinning guy on "The Ed Sullivan Show." For so long, the plates have been spinning on poles high out of our reach -- marvelously, effortlessly -- and we all cheered and loved it.
Cheap food. Fresh taste. Tomatoes in December. Variety at the grocery store unlike ever before in history. Grapes from Chile. Five-dollar steaks. More eggs than Cool Hand Luke can eat for less than the price of a movie ticket to see him do it.
But the plates are starting to wobble.
Three or four have even begun to fall.
"Shambles" is the word Michael Pollan used to describe our food industrial system in his 2008 open letter to presidential candidates.
Pollan speaks at the Tivoli Theatre tonight, as the fireworks ending to the Benwood Lecture Series. Pollan is a food activist's version of Julia Child -- deeply committed to celebrating and honoring good food, and willing to raise hell against the systems that pollute it.
"Don't get your fuel from the same place your car does," he writes. "American gas stations now make more money inside selling food (and cigarettes) than outside selling gasoline."
Pollan's new book is "Food Rules" and it's a profound attempt at helping us untangle the mess we find ourselves in each time we eat.
Worrying about Atkins, South Beach and Cavemen diets. The foreign language of ingredients on the side of the box. The soft porn that has become a Hardee's hamburger commercial. Trying to drive while eating. High-fructose corn syrup.
It's like falling out of love. Instead of enjoying our food, we have thiamine hydrochloride (two bits says you've eaten some today already).
There are 38 ingredients in a McNugget, Pollan says in "The Omnivore's Dilemma."
One of every three American kids eats a fast-food meal each day. Because of obesity -- and for the first time in U.S. history -- kids are not expected to outlive their parents.
The American food industry burns more petroleum than any other industry in the nation.
We haven't even discussed the treatment of animals. Eleven hens in a 2-foot by 2-foot cage, according to April columns from The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof.
Factory farm chickens are found to contain Tylenol, Benadryl, arsenic, caffeine and, despite being banned, high-grade antibiotics called fluoroquinolones.
The food industry's practice of giving animals antibiotics has led to the growth of superbugs: antibiotic resistant germs that are responsible for killing more Americans each year than AIDS, Kristof writes.
With a cluck-cluck here and a cluck-cluck there. E-I-E-I-O.
"Local food is better food," Jeff Pfitzer told me. "Period."
Pfitzer is head of Gaining Ground, the local organization dedicated to a most promising goal: the incorporation and celebration of local food into our Chattanooga culture.
Since getting to know some of our farmers and buying their food at local markets, I've come to realize all of this is about something else.
Our city's farmers markets are wonderful places -- political, social and emotional all at once. Food is demystified and celebrated. Farmers name the cow that made the milk that made the cheese you're buying. They talk about the honeybees, or why this tomato tastes so sweet, or what to do with kale and olive oil.
(Hint: Eat it. Lots. With red wine.)
All of this is about restoring relationships -- with our bodies, other farmers, the land and the food God gave us. The pursuit of happiness through food.
Plus, if Chattanoogans bought local food for one meal each week, more than $100 million would recycle into our local economy, according to the Ochs Center.
We need gardens in our schools, a food policy for local politics and voters intensely aware of the intersection between food, energy, health and democracy.
Here's my pitch. My family's been keeping chickens for the last few years and, on Tuesday, a new shipment of 26-day-old chicks arrived. We'd like to share some with you.
Send me a email, and I'll give away one free chick to eight readers of this column. I'll keep them for a few more weeks, and you can have time to build a small coop, promise to keep them only for eggs and work on how to keep them safe from foxes.
In Chattanooga, unfortunately, the city Parks and Recreation Department acts as surrogate foxes, enforcing the city's misdirected ban on urban chickens, a ban that should be overturned.
David Cook can be reached at email@example.com.