The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
by Michael Pollan
Hard to Swallow
A review by B. R. Myers
For centuries civilized society took a dim view of food lovers, calling them "gourmands" and "gluttons" and placing them on a moral par with lechers. They were even assigned their own place in hell, and I don't mean a table near the kitchen: They were to be force-fed for eternity. Not until halfway through the Industrial Revolution did the word gourmet come into use. Those who have since applied it to themselves have done a fine job of converting the world's scorn to respect. The pleasures of the oral cavity (though we must say "palate" instead) are now widely regarded as more important, more intrinsically moral, and a more vital part of civilized tradition than any other pleasures. People who think nothing of saying "I'm not much of a reader" will grow shamefaced when admitting an ignorance of wine or haute cuisine. Some recent movies have even tried to turn banquets into heroic affairs. Advertising has abetted the trend, while political correctness, with its horror of judging anyone's "lifestyle choices," has done its bit to muffle dissent.
The sexual revolution went faster than this but not as far, which is why we can still call someone a lecher. Our common language no longer has a pejorative for those who live to eat. Gourmand has taken on an even fancier ring than gourmet, while the word glutton can be applied only to someone who eats an enormous amount of food at one sitting -- usually cheap food, and with the standard of what constitutes "enormous" revised upward each year for obvious reasons. When discussing Kim Jong Il, who dines on imported delicacies while his countrymen starve, even our own journalists must describe his fixation in terms of connoisseurship. The last holdover of the old way of thinking is the Catholic catechism, which keeps gluttony on its list of sins and indicates -- by using the word gourmandise in the French version, and by defining sin in part as "a perverse attachment to certain goods" -- that the original meaning of gluttony is to be understood. No doubt this too will change. A French committee wants to convince Rome that God condones expensive multicourse meals; He just doesn't like us getting extra helpings.
But the idolatry of food cuts across class lines. This can be seen in the public's toleration of a level of cruelty in meat production that it would tolerate nowhere else. If someone inflicts pain on an animal for visual, aural, or sexual gratification, we consider him a monster, and the law makes at least a token effort at punishment. If someone's goal is to put the "product" in his mouth? Chacun à son goût.
Still, people are more concerned about animal welfare than they used to be. They also know that the more humanely the average animal is treated, the better it will taste. Thus it is that Gourmet magazine recently ran an unflinching exposé of the conditions in chicken slaughterhouses. But some things cannot be produced humanely; to taste the way it should, the foie-gras duck must be force-fed, the lobster must be boiled alive, and so on.
Literate opinion therefore suggests that a few dishes should simply be done without. This is where the serious food lover draws the line. "I detect a backlash...among fed up gourmands," the editor of Best Food Writing 2006 notes with approval, "who refuse to renounce foie gras and caviar just because they are produced by less-than-noble methods." (That just because says it all.) The backlash takes the form of pieces like Julie Powell's essay "Lobster Killer," which the anthology's editor found "hilarious":
Over a period of two weeks...I went on a murderous rampage. I committed gruesome, atrocious acts...If news of the carnage was not widely remarked upon in the local press, it was only because my victims were not Catholic schoolgirls or Filipino
nurses, but crustaceans. This distinction means that I am not a murderer in the legal sense. But I have blood on my hands, even if it is the clear blood of lobsters.
This is a prime example of food writers' hostility to the very language of moral values. In mocking and debasing it, they exert, with Madison Avenue's help, a baleful influence on American English as a whole. If words like sinful and decadent are now just a cutesy way of saying "delicious but fattening," so that any serious use of them marks the speaker as a crank, and if it is more acceptable to talk of the "evils of gluten" than of the "evils of gluttony," much of the blame must be laid at their doorstep. Another sampling from Powell's piece:
People say lobsters make a terrible racket in the pot, trying -- reasonably enough -- to claw their way out of the water. I wouldn't know. I spent the next twenty minutes watching a golf game on the TV with the volume turned up...When I ventured back into the kitchen, the lobsters were very red, and not making any racket at all...Poor little beasties.
Zoologists have recently discounted the notion that lobsters feel no pain when boiled alive. The gourmets' response is to giggle at the plight of the "beasties" in the hope that others will follow suit. (With comparable tastelessness, a piece on foie gras in the anthology is titled "Stuffed Animals.") But when asked to laugh at the suffering of a living thing, or to drown out a moral compunction by turning up the TV, the American meat eater begins to sense that his values are not so far from the vegetarian's after all. If food writers want to show what "a perverse attachment to certain goods" looks like, they are going about it in just the right way.
This brings me to a would-be exception: Michael Pollan, the New York Times Magazine writer whose best-seller The Omnivore's Dilemma has just been published in paperback. In the first seven chapters, Pollan writes of the role of corn in American life in such an improbably thrilling manner that I have to recommend the book despite my reservations about the rest of it. About a McDonald's meal Pollan shared with his family in a moving car, for instance, we learn that
if you include the corn in the gas tank...the amount of corn that went into producing our movable fast-food feast would easily have overflowed the car's trunk, spilling a trail of golden kernels on the blacktop.
What a startling and memorable image; a lesser writer would have said "road" instead, and wondered why it didn't quite work.
After this, though, Pollan moves on to explore what he calls the "moral and psychological implications" of killing and eating animals. The phrase shows at once where he is headed; the reason those adjectives are so often yoked in contemporary American English is that the second swallows up the first. A moral opposition to the majority's way of doing things can thus be more easily treated, as it was in the Soviet Union, as a mental-health problem. But before going any further, I should allow Pollan to explain the book's title. "In the fall of 2002," he tells us,
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...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.
The feverish tone makes clear that Pollan is writing for his fellow gourmets, the sort of people who can read the line "ruined an untold number of perfectly good meals" with a straight face. I can't help thinking, though, that with hamburgers and milk shakes conquering deeply rooted diets from Mexico to Micronesia, America's eating habits may well be the most stable in the world. Even the Atkins-diet craze reduced national bread sales by no more than 3 or 4 percentage points. Pollan nonetheless asserts that our dietary upheavals have returned us, with "atavistic vengeance," to a bewilderment last experienced millennia ago:
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...first given that name thirty years ago by a University of Pennsylvania research psychologist named Paul Rozin.
Then Rozin's dictionary must be the one that Alanis Morissette used to look up the word ironic, but let that pass. Is our national eating disorder really a matter of people pacing supermarket aisles in an agony of indecision? Or do we perhaps feel too little anxiety about what we eat? Despite his choice of title, the subject does not hold Pollan's interest for long, so readers will have to make up their own minds.
Pivotal to the book is Pollan's claim that
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.
One might as well describe man the way the anthropologist Ernest Becker did, as a digestive tract with teeth at one end and an anus at the other, and claim that the soul is shaped out of that. In which case, I don't want one. But most of us use soul to mean the part of humanness that is not shaped out of that. In contrast to the fearless Becker, Pollan thinks that taking a hard look at human nature is more a matter of leaning over the museum rail at the caveman exhibit. Seeing only the painted mammoth on the horizon, so to speak, he derives the rightness of meat eating from the fact that humans are physically suited to it, they enjoy it, and they have engaged in it until modern times without feeling much "ethical heartburn." (Only a food writer would use such an appalling phrase.) According to Pollan, this "reality" demands our respect. The same reasoning could be used to defend our mistreatment of children: In body and instinct, we are marvelously well-equipped for making their lives hell. If many cultures now object to abusing them, it is thanks to new values, to people who refused to respect the time-honored "reality."
But by reducing man's moral nature to an extension of our instincts, Pollan is free to present his appetite as a sort of moral-o-meter, the final authority for judging the rightness of all things culinary. He shoots a wild pig, for example, hugely enjoying the experience. We even get a spiel about how hunting makes people face the inevitability of their own death. (Psychologists have long asserted the opposite: As Otto Rank put it, and in words relevant to meat eating in general, "the death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the other.") Ah, but then Pollan sees a photo of himself leering over the corpse and feels bad. So is killing pigs right or wrong? Or as he puts it, "What if it turned out I couldn't eat this meat?"
Spoiler alert: He could. He even congratulates himself on "doing well by the animal" by cooking and chewing it with the proper reverence. As reluctant as he is to attribute fear and pain to a live animal -- one mustn't anthropomorphize! -- he sees nothing strange in attributing a concern for decorum to a dead one. He apparently believes that we cannot fully relate to animals until they become food. In the introduction, we are told that eating something -- "transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds" -- constitutes the deepest possible "relationship" with it, "the most profound engagement" of all. (German police had to listen to similar reasoning in 2002 after arresting one Armin Meiwes, who had just put his omnicompetent jaws to work on a Siemens engineer.) Now, Epicurus, who strikes me as a vegetarian Pollan might listen to, made the rather obvious point that no living thing experiences death. As soon as life ceases, the body ceases to deserve the attribute human or animal, as the root of the latter word makes especially clear. The pig thus takes its farewell from Pollan almost as soon as he pulls his trigger in greeting. The mere flesh left behind tastes remarkably like that of us "long pigs -- to use the notorious cannibal term -- and the digestive tract cannot tell them apart at all. There is less "transformation" going on here than Pollan would like to think.
The moral-o-meter is applied to other meats as well (the book is subtitled "A Natural History of Four Meals"). Pollan buys a steer from a pasture in South Dakota, whereupon it is loaded onto a truck. When he catches up to it in a factory farm in Kansas, it is hock-deep in excrement. Pollan is far too talented not to convey the ghastliness of the "manure lagoon." (This is a writer, to mention again his tour de force section on corn, who can make even biochemistry vivid.) But does he sense the poignancy in the reunion?
There stood 534 and I, staring dumbly at one another. Glint of recognition? None, none whatsoever. I told myself not to take it personally; 534 and his pen mates have been bred for their marbling, after all, not their ability to form attachments...If I stared at my steer hard enough, I could imagine the white lines of the butcher's chart dissecting his black hide...
It is all too obvious which of the two has a harder time forming attachments. Then again, Pollan does not like what he sees; he senses that cows raised in such unnatural conditions cannot possibly taste good. Though he doesn't get to eat "his" steer, he later finishes a fast-food cheeseburger that leaves him "simply, regrettably full."
The wrongness of factory farming thus established, Pollan heads off to an idyllic farm in Virginia, "a scene of almost classic pastoral beauty." For all its relevance to the big picture of American meat production, it might as well have been a place where animals get to die of old age. But gourmets love to preach the benefits of organic fare to the country at large, feigning a child's ignorance of economics all the while; it is the only way they can pass off their pursuit of pleasure as a social conscience.
On the farm, Pollan gets to try his hand at a little throat cutting:
Daniel explained that you wanted to sever only the artery, not the head, so that the heart would continue to beat and pump out the blood...I told myself that their suffering, once their throats were slit, was brief. Yet it took several long minutes for the spasms to subside...but the waiting birds did not seem panicked, and I took solace in their seeming obliviousness. Yet, honestly, there wasn't much time for these reflections, because you're working on an assembly (or, really, disassembly) line.
There is, however, time for the reflection, "Was I going to be able to enjoy eating chicken so soon after my stint in the processing shed and gut-composting pile?" The paramount question of enjoyment has ramifications for organic food in general; a gourmet is not going to stint on his pleasure just to save the Earth. When Pollan finally cooks a chicken for a few friends, the moral-o-meter's reading is conclusive: The meal is "out of this world." The only complication is the presence of his friends' son Matthew, "fifteen and currently a vegetarian," who "had many more questions about killing chickens than I thought wise to answer at the dinner table." Of course! But doesn't Pollan say in his introduction that the pleasures of eating are "only deepened by knowing"? And if it is so natural to kill and eat animals, and so sentimental to think otherwise, why is the vegetarian the only one who can stomach the details? Pollan can't be bothered telling us why Matthew became a vegetarian. We are clearly meant to take it for a mere teenage phase, nothing a restriction of his options won't cure: "He confined himself to the corn."
Our investigative journalist interviews none of America's other vegetarians, either, relying instead on poultry farmers who claim to have sighted one or two. (We're to believe an anecdote, which shines with all the coherence and credibility of a letter to Penthouse, that a PETA member turned up at the "processing shed" one day, asking to kill chickens to overcome an aversion to meat.) This is not to say that Pollan brooks no contradiction. An entire chapter of The Omnivore's Dilemma is devoted to a scrupulously fair debate with the text of Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, and Pollan summarizes the Australian ethicist's views in the same lively style as his own. But he prefaces it all by smirking that he read the book in a fancy restaurant while eating "a rib-eye steak cooked medium rare," thereby putting all this morality business into the proper perspective.
Though Singer's reasoning may be inexorable, Pollan's appetite is unimpressed:
I put down my fork. If I believe in equality, and equality is based on interests rather than characteristics, then either I have to take the steer's interest into account or accept that I'm a speciesist.
For the time being, I decided, I'll plead guilty as charged. I finished my steak.
This spurious show of open-mindedness recalls Hans Küng, the Swiss theologian who uses a comparable technique when defending Christianity against secular critics. The similarity is not surprising, considering that our dietary and religious habits are both acquired in early childhood, which makes them hard to break no matter what we learn in later life. The Pollan-Küng Technique goes like this: One debates the other side in a rational manner until pushed into a corner. Then one simply drops the argument and slips away, pretending that one has not fallen short of reason but instead transcended it. The irreconcilability of one's belief with reason is then held up as a great mystery, the humble readiness to live with which puts one above lesser minds and their cheap certainties. As Pollan writes:
I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater. Yet part of me pities him, too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris.
How arrogant, in other words, how pitifully close to mental illness, to want to be a better person! But this is where the Christian and the gourmet part ways.
All the same, Pollan decides to indulge his inner George Plimpton again, becoming "a reluctant, and, I fervently hoped, temporary vegetarian." How seriously he took his meat-free diet can be guessed at. Though he claims to have stuck to it for at least a month, this most voluble of food writers does not name a single thing he ate. Nor, it seems, did he dine with any vegetarians.
"What troubles me most about my vegetarianism," Pollan nonetheless has the fatuity to write,
is the subtle way it alienates me from other people...As a guest, if I neglect to tell my host in advance that I don't eat meat, she feels bad, and if I do tell her, she'll make something special for me, in which case I'll feel bad. On this matter I'm inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners...I also feel alienated from...family traditions like my mother's beef brisket at Passover.
It is common these days to see moral arguments veer off into appeals to self-interest. We have reached a pretty pass when they start veering off into the realm of etiquette. The bit about Passover surprised me a little, Pollan having just tacitly admitted what he thinks of Orthodox Jews, but perhaps for him it's all about the brisket. A record of the gourmet's ongoing failure to think in moral terms, The Omnivore's Dilemma helps one to understand why no reformer ever gave a damn about fine dining -- or the family dinner table either. When Jesus vowed to turn children against their parents, he knew he'd be ruining an untold number of perfectly good meals.
B.R. Myers is a contributing editor of the Atlantic and the author of A Reader's Manifesto (2002).
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