The Dilemma of Reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma

[originally published here]

Michael Pollan may have ruined my Thanksgiving Dinner. I’m thinking about showing up on his doorstep and demanding he feed me. Pollan, of course, is the author of the wildly popular book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, (Penguin Books, $16) an engaging and creative piece of investigative journalism that attempts to answer the question “What shall we eat for dinner?”

It is an age-old question that dogs every relationship at some point. My girlfriend and I must ask it of each other at least three times a week. My parents, on a night they decide to eat out, have long and frustrating conversations in the car that go something like this:

Dad: Where would you like to go?
Mom: I don’t know. Anywhere.
Dad: What are you in the mood for?
Mom: Anything. You pick.
Dad: How about Antonio’s?
Mom: No. Not there.
Dad: Mexican?
Mom: No, I don’t want Mexican.
Dad: Well, what do you feel like eating?
Mom: What do you feel like eating?
Dad: #$%!@!!!!!!

Go on, laugh. You can’t tell me you don’t have the exact same conversation with your parents/spouse/kids/significant other at least once a month.

But actually, the question of “what shall we eat for dinner” is much, much older than our dilemma of whether to go out for Italian or Chinese. Human beings are classified as omnivores—meaning, we’re open to eating pretty much anything–a fact that has been so well exploited by the food industry that you can now find blueberry pancakes, wrapped around a hot dog, ON A STICK in the frozen foods section of your supermarket. Thank you Jon Stewart for pointing that little culinary absurdity out to the entire nation. Omnivores have an evolutionary advantage over, say, herbivores (who only eat plant material) or carnivores (who only eat meat) or eucalyptus-vores (Koala bears, which will go extinct if all the eucalyptus trees die since they eat nothing else). Omnivores are adaptable in their diet, able to take advantage of new foods when the other things they have been eating become rare or disappear altogether. The down side of this evolutionary strategy, of course, is that we never know if a new food will kill us until we try it. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, then, is how we decide what foods are safe and good to eat, and what foods are poison. As it turns out, most of our decision making process is genetically hardwired into us: natural feelings of euphoria or disgust, attractions to sweet tastes and avoidance of bitter flavors—all these designed to reinforce and inform our decision about what is safe to eat.

Pollan suggests that these hard-wired eating habits have been so manipulated by the modern food industry that everyone in the country is suffering from a kind of national eating disorder. Our own instinctive ability to judge what is good food or bad has been undermined and rendered impotent, and we have, in turn, abdicated the right to make those decisions to “scientific experts” and “nutritionists” who advise us, give us conflicting but important-sounding facts, and basically put the fear of God and cholesterol into us until we would probably be afraid to put anything into our mouths without the stamp of FDA approval. Given the wild success of the diet industry, it’s hard to argue with Pollan’s contention.

Pollan accordingly set out to discover where the food on his dinner plate came from. His original idea was to follow his steak back to the original cow, his potato back to the original field, and his glass of wine back to the original grapes. But he soon discovered that path food travels from farm and field to supermarket and then dinner plate is not nearly so simple. Eventually, he was forced to divide his approach into three sections. The first part is an analysis of what Pollan calls (justifiably) the “industrial food chain.” Part two looks at the organic and local food movement and in part three—most amusingly—he explores what it means to go directly from forest to food. In other words, he attempts to hunt his own dinner.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is frequently described by critics and reviewers as “a life-changing book” and when this phrase appears, it is almost entirely based on the reader’s reaction to Part One, Pollan’s expose of the industrial food chain. The author provides a fairly devastating analysis of the environmental and social costs of industrializing agriculture—focusing for this book on the country’s dependency on corn—not the kind you eat on the cob with butter, but the kind you grow to make cattle feed and to process into about half the ingredients listed on your average can of soda. His condemnation of the way Big Agriculture—corporations like Archer Daniels Midland and a few others—force farmers to produce cheap corn in excessive quantities with utter disregard for the market or the environmental impact, and the policy of the government to subsidize a practice which is basically bankrupting farmers while concentrating profits in the hands of the corporations—is blunt and uncompromising. But it isn’t Pollan’s opinions on governmental agricultural policy that got readers all riled up. It was his lurid descriptions of a beef cattle feedlot, a chicken factory farm, and the fate of your average pig that got everybody’s attention. Pollan makes sure to fully engage his readers’ genetic inclination for disgust and he does it well. It took nothing more than his statement that chickens in egg-laying factories have their beaks clipped off with hot pliers (so they don’t peck and cannibalize the other half dozen hens crammed in their two-foot by two-foot space) to make me put down my usual carton of a dozen eggs at the supermarket, and pick up the ones next to them on the shelf, which were twice as expensive, but said “organic” and more to the point “free range”.

Pollan essentially gets the same reaction from his readers to his descriptions of cattle standing sick and wheezing, ankle-deep in their own muck, or pigs enduring a lifetime of suffering from their neighbors gnawing on their docked tails, or even the simple fact that any person who enters a factory farm animal shed usually has to wear a hazmat suit, as Upton Sinclair did when he wrote about the meat packing industry in his novel The Jungle. Sinclair, a committed socialist, was trying to engage the country’s sympathy for the immigrant poor. His aim was a little off. “I tried to hit Americans in the heart,” he is supposed to have said, “but I hit them in the stomach.”

Pollan, I think, has suffered the same fate. He wrote a book that calls for fundamental change in agricultural policy and in the way we regard our relationship with food, but readers are distracted from the complexity of his arguments (not all of which are convincing) by the sheer grossness and awfulness of parts of the story. We are, after all, basically good and kind at heart. We don’t like to read about cruelty, even (or especially) to animals. This is a country where it is a truism in the publishing industry that if you want a novel to sell, you can’t kill a dog in the story. We certainly don’t want to think about the fact that the chicken we just were handed through the KFC drive-through window spent its short miserable existence in a kind of living hell. By the time the reader turns to Part Two, he is desperate to think of something else.

In part two, after a brief foray into what Pollan calls “industrial organic”—these are the companies who provide the lettuce on the organic shelves of your supermarket produce sections, the author spends a week living on a small organic and “sustainable” farm in Virginia. The farmer is a member of what Pollan calls the “non-barcode people”, he produces food for local markets and has made his farm self-sufficient and self-sustaining; Orchestrating a diverse set of produce that includes raising chickens, beef and pork as well as organic vegetables. After the previous hundred and eighty pages, Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms seems like an idyll. Heaven on earth. The answer to all our food prayers. Pollan first encountered Joel when his steaks were recommended by a friend. Pollan lives in California. He called the farmer and asked him to FedEx a couple steaks.

“No.” said Joel. “You want to eat my steak, you’ll have to drive up here and get it.”

That answer is a fair indication of the kind of philosophy—bordering on fanaticism—that this particular farmer holds. Pollan faithfully arranges to spend a week on his farm to understand how it works, and what agriculture based on grazing and grass rather than feedlots and corn actually means. And it is hard not to be converted by his descriptions of the happy chickens in the fields, the cattle lowing on the pastures, the pigs rooting through compost (not to mention the vibrant grass and lush woods on the hilly farm). His first night at Polyface farms, they have farm-raised chicken and farm-grown broccoli in a casserole for dinner. There are deviled farm-laid eggs. The only things at the table that didn’t come from the fields outside were the can of mushroom soup Theresa Salatin used to make the casserole, and the paper towels she used to wipe the counter.

There was only ice water to drink.

And there, I paused. The fact that there was no alcohol in the farm house might be a function of the farmer’s peculiar brand of Christian libertarianism and fundamentalism (there were grape vines on the land). But there was no coffee. And the reason there was no coffee was simply because Polyface farms couldn’t grow coffee. I can appreciate the environmental benefits and impact of the farm, and naturally, after the horrors of the first part of the book I had no trouble converting and extolling the virtues of locally produced meat from happy animals. But something always stops me from completely accepting the local-only dictum that Joel Salatin preaches—to great effect, I admit.

I was drinking coffee as I read that he had none on his farm—“fair trade” coffee that comes from women growers in Peru. I drink enough of it that I’m sure I’m keeping at least one Peruvian family in clothes and cornmeal. In my pantry I have a variety of odd ingredients, included dried Asian mushrooms, walnuts from New England, Pecans from Georgia, and cranberries from some place in Massachusetts. There is chocolate from Belgium. In the fridge there is cheese from Switzerland and proscuitto from Italy. I have three kinds of olive oil, none of which was grown or bottled in the United States, balsamic vinegar, cans of coconut milk, Mexican cinnamon and mole sauce, and couscous from Morocco. And sitting on my kitchen table is a bunch of bananas that this week, anyway, came from South America. The most dire, fire-and-brimstone, impassioned preacher on the sins of importing food or the saving grace of local eggs could never make me give up my bananas.

I think it is because one of the best (and most enjoyable) ways we come to terms with and accept foreign cultures is by learning to eat and enjoy their cuisines. A shared meal has more potential to erase xenophobia and racism than almost any other social activity. The family on Polyface farm will never eat sushi, never enjoy pad Thai or Massaman curry because lemongrass and coconuts can’t be grown on their farm. They won’t have oysters because they don’t live by the sea. They won’t ever eat fish because no one on Polyface is a fisherman. I get a real pleasure from eating the things I grow in my garden. But I also get a real pleasure from exploring the world via its food. I’d hate to live in a world where I would have to actually go to Morocco to eat couscous. And I wonder about that farm’s self-imposed restrictions–when does their commitment to nurturing their own land become a rejection of the rest of the world at their doorstep?

Michael Pollan, it has to be said, does NOT wonder about this. But he wonders about many other things. He considers the ethics of eating animals and the point of hunting in a culture where food is provided for us. He contemplates the economics of cheap food and the devastation of world hunger, the never-ending struggle between providing profit and providing health. He describes, in great and searingly-self-aware detail, how it feels to kill something and how it feels to eat something you have killed. He struggles with his own personal prejudices and assumptions, and finds in the end a kind of redemption in his meal. And ultimately that tendency to wonder, to think about our food and why we eat the things we do is the great good thing about The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Wondering and thinking has seriously complicated my plans for Thanksgiving Dinner, thank you very much. I had just finished the part of the book where Pollan described exactly how many chickens can be crammed into a cage when my girlfriend called to say that turkey was on sale for twenty cents a pound that weekend. I felt not excited, but rather nauseous. “Let’s have oysters for Thanksgiving” I told her. I would have loved turkey. I had already been planning on what kind of turkey to cook. But if you want a happy, free range organic turkey from a local farm you have to order it ahead of time—like three to four months ahead of time, since that is how long it takes for a turkey to grow up. I’d obviously missed my window. Our Thanksgiving Dinner was going to require some careful thought.

“I had actually wanted to say something more,” Pollan writes about the final meal he cooks for friends who have helped him to hunt a wild pig (California is full of them, who knew?) and gather morel mushrooms, “to express a wider gratitude for the meal we were about to eat, but I was afraid that to offer words of thanks for the pig and the mushrooms and the forests and the garden would come off sounding corny and worse, might ruin some appetites. The words I was reaching for, of course, were the words of grace. But as the conversation at the table unfurled like a sail amid the happy clatter of silver, tacking from stories of hunting to mother lodes of mushrooms to abalone adventures, I realized that in this particular case words of grace were unnecessary. Why? Because that’s what the meal itself had become, for me certainly but I suspect for some of the others, too: a wordless way to say grace.”

And ultimately, if The Omnivore’s Dilemma does nothing else but this—if it never effects any change in agricultural policy, never convinces a single reader to buy an organic chicken, never even makes a single person attempt to grow their own tomatoes—if all it does is make us think of the food in front of us as a kind of grace, then it will have done enough.

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