Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Michael Pollan: The Ominvore's Dilemma

Over two years ago, I posted the short version of my long pondered question: why do people eat artichokes? As long as I've been alive, we've been going to the same spot at the beach, and as long as I've been alive, we've been driving through the same vast fields of artichokes where those pictures were taken. Artichokes do *not* look like anything resembling food, at least to the modern American eater, even a modern eater raised next door to the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley, with adventurous parents who more to cook and serve homemade Mexican black beans and Chinese-style stirfry than hamburgers for dinner. But artichokes always puzzled me. Who thought of eating them? How did they figure out to get the fruit? Who on earth figured out that the heart was edible, or that the leaves were good if you scraped them with your teeth? Just weird.

I don't usually read in themes, but if you've been following along as themacinator drifts from her normal topics (pit bulls, baseball, animal welfare, photography, and, well, Mac) to food books and food and food books again, you'll see that it started with Novella Carpenter in August with "Farm City." The more distanced I am from this book, the less I like it, mostly because of Carpenter herself, and the NIMBY sensation I have. Did she have to do this in Oakland? The short answer is probably yes- like me it's awesome to be next door to the Gourmet Ghetto in Berkeley. And she lives (lived?) in Oakland, so yes, she had to have her backyard farm in Oakland. But the farm, especially once she added the pigs, disgusted me, both as a sentient person- GROSS to pig shit and rotten scraps- and as an animal person- her rabbit ethics especially disturbed me, and knowing this is going on in my town really put me off.

So I decided to bite the bullet and read "Eating Animals." (see also The Pain and Hypocrisy.) This book troubled and moved me, and also demanded, ala Carpenter, that you know where your meat comes from. In a way, as a long time vegetarian, I felt vindicated. Only in a very, very small way. You can only opt out a little bit, as an American, as our culture is all about meat, and fast meat at that. I don't really opt out, either, not in any meaningful way, as I consume fast dairy and eggs, and Mac eats meat, meat that I don't pay particular attention to where it comes from- I wish I could say it does, and I wish that saying that I pick my battles was a good argument. It's not, but it's what I do, and what I can do at this point in my life. The book prompted me for the first time to consider being a vegan. I'm not, and won't be, but did make me consider more than the extremism that the word usually provokes in me.

So I decided to read Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma." Like Carpenter's book, this book was not particularly readable. It wasn't as morally difficult as Safran Foer's book, but more morally unpalatable (yuk yuk) than Carpenters. It takes Pollan 2/3 of his book to get to his title: The omnivore's dilemma is the dilemma of the artichoke. "The blessing of the omnivore," Pollan finally writes on page 287, "is that he can eat a great many different things in nature. The curse of the omnivore is that when it comes to figuring out which of these things are safe to eat, he's pretty much on his own." In the first part of Pollan's book, he talks about monoculture: America has turned a vast diversity of food options into one thing: Corn. Basically, we live on corn. Everything we eat- animal and vegetable, and all processed food can be traced back to corn, which is grown in giant monoculture. Farmers, the few of them that are left, grow corn. They ship corn. Corn is processed in a few different ways, fed to animals that have been redesigned to eat corn, which they didn't do a few decades ago, and they then are slaughtered, processed with more corn (which has been reprocessed into a variety of things) and then they are served up with corn in the form of soda and other beverages and side dishes. Delicious and not-very-nutritious. Yum.

The second part of Pollan's book- the conceit he uses to get to his main point is following three separate meals from the very beginning. The first is a meal at McDonalds, hence the super processed corn. The second meal is from a farm he finds that truly sounds sustainable and local. He has to kill chickens, but the chickens, he believes, live real-chicken-lives, which makes it OK. As OK as it can be. He eats everything right there, on the farm. The third meal, when he finally gets to the omnivore's dilemma, is a hunted/gathered meal- which involves mushrooms. They can be dangerous, fatal, even, which proves his point: if you don't know what to eat, you can die. If you know what to eat, you can have the best most awesome meal possible, available only to people, because they will eat anything. And the community that comes together to eat this meal enjoys a "perfect meal," because they were all involved in the making of it, including the ritual of cooking, another human thing. (Interestingly, Safran Foer starts his book discussing the ritual of meals, and how something is lost with the eating of meat, although he believes it is replaceable.)

Questioning and killing the eating of animals, Pollan stresses, is a new thing. Being a vegetarian, or even worrying about the animals we eat, is new, and kind of odd. In the same vein, the kind of mass production of animals, industrial farming, that Americans rely on, is also new. Both novelties are part of the same thing: distancing us from the fact that humans are also animals. Killing and eating animals is an animal thing. Being on the second farm, and having the "kill area" open to the air was a kind of transparency that Pollan found refreshing, and almost a defining part of a sustainable farm. Customers could and did come watch the process: if they didn't approve they could skip on the purchase. Pollan found himself immensely proud of shooting a pig, something he thought would repulse him. But both processes- the slaughter of a chicken who had lived a chicken life and the killing of a wild pig- reminded him that he, too, was an animal, doing an animal thing: preying on a prey animal, in a human way- with guns and knives. Primitive? Yes. More realistic than a vegetarian's idealism and an industrial farm? Also, yes.

I was sold by this, almost as much as I was sold by Safran Foer's arguments against eating animals. I've always argued that I don't eat meat because of the way we over-do it. If everyone ate meat in moderation, I've said, maybe I would, too. If people ate meat in the ways that Pollan ate meat in his second two meals- through local, transparent farms and in the once a year hunted meal, it would require moderation, and awareness. The animals would be real animals, not just meat for the table, which I think even Safran Foer might agree with. The humans involved would be treated as humans, not just assembly line workers. The environment, the earth, would be treated as a part of the process, not just a resource to be mined. Together, the pieces of both philosophies work. Separately, they're pedantic. In all likelihood, they're both improbable. If they're going to start anywhere, they're here in Oakland or Berkeley. I wish Carpenter, who had the most likelihood of doing it right, had done it right, rather than dabbling in every possible food animal. Maybe there's still a chance.


Gene said...

Haven't read "Eating Animals", but you've given a good summary of "Farm City" and "Omnivore's Dilemma".

The reason I gave up meat 10+ years ago (and try to be careful about where my eggs and fish come from) is because of the impact that raising animals for food has on the environment. Corn as monoculture is part of that, but so is the water and energy usage to get the meat from the feed lot to McDonald's or the supermarket.

The fact it's generally healthier and the cruelty to animals parts are a bonus.

Jennie said...

I read it about five years ago (B.V.: Before Veganism), so forgive me if some of this is off or gathered from other pieces of his I've read.

The problem I have with Pollans' book is that it fails to take most of the ethical arguments for vegetarianism seriously, passing most of them over without attempting to really refute them. I am especially not fond of his attempts at Peter Singer's arguments. It seems like he draws the same conclusion Singer does, but simply decides to ignore it's moral implications, or ignore pieces of the argument and pass on to others.

I guess I find him rather disingenuous. If he followed his moral ideas, I could be more forgiving, but he readily admits that he does not source a lot of the foods he eats and thus all his postulating about food that comes from animals who don't suffer, whose "production" doesn't harm the environment, seems rather moot. His fact checking is off as well, several anecdotal stories in the book seem to have no grounding in fact (check out http://saywhatmichaelpollan.wordpress.com/ for more info).

Lastly, I think that this book fails to address that if flesh production were to follow the Pollan model, then meat would once again become a delicacy for the wealth, and then only sparingly. There's nothing wrong with that in my point of view, but what about all the people who can no longer afford meat and don't know how to feed themselves an adequate diet without it? So why not focus on a vegetarian diet? Why go to all these lengths for something we don't really need?