We've all heard stories about the contents of our refrigerators: the meat laden with antibiotics, the vegetables laced with pesticide, the free-range chickens that never ranged. We shrug. We sigh. Well, what can you do? You gotta eat. Better just not to think about it.
But that's not Michael Pollan's style. A professor of journalism at UC Berkeley, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, and author of the 2002 best-seller The Botany of Desire, Pollan thinks about food quite a bit even the unpleasant parts. "I guess for some people that's a real burden, and they're very happy to eat in ignorance," he says. "But I find it's much more pleasurable to eat in the knowledge of what I'm doing."
Ah, but eat what? That's the question behind Pollan's lively and thought-provoking new book, The Omnivore's Dilemma (Penguin, $26.95). The supermarket, he writes, offers an overwhelming number of choices: "The organic apple or the conventional? And if the organic, the local one or the imported? The wild fish or the farmed? The trans fats or the butter or the 'not butter'?" Pollan figured the best way to decide whether to eat this chicken or that head of lettuce was to follow it back to its origin: to know where it came from.
So he traveled around the country, from California's huge organic farms to Iowa's vast cornfields to tiny Polyface Farm, a hundred acres of Arcadian pasture in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, where he spent a week throwing hay bales, herding cattle, and slaughtering chickens.
A great admirer of the late George Plimpton's participatory journalism, Pollan jumped into the story wherever he could. To better understand the cattle industry, he bought a steer and had it raised for slaughter. A few months into the process, he visited his steer at the industrial feedlot where it was being kept. The sight dismayed him. "They're standing in manure up to their hocks," he explains. "There is no grass. I mean, no grass. It's just mud, which is really wet manure. The stench is just unbearable. They're overlooking a lagoon full of manure and water. And they're eating corn that's giving them indigestion."
Pollan's story appeared in The New York Times Magazine months before his steer's appointment at the slaughterhouse. Readers begged him to spare its life. A vegan radio program in New Jersey wanted to organize a fund-raiser. "They were willing to pay me anything I could ask for," he says. "I could have asked $50,000 for the animal and they would have raised it for me." It was an instructive episode, he says: "The whole experience, which I found alternately amusing and disturbing, convinced me that our relationship with animals in this country is very schizophrenic. We're prepared to sentimentalize the individual animal while brutalizing the mass of them."
To complete the book, Pollan writes, he wanted to make a meal "in full consciousness of what was involved." So he planned a dinner composed, with a few exceptions, of ingredients he could hunt or gather himself. The dishes would eventually include morels foraged from a burned Sierra mountainside, and a tart filled with Bing cherries plucked from a tree overhanging his sister-in-law's yard in Berkeley. But first, for the main course, he needed to shoot a pig. Unfortunately for Pollan, he had never hunted before. He owned neither a gun nor a hunting license. Unfortunately for the pig, Pollan soon passed his written hunting test (scoring "in the A-plus range," he says) and borrowed a friend's .270 Winchester. After one fruitless outing, he bagged a 190-pound sow in the hills near Healdsburg. He felt elated, kneeling over his kill, but that soon changed. "The emotions that attend killing an animal, and hunting in particular, are very complicated and very contradictory," he says, "and I felt the full range of them, from the sense of triumph, to the sense of remorse, to the sense of shame, to the sense of revulsion, and disgust, and then, you know, pleasure, believe it or not. You work through this. You have a couple weeks to do it. The animal has to hang, and gradually the dead body becomes meat, and then a delicious dinner."
Knowing what he knows now, is there anything Pollan won't eat? "I really can't eat feedlot beef; the only beef I eat is grass-finished beef," he says, then quickly adds: "unless I go to dinner at someone's house and they serve me another kind of beef. To me, that overrides my obligation to the animal. If someone's already bought this animal and cooked it and is preparing it for me, I'm not going to reject it."
But apparently that message has yet to circulate, leaving Pollan with a dilemma that would frustrate any omnivore: "A lot of people are too intimidated to invite me to dinner," he says. "Which really sucks."
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