Up and Down the Food Chain

A year ago, my body staged a small rebellion. For some reason, I became unable to digest comfortably some of the foods I had eaten for most of my life. While my food lifestyle until then could be described as omnivorous, as a cook, suddenly I was cast directly into a process in which I needed to decide what I could eat, and what I should eat. Ultimately, I listened to what my body was telling me, and used some common sense.

A similar process faces U.S. writer Michael Pollan throughout The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he examines the production of food in the United States and its impact on the food chain and on this particular writer and thinker. He asks the “can” and “should” questions as he moves from Big Food, with its reliance upon corn, through to Big Organic (which emerged as an alternative response to the traditional production and marketing of food) and Tiny Organic (the small producer), concluding finally with a bout of foraging in his immediate and local neighbourhood.

For the past five years, as a contributing writer with The New York Times Magazine, Pollan has developed a solid readership with his thought-provoking feature stories. The most recent, The Conscious Carnivore, was excerpted from this book late last month. His work is not unlike the muckraking of such fiction and non-fiction as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. However, The Omnivore’s Dilemma may be the first book that offers on its menu a heady mix of ethics, philosophy, sociology, market economics, history and plain old kitchen smarts.

The writer in this country Pollan most closely resembles is Margaret Visser, but with a major difference. When I interviewed Visser many years ago, after the release of Much Depends On Dinner, I was surprised to learn that she does not venture into the field but relies instead on book research and interviews. Pollan certainly does that, but you also find him on his belly examining the variety of plants and critters in a pasture, attempting to get up at 5:30 a.m. to do chores at Polyface Farm in the Shenandoah Valley (described by its Christian owner Joel Salatin as “beyond organic”), traipsing up and down burned-off California forest hillsides in search of morels (Pollan will refer to them as “power fire morels”), following food sources Rosie the chicken and a steer known only as 534 to their respective demises, serving time on the line with a very sharp knife at Polyface’s open-air chicken abbatoir, and hunting wild pig with one of his food guides, or “Virgils.”

This may, in fact, be one of those books whose ending you actually wish would arrive more quickly. As his thesis plays out, and the book’s rhythms become ever more predictable, the Slow Food-curious just know that The Omnivore’s Dilemma will conclude with the best meal, the most heartfelt renderings, of Pollan’s five-year quest for knowledge and wisdom. They won’t be disappointed, either, as Pollan enters the hunter-gatherer phase of his enquiry in search of a meal he can forage from appetizer through to dessert.

It is in the final 120 pages that the writing in Pollan’s participatory journalism tends to shine, and he finally comes to terms with his own omnivore’s dilemma. Having retreated at one point to vegetarianism as he considered that the ability of an animal to suffer was the make-or-break determinant on food choice–hardly an original concept–he nonetheless feels he can return to meat as he realizes and understands its role in the food chain.

On the hunt with his Virgil, San Francisco iron artist and “poster boy for the Slow Food movement” Angelo Garro, his kill is clean–despite an implication that the shot might have come from Garro’s rifle–though even here, Pollan’s feelings are not quite as clear-cut. While he is relatively emotionless at the point of the large grey sow’s killing, during the cleaning of the animal in the forest, the impact of his act finally hits him.

“What disgusted me about ‘cleaning’ the animal was just how messy–in every sense of the word–the process really was, how it forced me to look at and smell and touch and even to taste the death, at my hands, of a creature my size that, on the inside at least, had all the same parts and probably looked an awful lot like I did… So we are left standing there in the woods with our uneasiness and our disgust, and disgust’s boon companion, shame.”

In many ways, this may be the perfect food book. It covers ground in areas seldom visited by food writers and cooks, draws on an abundance of literary sources, introduces a colourful set of characters more likely to be found in a novel, and shows off a writer at the peak of his powers. Try his description of the pigs at Polyface Farm: “Buried clear to their butts in composting manure, a bobbing sea of wriggling hams and corkscrew tails, these were the happiest pigs I’d ever seen. I couldn’t look at their spiralled tails, which cruised above the earthy mass like conning towers on submarines, without thinking about the fate of pigtails in industrial hog production.”

Ultimately, though, The Omnivore’s Dilemma prods you to think, a role that suits me just fine, whether I’m in a grocery store or a restaurant or bumbling around in my own kitchen. Pollan may aim a kick at your gut, but he hits you in the head, too.