I finished reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, and promptly followed it with a viewing of Delicatessen. Conclusion: I will never eat meat again (and most certainly not in a dystopian Parisian wasteland, thankyouverymuch).
Ok, so, no, it wasn’t that simple. To start, I have made that vow before: I stopped eating meat 16 years ago, planning to never touch it again. Being lactose intolerant didn’t interfere with my grand plan too much: I lived happily on nuts, beans, eggs, and tofu, plus the varied goodness of the rest of the vegetable world. Then, five years ago, I was diagnosed with thyroid disease and stopped eating soy (only one of many life adjustments). I decided then to start eating wild-caught fish and free-range chicken; these two categories of meat balanced my concern for the quality of the animals’ lives, the economics of the meat industry, and my commitment to my own health relatively satisfactorily. Around the same time I discovered I have a shellfish allergy, so the insects of the ocean aren’t an option for me (it likely went undetected all of these years because of my childhood dislike of their appearance and my subsequent vegetarianism).
As I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I was acutely aware of the lines I’ve walked in balancing my own competing interests when making food choices. I have never been repulsed by meat itself, although I have been — and continue to be — repulsed by the most common practices of raising and slaughtering animals in the U.S. These practices are what drove me to stop eating cows, pigs, and chickens in 1991, and they have remained substantially the same. Pollan touches only briefly on the industrial practices of raising and slaughtering animals, drawing heavily on the assumption — accurate in my case — that the reader is familiar with them through works such as Fast Food Nation and The Jungle. Pollan also avoids issues related to workers — on farms, driving trucks, in supermarkets, at slaughterhouses, in restaurants — throughout the book, an omission that his somewhat contrived framing — tracing the source of four meals — makes easy. Throughout, his focus is on the individual eater, and the choices the eater as individual has to make, rather than on communal ethics or the collective responsibilities of civil society. I found this emphasis, along with his frequently glib and often smug rhetorical style, rendered the narrative less engaging and, at times, off-putting.
In terms of new information, I found the description of the small farm’s system of combining managed intensive grazing and poultry pasturing to be the most fascinating part of the book. No doubt my heightened interest stems from my family’s connections — historical and contemporary — to food farming, but it was also the only section of the book that wasn’t telling me something I was already familiar with (as was the case with the discussions of industrial agriculture, ‘big organic’ companies, and hunting or gathering). The main value of those sections was to confirm the choices I already make: to eat low on the food chain; to buy local, seasonal, and organic fruits and vegetables; to do without eggs or chickens unless they’ve been allowed to range freely and fed organic seed; to buy milk from a cooperative where the cows are pastured and not treated with antibiotics or growth hormones; and to avoid corn syrup and soy additives whenever possible. Of course, I’m not perfect, and my access to all of these foods isn’t either; I buy organic breakfast cereal imported from Canada, because I like it and because it’s the one with the largest amount of fiber and the smallest amount of sugar that I can find.
The book did highlight one dilemma for which I still haven’t arrived at a solution, that of what to do about the chickens: to eat, or not to eat? Non-industrially farmed meat is still both hard to find and hard to afford in many instances, and I don’t have the standard Midwesterner’s freezer in which to store large amounts of meat (which would lower the cost). Also, truthfully, I don’t think I could ever get used to handling and cooking pork or beef in my own house, and that probably means — in the ethics of looking your dinner in the face that Pollan describes — that I probably shouldn’t be eating it. Really, I have issues preparing any meat at home — we said an inordinate number of graces for the chickens we received through our farm share this winter — and I can’t imagine increasing my current consumption for that reason.
Thus, our introspective household has arrived at an uneasy balance exactly of the type that Pollan explores: every single meal is necessarily a compromise between our ethics regarding farming, labor, local economic, and environmental practices, and our ongoing commitment to our own health.