Thursday, October 7, 2010
The Omnivore's Dilemma
Before I go into way too much detail about this book and how I feel about it - just wondering, just throwing this out there - would anyone like to start a book club? I know I tried this already with Pang and it was only kinda....ok not really successful - but I think it would be really cool to have a dialogue going - more than me just yammering. It can be informal to start. I will just start announcing what books I will be reading/reviewing next. If you wana get the book and read it too so we can chat, great! If not I will just keep ranting on my own. I think the next book I plan to read and review is The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America by Robert Love. It's brand new in the library and it looks pretty interesting. Now on to the current book!
The Omnivore's Dilemma. It's certainly an interesting book, a well written book - but one I feel a little....ambivalent towards, an ambivalence that has grown and stretched and now threatens to schizophrenically dictate this review. I will try to hold it together but...well I have a dilemma! Im really really not sure how I feel about this book. Perhaps it's because some of the topics covered in this book are becoming increasingly nearer and dearer to my little heart, and it's as if I can see us on opposite sides of the line, and he's just staring me down, "pitying" the poor vegetarian who is in" denial of reality." Or perhaps I'm upset that it's not the happy ending I had hoped for - that in spite of all he witnesses and even participates in - he's pretty much just as close minded and stuck in his ways as when he started the journey. Perhaps I'm torn between the fact that I did indeed learn tons of interesting facts from this book (like yeast can be harvested in your own backyard!) but that at the same time Pollan almost blatantly overlooks going into a deeper exploration of what would support what he might call a "sentimental" or "animal people" lifestyle.
Pollan's book follows, to a certain extent, four meals. The industrial agricultural meal of corn to Mcnugget,the two different kinds of organic - the industrial Whole Foods bought meal and the "local" Polyface farms meal, and the foraged and hunted meal he cobbles together from the general surrounding area of Berkeley California.
The first part of the book I really dug. It was interesting! He explains how corn has become such a huge huge crop in the United States and how it has found its way into so many of our foods - becoming the building blocks of the bulk of our processed food (yogurt, ketchup, candy, cheez whiz - the list goes on) to the point that its almost impossible to eat a packaged food that doesn't contain corn! And it doesn't end at just food, corn is a part of "disposable diapers, trash bags, cleansers, charcoal briquettes, matches, batteries, right down to the shine on the cover of the magazine." He even reveals the identity of the elusive and mysterious Xanthan Gum. He digs into the mystery of why corn has been grown and used so widely.
He then starts talking about how corn is used in the meat industry as feedstock for the animals. I was surprised to learn (I'm not sure why really because it does kinda make sense) that cows cannot digest corn. Ruminants, which are animals that have rumens (cows, llamas, deer, sheep, giraffe, camels, ect) are grass eaters by nature. What happens when you feed ruminants grain? They get sick. Pollan says that "virtually all of them [feedlot cattle] to one degree or another, according to several animal scientists I talked to - are simply sick." Bloat is a concern for ruminants eating grains and is described as " a layer of foamy slime [which] forms in the rumen and can trap gas. The rumen inflates like a balloon until it presses against the animal's lungs. Unless action is taken promptly to relieve the pressure (usually forcing a hose down the animals' esophagus), the animal suffocates." Another common side effect of the animals diet is acidosis. The basic symptom of acidosis is "bovine heartburn that in some cases can kill the animal" or cause the animal to "pant and salivate excessively, paw and scratch their bellies, and eat dirt. The condition leads to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, ruminates, liver disease and a general weakening of the immune system." I've always heard that cows (and industrial livestock in general) were pumped full of antibiotics but I didn't fully know why until reading this part of the book. Pollan also inspects the other aspects of the cow's diets and finds...well cows. The cows on the farm he is exploring are fed "blood products and fat," or in other words the steer that Pollan bought and is following through it's life is being fed "beef tallow recycled from the very slaughterhouse he's headed to in June." Also in cattle feed are "feather meal and chicken litter (that is, bedding, feces, and discarded bits of feed) " as well as "chicken, fish and pig meal. Wait these herbivores are eating animals and animal waste and even their own species?!
I found this particular meal - from corn to McDonald's to be pretty fascinating. Pollan artfully lays out the history behind the present state of things (the over-production of corn and soy and the mass production of animals for slaughter) and makes links to our current bulging waistlines, all while setting up things for the next two chapters. He accuses (rightfully) American's of being out of touch with their food (a sentiment I assume he handled heavily in his other book In Defense of Food, which I haven't read but have read reviews on, so I know the general punch-line) and says that if we are what we eat, then Americans are unknowingly walking, talking bundles of corn and petroleum (petroleum being the fertilizer, the harvester, the processor, the transporter, and even some of the ingredients of our food).
Pollan is far from the first person to attempt to turn American's off to fast food - but I feel like he does a thorough job of creating a story with which to bind his message in. Not only do we learn about the weird list of ingredients that goes into a chicken nugget but we also learn about the struggle of the corn and soybean farmer who no longer have the option of playing by the "supply and demand" rule we all remember memorizing for our Econ101 classes. Up through this point, I'm pretty pleased with the book. I'm enjoying reading it and I'm looking forward to more.
Next Pollan goes into the organic meal - but as he is soon to find out, organic has different meaning to different farmer and consumers and so he is forced to break down the term a little bit and he explores the industrial organic farm and then a more small scale organic farm.
For the industrial organic farm he compiles his meal from the vast array of organic and natural treats at a Whole Foods supermarket. He describes the shopping as a "literary experience." Marketers in the food business have a tough job - how do they get us to spend more money on items that may look and taste exactly alike? How can they assure us that the organic chicken breast we are buying is more nutritious, more ethical, or more tasty? Pollan wittily names this sort of writing - the work of the food marketer- as "Supermarket Pastoral," and the questions he draws, while walking through the Whole Foods reading pamphlets and labels and comparing organic products that boast different but both alluring aspects (he cites two organic jugs of milk, one ultra pasteurized - touting its long shelf life - the other company said no to ultrapasteurizing and claims they have a fresher, less processed product because of it) exemplifies just how confusing and slippery shopping can be. The recent trend in the United States it to buy natural, organic, and local foods - but Pollan points out that those words are defined differently by different companies and its hard to know, as the consumer, just what you are buying.
So he goes back to the source - the farms - and tries to discover where his chicken (Rosie is her name according to the package) actually came from, and if her described living conditions matched his expectations. I wont ruin all the surprises for you in this book but suffice it to say that the label "free range" didn't quite mean what we would all expect. Something interesting I learned from this little section - the life of a chicken on the Petaluma Poultry farm is only 7 weeks long. Only 7 weeks to produce big juicy breasts of meat. Surprisingly short really!
In this section Pollan also talks about little farms who made it big - like Earthbound Farms who pretty much have a monopoly on organic baby greens - which perfectly segways into his next section - the little organic farms.
Pollan spends a little less than a week on Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm in Virginia to find out what this self professed "grass farmer" is all about. Salatin, and a small group of hired hands and family members, run a pretty fascinating and well orchestrated choreography of animals at Polyface based on Pollan's description. This is what people think of when they think of "free range" or "humanely raised" animals. Salatin's secret to success: letting the animals do what they do best while working within the cycles of the grass. The cows are moved around the pasture to systematically eat the grass, the chickens move three days behind the cows to pick the insects out of the cowpaties, the pigs turn the stacked cowpoop from the winter shed into rich compost. Salatin has all kinds of little inventions and time tested rules that make this dance run on schedule. It's obvious from the way Pollan writes about this farm that he is pretty impressed by it, but at the same time he paints Salatin in an occasional condescending light. I get the feeling in this chapter that Pollan is really looking for a finished meat product that is "good to think" - meaning he can still eat the meat without feeling bad about killing an animal for it.
The chickens at Polyface are killed and prepared and bought right on the farm - and Pollan describes his experience working at the "killing station" and the evisceration part of the job. For the average American, this is not a process we are at all familiar with. Part of what makes Polyface so special is that the slaughter is done out in the open. Salatin encourages his buyers to come witness the process and even participate if they choose. Pollan admits to a fair amount of disgust at the whole process and wonders if he will be able to cook and eat one of the birds he just helped turn from a living animal into a brined chicken carcass. He writes in several parts of the book for the need to have more connection with our food and the processes they go through. He says that if the raising and slaughtering of animals was as accessible and transparent as the process at Polyface people would either stop eating meat or would demand more humane practices. While I can get behind this statement (although for me it wouldn't matter if it was "more humane" or not - it goes beyond that for me, so I still wouldn't eat it) I was disappointed that Pollan didn't spend a bit more time talking about the pigs on Polyface. What kind of life do they lead? How does he feel about animals that are raised in a more humane situation like this but still go to the same slaughterhouses as industrially raised animals?
Pollan's meal from the Polyface farm is shared with some friends nearby (he considered taking it back to California but thought that might tarnish the local sustainability value of it) and both he and the guests proclaimed it to be more chickeny flavored than most chickens. Everyone except one of the son's "Mathew, who's fifteen and currently a vegetarian." Here is where I flinch a little bit. Why currently? Is Pollan suggesting that Mathew is part of some fad - as if he is currently wearing the latest jeans - and his choice (a pretty important and mature choice to even consider at a young age) shouldn't be taken seriously? Turns out that's exactly what he is insinuating as he makes more clear in the last chapter of his book - the self made meal.
In Pollan's last meal he decides to shoot a pig, harvest mushrooms (sounds like hard work but could be fun too!) capture his own yeast, and collect salt. Before shooting a pig Pollan decides (after reading Animal Liberation while eating a steak) that he has to examine his feelings about taking an animal life and the only way he can do so is to become a "reluctant," and "fervently hoped, temporary vegetarian." It's in this section - The Vegetarian's Dilemma - that he start referring to vegetarians and vegans as "animal people." He says that in the first month of eating vegetarian he is still feeling reluctant. "I find making a satisfying vegetarian dinner takes a lot more thought and work (chopping work in particular); eating meat is simply more convenient." What really really irks me about this sentence is that it's just exactly what non-vegetarian's want to hear to pat themselves soothingly on the back and say - see, it's just not realistic. Eating meat is convenient and therefore ok to do. Also, why doesn't he describe any of his vegetarian meals? He goes at length to describe the Polface chicken: "The skin had turned the color of mahogany and the texture of parchment, almost like Pekind duck, and the meat itself was moist, dense, and almost shockingly flavorful. I could taste the brine of the apple wood..." Not one single description of a vegetarian meal. I am forced to believe (not only because of this, but because of the obvious disdain he has for the experiment as well as the practicers of the lifestyle) that he didn't really take this "challenge" from Peter Singer seriously.
He talks a bit about animal suffering too - and says the idea is vexing to him because "in a certain sense it is impossible to know what goes on in the mind of a cow or pig or ape." Sounds like a copout to me. Oh well its impossible to know what animals are feeling so can we really say they are suffering? Nope - lets eat steak. Yet in another place in the book he talks about how pigs are shown to be just as intelligent as some breeds of dogs and he questions why most dogs in America are given Christmas presents yet no thought is given to the pig served as Christmas dinner. He doesn't take it to the next step though - why don't we eat our dogs after they die? Because they are intelligent and sensitive creatures with emotions and bonding abilities? So are pigs but we don't give them that chance. While Pollan admits that animals do feel pain he says that it is not equal to human suffering and should not be viewed as such because their pain is not "amplified by distinctly human emotions such as regret, self-pity, shame, humiliation, and dread."
This I just don't buy as an excuse to eat animals. So I looked to see what others were saying about animal feelings. I came across Arran Stibbe's article Dignity Beyond the Human World of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies group. Stibbe write this:
Undoubtedly there are situations where animals feel emotions similar to humans feelings of humiliation, but it seems anthropomorphic to assume that other animals experience dignity and its loss in the same way that humans do. Perhaps, in many cases, the animal in question is feeling pain and distress rather than a loss of dignity.
However, looking at the other side, the human side, it is clear that strategic attempts to humiliate another party differ little whether that party is human or not. It is the same cultural script found throughout the human world: words and actions are used to systematically lower the social status of one party in order to feed the other party's desire for superiority. The mastery and control of animals, demonstrated through confining them, distorting their bodies, or making them perform unnatural feats, delivers at best a very fragile sense of self worth. The fragility occurs because the very act of having to humiliate another in order to gain a sense of self-worth simultaneously reveals deep insecurity.
And here is something I can agree with. Ok Pollan - so humans and animals don't experience the world in the same way - I will give you that. But does that mean we should take advantage of them? That we should inflict pain on them just because their experience of pain is different from ours? Stibbe's article also made me realize what I was trying to grasp as I read Pollan's "arguments" against Peter Singer's points and while I gritted my teeth through Pollan's admission that he "pities" vegetarians. Pollan is insecure. Really insecure obviously. He goes so far as to taunt vegans in the section The Vegan Utopian by saying "the farmer would point out to the vegan that even she has a 'serious clash of interests' with other animals. The grain that the vegan eats is harvested with a combine that shreds field mice, while the farmer's tractor wheel crushes woodchucks in their burrows and his pesticides drop songbirds from the sky." Really Pollan? Really? So it's all or nothing is it? Are you suggesting we adopt the "no shadow" diet now if we really want to be vegan? And why is the vegan a "she"? Is that to underline the opinion that you have that "animal people" are sentimental and out of touch with reality? He goes on to say that "if our goal is to kill as few animals as possible people should probably try to eat the largest possible animal that can live on a the least cultivated land: grass-finished steaks for everyone." Oh how convenient seeing as though you obviously love eating steak. I don't think you really thought this one out. You just let your stomach do the thinking.
Unsurprisingly he decides to go through with the pig hunt and finds in the end a mixed bag of pride, shame, elation, and disgust. But not so much disgust that when he smells the leg of pig roasting that he can't bring himself to eat it.
The most disappointing part of this book. There is no conclusion. He doesn't give us much of anything. He lamely closes out the book with a description of his last meal and thanks the people that made it possible and ....that's it. For as many times throughout the book as he urges us to look at, really look at what we are eating, Pollan fails to see the meal in front of him for what it is, the rotting decomposing corpse of another living species. Or I suppose he does - but chooses to accept that and keep on chewing.
So what are we left to think? He admits that both the McDonald's meal in the beginning of the book and the hunted boar meal at the end of his book are unrealistic - and should perhaps only be indulged once a year. His disdain for the vegetarian diet certainly doesn't lead me to believe that he would promote that option. So we are left with the Whole Foods option and the grass fed animals. Now maybe I'm wrong about this but I'm willing to bet that those two options are the foods that Pollan was probably already eating given the fact that he admits to shopping at Whole Foods and lives in Berkeley, which is known for its foody, local, natural, somewhat elitist cuisine. Unfortunately - American's interested in the subject, perhaps questioning their impact on the environment, their relationship to the animals they eat - will learn a good deal of information about this book. But at the end they will be able to reassure themselves that no one is asking them to give up anything really. No one is trying to "trick" them into thinking vegetarianism or even just eating a heck of a lot less meat can still lend itself to delicious and varied food (I eat a wider variety of food now, with animal products stripped out, than i ever did before). And worst of all, they will probably walk around parroting Pollan talking about how out of touch vegetarians are and may even go so far to say they too pity us.
As you can see, Im confused about this book. Pollan is a masterful storyteller. His writing style is enjoyable. He does quite a bit of research on both sides of the issue. But, for me, I can't get myself behind a book written by someone so insecure that they attack others who are doing someone that he obviously just doesn't have the selflessness or the courage to do. He's too concerned with being ostracized at a dinner party to really look at all the information he has gathered and follow it to it's logical conclusion.