The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

By Michael Pollan – Penguin Press, 2006
Reviewed by Natan Margalit
From Tikkun Magazine, August 2006

Ben Zoma used to say, “What labors Adam had to carry out before he obtained bread to eat! He ploughed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound the sheaves, he threshed and winnowed and selected the grains, he ground and sifted the flour, he kneaded and baked and then at last he ate. Whereas I get up in the morning and find all these things done for me.”
Babylonian Talmud, Brakhot 58b

Claude Levi-Strauss once said that food is not only good to eat, but also good to think. Our meals are statements that help us to understand ourselves and our world. Of course, the Bible makes this connection between food and thought with Adam and Eve’s fateful meal from the Tree of Knowledge. In today’s world of complex, industrial food chains, however, that connection is broken. Food seems to come from the supermarket, manufactured and packaged. Ignorance, not knowledge, characterizes modern eating. Even more disturbing is the fact that food categories that we might imagine are more transparent, more ethical, such as organic food – and kosher food — are increasingly involved in this manufactured ignorance.

Michael Pollan’s latest book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is about this connection between food and knowledge. He brilliantly explores the ways modern industrial food is based on ignorance, indifference and illusion, and the ways one may reconnect the food we eat with the story of how it reached our table. Much more than an expose of industrial agribusiness, Pollan’s book is a philosophical and practical meditation on the dangers of breaking the food/knowledge nexus, and the pleasures of mending it.

The “omnivore’s dilemma” he explains, is the pleasant opportunity but also the difficulty we humans face in deciding “what should we have for dinner?” The dilemma is especially acute in contemporary America. Lacking traditional cuisines and cultural guidelines about how to eat, we are particularly vulnerable to food fads, marketing schemes and “expert advice.” What Pollan calls “our national eating disorder” is fueled by an industrial food system which obscures the most important facts about the ecological, moral and health implications of our meals. He suggests that one could define industrial agriculture as any food system that requires an investigative journalist to answer the question, “What am I eating?”

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is organized around four meals that Pollan researches, participating as much as possible in various stages of their production, and eats, usually with his family or friends. One meal is industrial (McDonalds, in a moving car), one “industrial organic” (whether or not that is an oxymoron is one of the central questions of this book), one from a small, diversified farm in Virginia , and one is a “perfect meal” in which the author either grew, gathered or hunted (almost) everything that he eats.

The four-meal structure is a conceit or a gimmick. But it works, because one feels Pollan’s personal stake in the questions he raises. Along the way, he introduces us to interesting characters such as Iowa activist farmer George Naylor, Gene Kahn, the former hippy organic farmer turned corporate businessman, Joel Salatin, the Christian idealist natural farmer, and Angelo Garro, whom Pollan describes as “a stout, burly Italian with a five-day beard, sleepy brown eyes, and a passion verging on obsession about the getting and preparing of food.” By personally digging up the stories behind of all his meals, Pollan wants to reawaken our consciousness of eating as a complex, full experience, one which connects us daily with a network of people, animals, plants and the earth.

Pollan’s research into the industrial food system is fascinating and scary. We are introduced to the incredible monoculture of corn, not only in Iowa fields, but in the entire supermarket. He shows how, behind the mask of seemingly endless variety in the aisles, practically everything has been either fed on, or manufactured from, corn. And behind all that corn is oil. Between fertilizers, running equipment and transportation, Pollan conservatively estimates 50 gallons of oil are used per acre of industrial corn.

The “super-size me” phenomenon of huge soft drink servings, and the epidemic of obesity that follows in its wake, are directly linked to the invention of high fructose corn syrup. Pollan’s discussion of corn-fed beef in CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) was widely read in a previous New York Times Magazine article in which he described buying a calf and following it through the system. His personal knowledge of this one calf throws light onto the darkness of a system which “solves” an economic problem, but along the way creates disease (for cattle and humans), pollution and degradation. Behind all of this, Pollan notes, are the government subsidies which benefit not farmers and consumers, but the large multinationals that profit from this system of industrialized agriculture.

The Omnivore’s Dilmma‘s exploration of the world of ‘big organics’ is no less compelling, all the more so for its disabusing us of some cherished illusions. It is here that we feel the personal note of ambivalence in Pollan’s journey. Pollan admits that he likes shopping at Whole Foods (I do as well) at the same time as he uncovers the way that he is being sold not simply food, but rather a story about food. It is a story that progressive, idealistic people like Pollan want to hear. Unfortunately it is often more fiction than fact. The author’s description of the organic “free range” chicken operation (Pollan correctly notes that it cannot be called a “farm.”) is emblematic. Although the name and packaging on “free range” eggs suggest a small, family farm, in fact his investigation uncovers a factory operation in which chickens live in barracks not much different from their conventional counterparts.

Five out of the seven weeks of their lives, the chickens are indoors. In their last two weeks a door is opened on their barracks, leading to a small lawn. The lawn would never fit the number of chickens inside, but that never becomes a problem because the food and water are indoors and the chickens are by then terrified to leave their building.

What makes this book much more than simply an exercise in exposing the evils of the industrial food system are its chapters on the “perfect meal,” the meal which Pollan freely admits is not a practical option for almost anyone, but which allows him to delve more deeply into the idea of food and knowledge, and the feeling, which he reports borders on the mystical, of eating a meal in which “the karmic debt has been fully paid.”

It is here that we see the full cost of the disconnected and dishonest system of industrial agriculture. The author’s vivid descriptions of hunting a boar, foraging for mushrooms, cooking a meal, and then enjoying it amid good conversation with his family and friends, move beyond conventional journalism into a profound meditation on the satisfaction and mystery of being present, in honest confrontation with one of the elemental facts of living: our need to get and prepare food.

While the mere mention of hunting may evoke a negative reaction in many readers, Pollan’s exploration of this is both a disturbing, and he somewhat embarrassedly admits, exhilarating, experience. He balances his foray with one of the best discussions of the ethical debates about vegetarianism that I have ever read, and, true to his commitment to first hand experience, Pollan abstains from meat for a few months while he ponders its moral significance. In his pursuit of intimate knowledge of the food he eats, Pollan demonstrates the profound truth that knowledge and mystery are not contradictory, but in fact are intimately joined. The dishonesty of our industrially-produced food actually banishes mystery, and flattens the experience and pleasure of eating. Dishonesty and boredom go together. Honesty and mystery are partners.

Pollan compares his perfect meal to an “Omnivore’s Thanksgiving,” or even a Passover seder – – a ritual meal, not realistic for everyday, but necessary every so often, to experience the ideal of a meal in which our consciousness stretches over a complete, graspable, ecologically scaled food chain. He notes that it is the polar opposite of the industrial, McDonalds meal:

The pleasures of one are based on a nearly perfect knowledge; the pleasures of the other on an equally perfect ignorance. The diversity of one mirrors the diversity of nature, especially the forest; the variety of the other more accurately reflects the ingenuity of industry, especially its ability to tease a passing resemblance of diversity from a single species growing in a single landscape: a monoculture of corn. The cost of the first meal is steep, yet it is acknowledged and paid for, by comparison the price of the second seems a bargain but fails to cover its true cost, charging it instead to nature, to the public health and purse, and to the future.

Yet, I might argue that the axis of this book is not so much between this perfect meal and its industrial equivalent, but between the promise of organic food and the multi-billion dollar industry which organics has become. Characteristic of his balanced approach, Pollan doesn’t condemn big organics outright. He leaves the question open whether the industrialization of organics is a net good or not. After all, it is bringing thousands of acres of farmland out of the reach of petro-fertilizers and pesticides and this, the author notes is a huge gain for the health of the soil, the workers and the consumers. Yet, the most telling contrast in The Omnivore’s Dilemma is between Pollan’s experience of his “Omnivore’s Thanksgiving” and the statement of Gene Kahn, the former hippy farmer owner of Cascadian Farms, turned organic industry businessman: “This is just lunch for most people. Just lunch. We can call it sacred, we can talk about communion, but its just lunch”

By showing us what a food chain can mean, and what it has come to mean in the reality of industrial food, Pollan has opened a new direction that has profound implications for anyone claiming to follow a religious or ethical dietary practice, including kashrut and eco-kashrut, hallal, stewardship of creation, concern for the suffering of all sentient beings, and others.

Take the example of Judaism: If one makes the assumption that Judaism should provide some guidance to everyday ethical behavior, this book (even if it includes hunting and eating a boar) is an important wake up call for Jews. In the Biblical period the kosher laws arguably embodied and reinforced meaningful lessons about respect for life, compassionate recognition of the bond between a mother animal and her offspring, respect for agricultural cycles of production and rest, and against unnecessary cruelty to animals. However, in course of time, some of the ethical dimensions have become less emphasized and the laws have come to be seen as hukkim, religious law without ethical content.

In the contemporary world, the rabbinic guardians of kashrut have seemed to go even further in sticking to the technical, narrow definitions. We witness the recent front page expose in the May 26th, 2006 edition of the Forward describing shockingly inadequate working conditions of workers at AgriProcessor, the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the country. This follows the 2004 P.E.T.A. videos of the same plant’s slaughterhouse that revealed cruel treatment of the animals. The recent article quotes the Orthodox Union as saying that working conditions are not a factor in the kosher certification process. In the 2004 incident, the religious authorities interviewed also claimed that the slaughtering at AgriPocessor fulfilled the laws of kosher slaughtering.

One may speculate on the sociological reasons for this emphasis on the narrow, technical definition of kosher laws. Perhaps the pressures of trying to maintain the borders of a cohesive, religious community in the midst of larger, open society creates pressure on religious authorities to resist anything smacking of “modern” or “Western” values instead of the pure dictates of halakha. Pollan’s book may suggest another interpretation: the same way the “organic” has come under the all powerful demands of the market, jettisoning many of its formerly core values to meet the demands of mass production and global distribution, so kashrut appears to be facing similar conflicts between core values and profitable modes of production.

As with organic food, one may trace the countercultural reaction to this narrowing of the meaning of “kosher food” to the ’70s when Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi called for an “eco-kosher” interpretation of the laws. Since then the word “eco-kosher” has been bandied about but implementing it has proven difficult. For one, it faces the horns of the same dilemma of the market versus values upon which organics has foundered.

The Talmud states that one who eats food without saying a blessing over it is as one who steals food from God. Yet, the Talmud’s discussion there doesn’t consider the situation in which the production of the food is a kind of robbery of the creation, a profanation of the gift of the life of animals, an assault on the fertility of the soil, an insult to any sense of sacredness of nature or society. Knowing this, what would our blessing mean?

There are no easy answers to this dilemma. In another fine book on the growth of the organic foods industry, Organic, Inc., Samuel Fromartz notes that organic food would have remained a small niche market, never having the impact that it has today without making some of those compromises. He wistfully concludes: “It isn’t the revolution, but it’ll do.”

An important interfaith initiative, The Sacred Foods Project, takes a similarly balanced, multi-pronged approach in activating the market power of Jewish, Christian and Moslem institutions to push the food industry toward more sustainable and eithical practices. On the other hand, Pollan himself suggests that the most important thing that a consumer can do is to buy local. There is at least one Jewish group that has taken up this idea: Hazon, whose original raison d’etre has been promoting long distance bike rides to raise funds for Jewish environmental causes, has started a Jewish Community Supported Agriculture (C.S.A.) project in New York city.

From his writing it doesn’t appear that Pollan is an observant Jew in any conventional sense, yet he mentioned (not in this book but in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air) that he will no longer eat meat which is not free range and grass fed. Can any “kosher eating” do less? Kosher eating has always been, in essence, about the sense that the food we eat is more than what meets the eye. It has a history, and that history has moral and religious implications. For the kosher eater, it’s never “just lunch.”

Rabbi Natan Margalit is the Director of the Oraita Institute for Continuing Rabbinic Education of Hebrew College, and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Rabbinics at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School.

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