Hard to Swallow

The gourmet’s ongoing failure to think in moral terms

After this, though, Pollan moves on to explore what he calls the “moral and psychological implications” of killing and eating animals. The phrase shows at once where he is headed; the reason those adjectives are so often yoked in contemporary American English is that the second swallows up the first. A moral opposition to the majority’s way of doing things can thus be more easily treated, as it was in the Soviet Union, as a mental- health problem. But before going any further, I should allow Pollan to explain the book’s title. “In the fall of 2002,” he tells us,

one of the most ancient and venerable staples of human life abruptly disappeared from the American dinner table. I’m talking of course about bread. Virtually overnight, Americans changed the way they eat. A collective spasm of what can only be described as carbophobia … ruined an untold number of perfectly good meals.

So violent a change in a culture’s eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder. Certainly it would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating.

The feverish tone makes clear that Pollan is writing for his fellow gourmets, the sort of people who can read the line “ruined an untold number of perfectly good meals” with a straight face. I can’t help thinking, though, that with hamburgers and milk shakes conquering deeply rooted diets from Mexico to Micronesia, America’s eating habits may well be the most stable in the world. Even the Atkins-diet craze reduced national bread sales by no more than 3 or 4 percentage points. Pollan nonetheless asserts that our dietary upheavals have returned us, with “atavistic vengeance,” to a bewilderment last experienced millennia ago:

When you can eat just about anything nature has to offer, deciding what you should eat will inevitably stir anxiety, especially when some of the potential foods on offer are liable to sicken or kill you. This is The Omnivore’s Dilemma … first given that name thirty years ago by a University of Pennsylvania research psychologist named Paul Rozin.

Then Rozin’s dictionary must be the one that Alanis Morissette used to look up the word ironic, but let that pass. Is our national eating disorder really a matter of people pacing supermarket aisles in an agony of indecision? Or do we perhaps feel too little anxiety about what we eat? Despite his choice of title, the subject does not hold Pollan’s interest for long, so readers will have to make up their own minds.

Pivotal to the book is Pollan’s claim that

our omnivorousness has done much to shape our nature, both body (we possess the omnicompetent teeth and jaws of the omnivore, equally well suited to tearing meat and grinding seeds) and soul.

One might as well describe man the way the anthropologist Ernest Becker did, as a digestive tract with teeth at one end and an anus at the other, and claim that the soul is shaped out of that. In which case, I don’t want one. But most of us use soul to mean the part of humanness that is not shaped out of that. In contrast to the fearless Becker, Pollan thinks that taking a hard look at human nature is more a matter of leaning over the museum rail at the caveman exhibit. Seeing only the painted mammoth on the horizon, so to speak, he derives the rightness of meat eating from the fact that humans are physically suited to it, they enjoy it, and they have engaged in it until modern times without feeling much “ethical heartburn.” (Only a food writer would use such an appalling phrase.) According to Pollan, this “reality” demands our respect. The same reasoning could be used to defend our mistreatment of children: In body and instinct, we are marvelously well-equipped for making their lives hell. If many cultures now object to abusing them, it is thanks to new values, to people who refused to respect the time-honored “reality.”

But by reducing man’s moral nature to an extension of our instincts, Pollan is free to present his appetite as a sort of moral-o-meter, the final authority for judging the rightness of all things culinary. He shoots a wild pig, for example, hugely enjoying the experience. We even get a spiel about how hunting makes people face the inevitability of their own death. (Psychologists have long asserted the opposite: As Otto Rank put it, and in words relevant to meat eating in general, “the death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the other.”) Ah, but then Pollan sees a photo of himself leering over the corpse and feels bad. So is killing pigs right or wrong? Or as he puts it, “What if it turned out I couldn’t eat this meat?”

Presented by

B. R. Myers

B.R. Myers is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and the author of A Reader’s Manifesto (2002).

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