Hard to Swallow

The gourmet’s ongoing failure to think in moral terms

Spoiler alert: He could. He even congratulates himself on “doing well by the animal” by cooking and chewing it with the proper reverence. As reluctant as he is to attribute fear and pain to a live animal— one mustn’t anthropomorphize!—he sees nothing strange in attributing a concern for decorum to a dead one. He apparently believes that we cannot fully relate to animals until they become food. In the introduction, we are told that eating something—“transforming the body of the world into our bodies and minds”—constitutes the deepest possible “relationship” with it, “the most profound engagement” of all. (German police had to listen to similar reasoning in 2002 after arresting one Armin Meiwes, who had just put his omnicompetent jaws to work on a Siemens engineer.) Now, Epicurus, who strikes me as a vegetarian Pollan might listen to, made the rather obvious point that no living thing experiences death. As soon as life ceases, the body ceases to deserve the attribute human or animal, as the root of the latter word makes especially clear. The pig thus takes its farewell from Pollan almost as soon as he pulls his trigger in greeting. The mere flesh left behind tastes remarkably like that of us “long pigs—to use the notorious cannibal term—and the digestive tract cannot tell them apart at all. There is less “transformation” going on here than Pollan would like to think.

The moral-o-meter is applied to other meats as well (the book is subtitled “A Natural History of Four Meals”). Pollan buys a steer from a pasture in South Dakota, whereupon it is loaded onto a truck. When he catches up to it in a factory farm in Kansas, it is hock-deep in excrement. Pollan is far too talented not to convey the ghastliness of the “manure lagoon.” (This is a writer, to mention again his tour de force section on corn, who can make even biochemistry vivid.) But does he sense the poignancy in the reunion?

There stood 534 and I, staring dumbly at one another. Glint of recognition? None, none whatsoever. I told myself not to take it personally; 534 and his pen mates have been bred for their marbling, after all, not their ability to form attachments … If I stared at my steer hard enough, I could imagine the white lines of the butcher’s chart dissecting his black hide …

It is all too obvious which of the two has a harder time forming attachments. Then again, Pollan does not like what he sees; he senses that cows raised in such unnatural conditions cannot possibly taste good. Though he doesn’t get to eat “his” steer, he later finishes a fast-food cheeseburger that leaves him “simply, regrettably full.”

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