Hard to Swallow

The gourmet’s ongoing failure to think in moral terms

The wrongness of factory farming thus established, Pollan heads off to an idyllic farm in Virginia, “a scene of almost classic pastoral beauty.” For all its relevance to the big picture of American meat production, it might as well have been a place where animals get to die of old age. But gourmets love to preach the benefits of organic fare to the country at large, feigning a child’s ignorance of economics all the while; it is the only way they can pass off their pursuit of pleasure as a social conscience.

On the farm, Pollan gets to try his hand at a little throat cutting:

Daniel explained that you wanted to sever only the artery, not the head, so that the heart would continue to beat and pump out the blood … I told myself that their suffering, once their throats were slit, was brief. Yet it took several long minutes for the spasms to subside … but the waiting birds did not seem panicked, and I took solace in their seeming obliviousness. Yet, honestly, there wasn’t much time for these reflections, because you’re working on an assembly (or, really, disassembly) line.

There is, however, time for the reflection, “Was I going to be able to enjoy eating chicken so soon after my stint in the processing shed and gut-composting pile?” The paramount question of enjoyment has ramifications for organic food in general; a gourmet is not going to stint on his pleasure just to save the Earth. When Pollan finally cooks a chicken for a few friends, the moral-o-meter’s reading is conclusive: The meal is “out of this world.” The only complication is the presence of his friends’ son Matthew, “fifteen and currently a vegetarian,” who “had many more questions about killing chickens than I thought wise to answer at the dinner table.” Of course! But doesn’t Pollan say in his introduction that the pleasures of eating are “only deepened by knowing”? And if it is so natural to kill and eat animals, and so sentimental to think otherwise, why is the vegetarian the only one who can stomach the details? Pollan can’t be bothered telling us why Matthew became a vegetarian. We are clearly meant to take it for a mere teenage phase, nothing a restriction of his options won’t cure: “He confined himself to the corn.”

Our investigative journalist interviews none of America’s other vegetarians, either, relying instead on poultry farmers who claim to have sighted one or two. (We’re to believe an anecdote, which shines with all the coherence and credibility of a letter to Penthouse, that a PETA member turned up at the “processing shed” one day, asking to kill chickens to overcome an aversion to meat.) This is not to say that Pollan brooks no contradiction. An entire chapter of The Omnivore’s Dilemma is devoted to a scrupulously fair debate with the text of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, and Pollan summarizes the Australian ethicist’s views in the same lively style as his own. But he prefaces it all by smirking that he read the book in a fancy restaurant while eating “a rib-eye steak cooked medium rare,” thereby putting all this morality business into the proper perspective.

Though Singer’s reasoning may be inexorable, Pollan’s appetite is unimpressed:

I put down my fork. If I believe in equality, and equality is based on interests rather than characteristics, then either I have to take the steer’s interest into account or accept that I’m a speciesist.

For the time being, I decided, I’ll plead guilty as charged. I finished my steak.

This spurious show of open-mindedness recalls Hans Küng, the Swiss theologian who uses a comparable technique when defending Christianity against secular critics. The similarity is not surprising, considering that our dietary and religious habits are both acquired in early childhood, which makes them hard to break no matter what we learn in later life. The Pollan-Küng Technique goes like this: One debates the other side in a rational manner until pushed into a corner. Then one simply drops the argument and slips away, pretending that one has not fallen short of reason but instead transcended it. The irreconcilability of one’s belief with reason is then held up as a great mystery, the humble readiness to live with which puts one above lesser minds and their cheap certainties. As Pollan writes:

I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater. Yet part of me pities him, too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris.

How arrogant, in other words, how pitifully close to mental illness, to want to be a better person! But this is where the Christian and the gourmet part ways.

All the same, Pollan decides to in-dulge his inner George Plimpton again, becoming “a reluctant, and, I fervently hoped, temporary vegetarian.” How seriously he took his meat-free diet can be guessed at. Though he claims to have stuck to it for at least a month, this most voluble of food writers does not name a single thing he ate. Nor, it seems, did he dine with any vegetarians.

“What troubles me most about my vegetarianism,” Pollan nonetheless has the fatuity to write,

is the subtle way it alienates me from other people … As a guest, if I neglect to tell my host in advance that I don’t eat meat, she feels bad, and if I do tell her, she’ll make something special for me, in which case I’ll feel bad. On this matter I’m inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners … I also feel alienated from … family traditions like my mother’s beef brisket at Passover.

It is common these days to see moral arguments veer off into appeals to self-interest. We have reached a pretty pass when they start veering off into the realm of etiquette. The bit about Passover surprised me a little, Pollan having just tacitly admitted what he thinks of Orthodox Jews, but perhaps for him it’s all about the brisket. A record of the gourmet’s ongoing failure to think in moral terms, The Omnivore’s Dilemma helps one to understand why no reformer ever gave a damn about fine dining—or the family dinner table either. When Jesus vowed to turn children against their parents, he knew he’d be ruining an untold number of perfectly good meals.

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