The Omnivore’s Dilemma

Google books link (my source: VPL ebook)

To preface this source, it does not declare itself within the art or design field, but rather as a book that includes a recounting of a first-person experiment. Author Michael Pollan challenged himself to create a meal using only ingredients he gathered himself, investigating whether such a thing was conceivable in the modern world, and wrote about his experiences. To my eyes, this is the documentation of an experimental art project akin to Thomas Thwaite’s toaster project, attempting to reconstruct an item now made impossibly complex by modern systems. Also, the first-person diary perspective certainly sheds new light on the food system, navigating through the eyes of an untrained individual and his personal journey rather than the usual detached set of facts or findings. As a result of the book format, however, I am unable to replicate the source in full and have therefore selected some of the more relevant passages to looking at this work through an experimental, socially engaged art lens, taking some liberties in rearranging information by necessity.

So for an introduction on the context that has been removed, Pollan’s personal experiment constitutes the final chapter of his book. Previous chapters explore the prevalence of corn in the modern market and how that came to be, the life of a cow in the meat industry, and similar pursuits. Throughout is woven a combination of research and personal experience, with a storyteller’s attention to the expressive written word. Narrative also provides the structure for how the information is presented, which I have scrambled here, condensing together passages originally pages apart. With this in mind…

There was one more meal I wanted to make, and that was the meal at the end of the shortest food chain of all. What I had in mind was a dinner prepared entirely from ingredients I had hunted, gathered, and grown myself.

A “shortest food chain of all” provides an interesting framework for looking at eating in industrialized society as being positioned at the end of an enormous food chain- chain suggesting the larger overarching system of food if not its overlapping and intersecting nonlinear qualities , and containing eating within a purely biological sphere.

  1. Everything on the menu must have been hunted, gathered, or grown by me.
  2. The menu should feature at least one representative of each edible kingdom: animal, vegetable, and fungus, as well as an edible mineral (the salt).
  3. Everything served must be in season and fresh. The meal would reflect not only the places that supplied its ingredients, but a particular moment in time.
  4. No money may be spent on the meal, though already purchased items in the pantry could be deployed as needed.
  5. The guest list is limited to those people who helped me in my foraging and their significant others. There would be ten of us in all.
  6. I would cook the meal myself.

This list sets out clear priorities as to what is required in order to break free from the industrialized process and also what is logically feasible- the importance of gathering ingredients first hand balanced with the concession to use existing pantry items.Similarly, Pollan prioritizes his own individual efforts, strictly limiting the scope to a one-man job, but concedes he will need help from experienced others.

The second item of the list particularly subscribes to a devoutly omnivorous model of human eating, as well as a built-in assurance of not cutting corners by simply eating a garden salad or something common.

The third item is important in that it indicates Pollan is trying to capture a contemporary moment and not a historical one: an older style of food gathering but fully situated in today’s world. (This is unlike many similar works such as by Raul Ortega Ayala, who staged a reenactment of The Last Supper) This allows Pollan a degree of accuracy with engaging in the complex system of food today, embracing modern world factors despite the hunter/gatherer connotation of a return to an earlier evolutionary moment.

Foraging for wild plants and animals is, after all, the way the human species has fed itself for 99 percent of its time on earth; this is precisely the food chain natural selection designed us for.

There is a prioritization here of natural selection that implies the superiority of traditional eating methods by virtue of their having worked for a long time. One could add that human development greatly outpaces natural selection, and that evolution is too slow to best equip us for a technologically advanced environment. In Mariah Wright’s rice scenario for example, relying on natural selection alone does not equip humans to deal with their rapidly changing surroundings. Natural selection may have designed us for one thing, but that does not imply its design should reign supreme.

Agriculture brought humans a great many blessings, but it also brought infectious disease (from living in close quarters with one another and our animals) and malnutrition (from eating too much of the same thing when crops were good, and not enough of anything when they weren’t). Anthropologists estimate that typical hunter-gatherers worked at feeding themselves no more than seventeen hours a week, and we were far more robust and long-lived than agriculturists, who have only in the last century or two regained the physical stature and longevity of their Paleolithic ancestors.

From this passage, the contemporary revolution of the food industry can be traced as far back as the original ancient practice of farming, disrupting the common and falsely stable concept of a recent ‘then vs now’- considering very recent technology only as unnatural, and locating the ‘natural’ state just before the industrial revolution.

Why go to all this trouble? It’s not as though the forager food chain represents a viable way for us to eat at this point in history; it doesn’t. For one thing, there is not enough game left to feed us all, and probably not enough wild plants and mushrooms either.

So even if we wanted to go back to hunting and gathering wild species, it’s not an option: There are far too many of us and not nearly enough of them. Fishing is the last economically important hunter-gatherer food chain, though even this foraging economy is rapidly giving way to aquaculture, for the same reasons hunting wild game succumbed to raising livestock. It is depressing though not at all difficult to imagine our grandchildren living in a world in which fishing for a living is history.

This passage marks the current moment with melancholy nostalgia for a disappearing way of life, drawing on emotional resonance even as it lays out pragmatic facts of a food system tied to overpopulation and scarcity of resources. In this view the contemporary moment exists through an irretrievable sacrifice, an obscured sacrifice this art project seeks to bring back into the spot light.

My wager in undertaking this experiment is that hunting and gathering (and growing) a meal would perforce teach me things about the ecology and ethics of eating that I could not get in a supermarket or fast-food chain or even on a farm. Some very basic things: about the ties between us and the species (and natural systems) we depend upon; about how we decide what in nature is good to eat and what is not; and about how the human body fits into the food chain, not only as an eater but as a hunter and, yes, a killer of other creatures. For one of the things I was hoping to accomplish by rejoining, however briefly, this shortest and oldest of food chains was to take some more direct, conscious responsibility for the killing of the animals I eat. Otherwise, I felt, I really shouldn’t be eating them.

Michael Pollan here demonstrates an interest in first-hand experimental knowledge-gathering that recognizes the mediating effects of locations such as stores and farms and strives instead for a more direct encounter with the natural world. The goal appears to be a closer connection to and responsibility for a consumed product, mirroring Marxist concerns of modernism as the alienation of labour.¹ To rejoin an old food chain is an entry point into re-evaluating the present moment, tinged with but not overwhelmed by nostalgia.

The use of the term “basic” offers in one sense simplification, but on the other hand the proposal that such basic things require a lengthy project to investigate suggests that in the modern food society, even the smallest of concepts have countless threads and implications to follow up.

The hunter, at least as I imagined him, is alone in the woods with his conscience. And this, I suppose, points to what I was really after in taking up hunting and gathering: to see what it’d be like to prepare and eat a meal in full consciousness of what was involved… and recover the fundamental biological realities that the complexities of modern industrialized eating keep from our view.

Again, reversion to older practices constitutes a recovery of a natural essence lost to modernism- in this case fundamental biological realities. In this passage, the complexity and opacity of the system is made plain.The hunter appears as a romanticized loner figure much like a classic Western hero, granted self-awareness in contrast to the thoughtless modern citizen so far removed from the sources of their meals.

The meat industry understands that the more people know about what happens on the kill floor, the less meat they’re likely to eat. That’s not because slaughter is necessarily inhumane, but because most of us would simply rather not be reminded of exactly what meat is or what it takes to bring it to our plates.

Eating meat has become morally problematic, at least for people who take the trouble to think about it. Vegetarianism is more popular than it has ever been, and animal rights, the fringiest of fringe movements until just a few years ago, is rapidly finding its way into the cultural mainstream… For the most part our culture has been telling us for millenia that animals were both good to eat and good to think².

The modern state of the meat industry relies on ignorance, willful or not, which is here not entirely a moral question of inhumanity but also of simply avoiding distaste in people unused to engaging with the animal aspects of their meat. Vegetarianism is a choice accessed through increased knowledge and awareness, prime capital in today’s knowledge society. This new information must overcome a culture based on a now outdated relationship to meat production.This paints a picture where food culture lags behind food technology, and discomfort arises from the realization of this gap.

Meat comes from the grocery store, where it is cut and packages to look as little like parts of animals as possible. (When was the last time you saw a butcher at work?) The disappearance of animals from our lives has opened a space in which there’s no reality check on the sentiment or the brutality.

This truly invites people to question how they eat and what facts they ignore during their decision-making processes. It is not a direct call to action but rather the presentation of ideas that would naturally prompt one, maintaining an informational and not preachy tone.The modern detachment of people from meat animals is cited as industrialized farming’s saving grace, resting blame with an event rather than a specific group, allowing for a suitably complex interpretation of cause and effect.

To visit a modern Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) is to enter a world that for all its technological sophistication is still designed on seventeenth-century Cartesian principles: Animals are treated as machines- “production units”- incapable of feeling pain. Since no thinking person can possibly believe this anymore, industrial animal agriculture depends on a suspension of disbelief on the part of the people who operate it and a willingness to avert one’s eyes on the part of everyone else.

The perils of the modern industrial food industry can perhaps then be linked to outdated processes rather than innovative ones, with a highlight on how social attitudes and beliefs shape economic processes but adaptation is not instantaneous.

In a short section recounting the events of his hunting trip, Michael Pollan lapses into visceral, philosophical descriptions before the book abruptly switches tone with the implied passage of time and self-reflection:

Wait a minute. Did I really write that last paragraph? Without irony? That’s embarrassing. I’m actually writing about the hunter’s “instinct,” suggesting that the hunt represents some sort of primordial union between two kinds of animals, one of which is me? This seems a bit much. I recognize this kind of prose: hunter porn. And whenever I’ve read it in the past, in Ortega y Gasset and Hemingway and all those hard-bitten, big-bearded American wilderness writers who still pine for the Pleistocene, it never failed to roll my eyes. I could never stomach the straight-faced revelling in primitivism, the barely concealed bloodlust, the whole macho conceit that the most authentic encounter with nature is the one that comes through the sight of a gun and ends with a large mammal dead on the ground– a killing that we are given to believe constitutes a gesture of respect… In general, experiences that banish irony are much better for living than for writing. But there it is: I enjoyed shooting a pig a whole lot more than I ever thought I should have.

The inclusion of Pollan’s previous, disavowed writing showcases this artwork’s commitment to portraying an unfolding and imperfect sequence of events, allowing failure and change instead of editing towards a simplified and non-contradictory voice. This highlights how this work can be considered in the framework of strategic design- following the scientific experimental model to some degree but with a willingness to fail, adapt, and refuse a neat ending³. Set against his discussion of the inhumanity of the meat industry, the reveal that he enjoyed his hunting trip helps to tease out the complexity of this issue, and the massive impact that contextualized points of view can have. To see the before and after, one cannot help but consider that judging an experience from outside it is an inadequate measure, and that ethical stances are highly subject to environment factors. The honest, self-aware acknowledgement of his changing thoughts connect with attitudes the reader likely holds, directly challenging them to consider the stability of their beliefs.

As the rules suggest, the meal was a conceit- an ambitious, possibly foolhardy, and, I hoped, edible conceit. My aim in attempting it, as should be obvious, was not to propose hunting and gathering and growing one’s own food as an answer to any question larger than the modest ones I started with: Would it be possible to prepare such a meal, and would I learn anything of value- about the nature or culture of human eating- by doing so? I certainly don’t mean to suggest that anyone else should try this at home, or that a return to finding and producing our own food is a practical solution to any of our culture’s dilemmas surrounding eating and agriculture. No, little if anything about this meal was what anyone would call “realistic.” And yet no meal I’ve ever prepared or eaten has been more real.

By clearly marking the questions his experiment was engaging with, Pollan resists a reading of his results using broad generalizations, hinting that he has only dealt with one small piece of an enormously complex system. Possibility and learning are the only two concerns, and the questions are open-ended. Pollan in a sense works with a notion of activity rather than agency as described by Scott Lash°, surrendering some traditional authorial control with a willingness to negotiate his experiment’s terms in the longer run. This also relates to the passage below detailing Pollan’s failure to achieve each point on his numbered list, making it less a set contract and more of an open starting point to be haggled as circumstances revealed themselves.

To call his bizarre meal ‘real’ indicates yet again the prevailing notion that realness and naturalness and a reversion to older practices constitutes something more than the diminished modern technologically advanced state.

Unfortunately this salt, which was a bit greasy to the touch, tasted so metallic and so much like chemicals that it actually made me gag, and required a chaser of mouthwash to clear from my tongue. I expect this was a case where the human disgust reflex probably saved lives. No doubt professional salt gatherers have sophisticated purification techniques, but I had no clue what these might be. So I abandoned plans to cook with and serve my own salt, and counted myself lucky not to have contracted hepatitis.

The admission of amateur inadequacy here enhances the notion of food gathering as more complex than first appearances might suggest.

I prized, too, the almost perfect transparency of this meal, the brevity and simplicity of the food chain that linked it to the wider world. Scarcely an ingredient in it had ever worn a label or bar code or price tag, and yet I knew almost everything there was to know about its provenance and its price. I knew and could picture the very oaks and pines that had nourished the pigs and the mushrooms that were nourishing us. And I knew the true cost of this food, the precise sacrifice of time and energy and life it had entailed. Some of that sacrifice had proven expensive to me, emotionally speaking, yet it was cheering to realize just how little this preindustrial and mostly preagricultural meal had diminished the world.

Except he’s not accounting for manufacturing the gun to hunt, the evolution of the cherry tree, the gas consumed in driving, the energy consumed powering house, the changed habitat of his prey, or any number of complex systems outside the simple interaction between him and his ingredients. To say ‘preindustrial’ is misleading, because social realities are always present, exerting influence on one’s actions. On one level there is the suggested inclusion of the climate change system, but to break food into the binary of industrial or not is an enormous simplification.

It’s impossible to prepare and eat a meal quite so physically, intellectually, and emotionally costly without thinking about the incalculably large debts we incur when we eat industrially- which is to say, when we eat without a thought to what we’re doing. To compare my transcendently slow meal to the fast-food meal I “served” my family at that McDonald’s in Marin, the one that set me back fourteen bucks for the three of us and was consumed in ten minutes at sixty-five miles per hour, is to marvel at the multiplicity of a world that could produce two such different methods of accomplishing the same thing: feeding ourselves, I mean.

As he begins to conclude his thoughts, Pollan summarizes his view on the contemporary state of food society- on that is incalculably complex and that we no longer face responsibility for.

He acknowledges the vast worlds of difference between fast and slow food, realizing the degrees of thought present in the consumer for each situation, but does not oversimplify in terms of one’s superiority.

The two meals stand at the far extreme ends of the spectrum of human eating- of the different ways we have to engage the world that sustains us. The pleasures of one are based on a nearly perfect knowledge; the pleasures of the other on an equally perfect ignorance. The diversity of the 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.

In essence, the modernization of the food industry can be described as incurring hidden costs, as the complexity of the system spirals out of possible coherent comprehension. Ingenuity and the increasing range of available products coincide with the inability to deeply connect with or understand food. The individual scope of this experimental endeavor refocuses the issue on a personal level, at its core calling readers to resist the ease of industry and really think about what they eat every day with a critical eye.

¹Marxist alienation of labour: the process of modernism by which people are increasingly unaware of their own world, for example a factory worker’s relation to a product versus a craftsman. In this case it is the consumer rather than the worker who is alienated, but the same principles apply: physical, emotional, and mental distance from the object.
² elsewhere in his book, Pollan describes this with good to eat meaning good for biological health, and good to think as a mentally justifiable decision in terms of ethics, taste, social culture, etc.
³from Dan Hill’s “Dark Matter Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary”, which describes a type of good failure that allows a system to learn.
°from “Agency and Architecure: How to be Critical”, where Lash undermines the concept of individualistic, goal-driven agency as the only way to approach actions addressing a problem. His definition of activity revolves around Eastern thought, and the model of “you analyse the situation, and see what arises from it (8) “
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