Dispatches from Graduate School – Part 41

*Re-posted by permission of John Fea’s The Way of  Improvement Leads Home*

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University.  For earlier posts in this series click here.

I first read Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals in 2007, just after I graduated from Messiah College. For those unfamiliar with Pollan’s New York Times bestseller, the part memoir/part history/part exposé charts Pollan’s quest to answer a simple question: What should we have for dinner? Pollan follows three contemporary food chains—industrial, organic or alternative, and what might be best described as Paleolithic, or a hunt and gather approach—in order to reflect on every day decisions about what and why we eat. The book, in addition to top ten book of the year awards from the New York Times and the Washington Post in 2006, won the California Book Award, the Northern California Book Award, the James Beard Award for best food writing, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

His awards aren’t for naught. In lively prose, Pollan deftly exposes the horrors of the industrial food system. He pays special attention to the treatment of cattle. Ruminants by nature, the cows are fed a diet of animal parts, corn products, and antibiotics and forced to idle in their own feces until fattened for slaughter. Graphic, yes. After my first go-round with Pollan I avoided meat for three years. His all too colorful portrait of industrially raised cattle, chickens, and pigs led me toward a diet high in tofu and legumes and low in animal protein, milk and cheese included. For years I considered myself a quasi-vegetarian. Only recently did I reintroduce meat and dairy back into my daily regime. I credit Pollan for making me a better-informed eater. Rather than purchase products of the industrial system, I choose grass fed and pastured animals from nearby farms. In other words, I prefer my animals in their most natural, God-created state eating biologically appropriate foods and grazing or pecking in a field.

Pollan’s journalistic style, although it inspired in me a radical life change, has severe limitations. Only upon reading Omnivore’s Dilemma again, this time for a graduate readings course, did I recognize its weaknesses. Pollan ends his three- part journey through the food system with the most intimate of experiences—his own adventures of hunting wild boar and foraging fungi in the hills of northern California’s Marin County. He invites the reader into his kitchen while he prepares an elaborate meal: wild California pig (served two ways), bread baked with wild yeast from the San Francisco Bay, homemade egg fettuccine with hand-picked morels sautéed in butter, garden salad from Pollan’s own backyard lettuces, and a cherry galette with Bing cherries picked from a Berkeley neighborhood tree. Equal parts delicious and pretentious.

His decision to close the narrative with his personal choice to eschew the modern food system ignores the implications for society at large and escorts the reader down an individual, if not exclusive, path. Who can afford the time, the money, or the expertise to hunt and forage? Pollan admittedly notes the unrealistic nature of such an endeavor, but he fails to acknowledge social organization and questions of access when crafting his “perfect” foodscape. California, boasting the lush ecosystem necessary for the success of Pollan’s meal, also claims one of the highest food insecurity rates in the country (15.9% in 2009-2010). The national average is not much better; 14.6% of Americans live in food insecure households, and studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture find rates of food insecurity substantially higher among black and Hispanic households and those with incomes near or below the federal poverty level. While Pollan enjoys his perfect meal, hundreds of thousands of Americans struggle to put food on the table, often times forced to eat the very food Pollan so strongly condemns. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, or the choice of what to eat and why, is thus limited to those with a particular level of social and economic capital.

Further, Pollan focuses almost entirely on a consumer oriented politics. Not until 162 pages in does Pollan mention farm workers, and he completely glosses over supermarket and warehouse workers. In so doing, Pollan circumvents a more important conversation about class and racial divisions in the American food system.

Many credit Pollan with reinvigorating food studies (some even compare him to Upton Sinclair), but the absences in his narrative cannot be ignored. That some people can choose to protect themselves from the dangers of the American industrial food system and others cannot is the real problem. When food studies can reconcile the disparities in food access, the exploitation of farm workers, and the hazards of the industrial food system, then talk about the perfect meal can really begin. 

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