B. R. Meyers - Hard to Swallow
For centuries civilized society took a dim view of food lovers, calling them “gourmands” and “gluttons” and placing them on a moral par with lechers. They were even assigned their own place in hell, and I don’t mean a table near the kitchen: They were to be force-fed for eternity. Not until halfway through the Industrial Revolution did the word gourmet come into use. Those who have since applied it to themselves have done a fine job of converting the world’s scorn to respect. The pleasures of the oral cavity (though we must say “palate” instead) are now widely regarded as more important, more intrinsically moral, and a more vital part of civilized tradition than any other pleasures. People who think nothing of saying “I’m not much of a reader” will grow shamefaced when admitting an ignorance of wine or haute cuisine. Some recent movies have even tried to turn banquets into heroic affairs. Advertising has abetted the trend, while political correctness, with its horror of judging anyone’s “lifestyle choices,” has done its bit to muffle dissent.
But the idolatry of food cuts across class lines. This can be seen in the public’s toleration of a level of cruelty in meat production that it would tolerate nowhere else. If someone inflicts pain on an animal for visual, aural, or sexual gratification, we consider him a monster, and the law makes at least a token effort at punishment. If someone’s goal is to put the “product” in his mouth? Chacun à son goût.
Zoologists have recently discounted the notion that lobsters feel no pain when boiled alive. The gourmets’ response is to giggle at the plight of the “beasties” in the hope that others will follow suit. (With comparable tastelessness, a piece on foie gras in [The Best Food Writing 2006] is titled “Stuffed Animals.”) But when asked to laugh at the suffering of a living thing, or to drown out a moral compunction by turning up the TV, the American meat eater begins to sense that his values are not so far from the vegetarian’s after all. If food writers want to show what “a perverse attachment to certain goods” looks like, they are going about it in just the right way.
Pivotal to [The Omnivore’s Dilemma] 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?”
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.