Pollan, M. 2006. The omnivore’s dilemma: A natural history of four meals. Penguin Books: New York.
Early Friday morning, I was curled up in my fuzzy blanket reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, waiting somewhat impatiently for the phone to ring. I knew my bi-weekly vegetable box from Thistle Farm could be here any minute, over-flowing with organic produce, sourced most locally first, and then supplemented from farmers in California and Mexico as needed; at this time of the year the supplementation would be the majority of the box (in essence, not-so-local), yet there is still something so different that comes with receiving your produce this way than making a trip to the grocery store. However, what I was most looking forward to in this box was not the California kale or the Mexican avocado, but the humble red cabbage, grown at Thistle Farm itself, merely a half hour drive from my apartment. Approaching the end of March, I knew that Thistle Farm had been running low on their winter cabbage supply and I was eager to obtain one of the last ones for use in my local food dish, which included frantically emailing in a substitution during the wee hours of Thursday morning.
Suddenly I heard the ring. I said good-morning to the friendly woman delivering my food and buzzed her in to the building, meanwhile throwing on a sweater and some slippers so I could run down a floor to retrieve my box, fearing my bounty might be scooped up by a passerby if I left it to sit in the entranceway too long. Ah, there it was! I felt the anticipation hit a peak as I slid the box on to one arm and proceeded back up the stairs. It’s heavy this time! I remarked, silently praying that this meant a cabbage was concealed somewhere under the other organic goodies. And, alas, underneath a handful of carrots, a bag of baby Bok choy, and a bundle of parsley was my perfect purple cabbage, half the size of a typical store-bought cabbage and easily grasped in one hand. There was something magical about it that no store-bought cabbage could compete with, as I could actually picture the landscape, the soil that it was grown in, and the people whose hands had watered it, cared for it, plucked it from the ground, washed it, stacked it in their cold room storage, and finally, packed it in to a box with my name on it, so it could make its way to me.
I feel that it’s no coincidence that the chapter I was reading that morning was “The Market: Greetings from the Non-Barcode People”, an in-depth look at the many ways that meat and produce leave Polyface Farm to reach the plates of someone who has chosen to support a local, grass-fed farming operation. Some of these avenues include customers picking up broiler hens (and other meat and eggs) on the farm itself, purchasing Polyface products at the farmer’s market or a local alternative food store, or ordering it for delivery from a slightly farther away community in the form of a Metropolitan buying club. Local food from the Shenandoah valley is also delivered fresh to chefs and restaurant owners in the area, who provide a backbone to the creation of a local food economy. Whichever way is chosen, Joel Salatin (the primary farmer at Polyface) reiterates that what is important is people are choosing to “opt out” (p. 248). That is, opt out of the industrial food chain in exchange for something more sustainable, for the land, the animals, and the people who eat it. I found Joel’s belief that artisanal food does not have to compete with industrial food to be very thought-provoking. Simply put, farmers offering artisanal products have the quality and the consequences of their products speak for themselves; they have no need to lower their prices of to produce at a rate and volume equal to the industrialized food system, in fact doing so may be more detrimental to their movement than anything. There is one part that still frustrates me: for all the people out there willing to opt out, there are regulation in the USA that make it difficult for smaller-scale farm operations to be run up to their standards, which are modelled around big-business agriculture.
To be frank, these chapters brought up a lot of emotions and considerations for me, from happiness and awe, to anxiety, sadness, disgust and anger, which made its way back to happiness, and wholeness, again.
As a vegetarian, it was easy to oppose the practices of CAFOs from earlier chapters, but less easy to condemn Joel’s spiritual, cycle-of-life kind of animal agriculture, which works in tandem with nature, rejuvenation of the land, and the animal’s natural instincts to do what they love to do best and eat what is most health-promoting for their bodies. Chapters Ten and Eleven, which outline the many nuances involved in the raising of animals in the Salatins’ pastures make Polyface sound like possibly the realist, happiest farm on the face of the Earth.
Of course, that doesn’t change the pain I felt with reading “Slaughter: In a Glass Abatoir”, in which the slaughterhouse is much less a ‘house’ than an open-air gazebo completed with killing, boiling, gutting and de-feathering stations, of which the soupy remains are soon after shovelled into a decaying heap of chicken bits and wood chips. I read this chapter the fastest by far, with my toes squirming and my heart pounding, yet I couldn’t put the book down. I could feel Pollan’s dread and dis-ease with the butchering he was about to take part in, and as he described picking up a sharp blade in one hand and a docile chicken’s tiny head between his other hand’s fingers to put his technique in to action, my anxiety built. Then, as the blood gushed over his hand and hit his glasses I only felt…numbness. Faced with that imagery, I silently reminded myself why it is I could never eat an animal again, for I felt sick to my stomach imagining doing such a thing myself, and should I really be eating a creature whose death I can’t face?
But honestly, by the time I finished the last chapter, “The Meal: Grass Fed”, I was beginning to question my views on animals for consumption. Something about Pollan’s description of the “out of this world” (p. 271) brined and apple-smoked, barbecued chicken, with its superior profile of nutrients (ie. Omega-3s, beta-carotene, vitamin E, folic acid) from its nature-intended, grass-fed diet, had me extremely curious just how much more “chicken-y” this chicken would taste, and if it is really all that wrong to consume animals in the respectful way that many of our hunter-gatherer ancestors did for millennia. Pollan truly must have a succulent way with words, for it is quite the accomplishment to stir up these questions in someone who has been sworn off chicken for almost 5 years.
I must also praise Pollan on his use of character in this segment, for I found almost every character to be immediately loveable; for example, Joel for his fervent passion as a grass farmer and his intense attention to detail; his entire family in general for their simple, family- and routine-centred life; and Bev Eggleston, for his comic relief amongst a discussion of some daunting and timely issues (“Instead of mad cow disease, we’ve got glad cows at ease” (p. 247)).
A question I’ve often tried to navigate is: what is the most important thing, vegetarian food, organic food, or local food? Perhaps it doesn’t have to be either or, although more and more I’m being convinced of the value of local food. This doesn’t mean I’ll be rushing out for grass-fed chicken anytime soon, but perhaps I won’t turn my nose up at it either. For now, I will be savouring the morsels of local vegetables that I can, like sweet, mini onions, cream-fleshed potatoes, and crunchy, purple cabbage.