Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Omnivore's Dilemma

Photo: "Ham is Spain" by Julie Lemberger. (The little cups on the ends of these hams hanging in a bar in Spain are to catch the drips of fat that run down the hams on a warm day so they don't drop down your neck.)

Michael Pollan is not trying to turn his readers in to vegetarians in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma. In fact, after trying vegetarianism for a limited period as part of his research for this book, he concludes that he has too many philosophical and practical objections to embrace it for himself. But it is impossible to read the book without confronting what you buy and eat more directly, which is his goal. Or maybe his goal is to establish a new right (and responsibility): the right to look at what you are buying and how it is raised and processed and then decide for yourself. I think this paragraph is the essence of his book:
The industrialization--and brutalization--of animals in America is a relatively new, evitable, and local phenomenon: No other country raises and slaughters its food animals quite as intensively or as brutally as we do. No other people in history has lived at quite so great a remove from the animals they eat. Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do. Tail docking and sow crates and beak clipping would disappear overnight, and the days of slaughtering four hundred head of cattle an hour would promptly come to an end--for who could stand the sight? Yes, meat would get more expensive. We'd probably eat a lot less of it, too, but maybe when we did eat animals we'd eat them with the consciousness, ceremony, and respect they deserve.
I can't verify his assertion about America brutalizing animals our animals most, so I don't know if it's true. But this paragraph, and his thoughts about America's lack of a single traditional food culture, and his extended account of hunting for a feral pig in Sonoma County in order to be able to serve a meal that he had grown, foraged for, or hunted himself, kept making me think of Spanish ham. Alongside the frozen pizzas and shrink-wrapped hamburgers and copas de maize (Cornflakes) in Spanish supermarkets exists a deeply entrenched traditional culture around food, and at the heart of this culture is jamon iberico--the highest quality serrano ham, made from a special breed of pig, the pata negra--that in my experience is nearly always eaten with consciousness, ceremony and respect, perhaps in part because of its price tag but also because of what it represents for Spaniards. I'm not saying that Spaniards would be any more eager than Americans to know how that shrink-wrapped hamburger lived and was killed and processed. But I do think Spaniards have a clearer idea than we do of how and what to eat that is grounded in their cultural tradition.

I remember how in my Spanish class at a business institute in a tony Barcelona neighborhood, my teacher set down her dry-erase pen and turned away from the whiteboard with a serious look in her eyes. She was a svelte, stylish woman in her early 30s who liked to tell us about her shopping trips to Paris for the weekend, but what she was going to tell us now was not frivolous. "We have been discussing vocabulary for food, organized by food groups, such as fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy, meats, etc.," she told us in Spanish. "But what I am going to discuss now it is in a food group all its own." She paused for effect. "It is ham." And for the next 20 minutes she lectured us on the pata negra, how it is raised, how it is killed, how the ham is cured, how to tell the good quality from the poor, how it should be stored, sliced, and eaten. I actually still have my notes from that class, so I know that she concluded with the following statement: "In fact, jamon iberico is just about the most healthy thing you can eat."

The profound importance of ham as an expression of Spanish culture came back to me when my husband, upon leaving his job in Spain to return home, received his parting gift: a whole ham (see photo above) We had to eat it all before we left the country because it would not pass customs. During out time in Spain, I had come to observe that eating ham in Spain represents a connection to the land, which nourishes the oaks that produce the acorns upon which the pata negra feed. It represents small villages, and their traditional air-drying curing methods without chemicals or impurities. It--and much of Spanish cuisine--represents a certain ritualized way of dining slowly and convivially, taking the time to prepare dishes the way they have always been prepared, recalling Spain's connections to other Mediterranean cultures but also its own special peninsular nature. It may be largely symbolic, but eating a large lunch at 2 pm every day reaffirms for Spanish people who they are.

Pollan's "perfect meal," which he himself acknowledges is impractical and largely symbolic, is an attempt at this kind of affirmation, in almost a spiritual sense. Questions regarding who we are in relation to what we eat underlie Pollan's book: Is this who we are? Is this who we want to be? The (in the words of the owner of the sustainably-farmed Polyface Farm) "...amalgamated, irradiated, genetically prostituted, bar-coded, adulterated, fecal spam from the centralized processing conglomerate."? No!

Pollan's point is that examining how our food is produced, examining in fact the whole food chain from our food's origin until it arrives at our table, can also reaffirm who we are as people, and our relationship to the other living things--vegetable, human, animal, even fungal--that live on this planet. Living in the Bay Area, I am lucky to have many places to buy food where I can learn something about where it came from and how it was raised, even if some of those "stories" are a bit more rosy-hued than reality (like "Rosie the Free-Range Chicken" who never ventures outside of her coop, as Pollan discovers). But I can always dig deeper, and make more conscious choices. I'm so relieved I don't have to be a vegetarian, I'll make the extra effort.

My one reservation is that I enjoy eating many different kinds of foods. For me, one of the joys of being American is being able to partake of and experience many different cultures in my daily life, every day. So, affirming my American identity through food means making burritos one night, going out to dinner at a Japanese restaurant the next night, and cooking my Grandma's Swedish pancakes on Saturday morning. We may not have one single tradition of food, but I love our multiplicity of food cultures. I'm not willing to give that up, even if I'm not always able to know as much as I'd like about where it this bewildering array of food comes from.

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