Michael Pollan, Predators, and Me

| April 2, 2006 | 1 Comment
  • 1 Comment

The New York Times Magazine excerpted a piece of Michael Pollan’s forthcoming book, “The Omivore’s Dilemma,” last Sunday. Called “The Modern Hunter-Gatherer,” the article details Pollan’s first experience hunting, killing, and eating a wild boar.

I’m a huge fan of Pollan’s, not least of all because he teaches a class at Berkeley called The Editor as God (strikes close to my heart). His thoughtful, deeply researched work limns the complicated space where food and food politics meet morality and modernity.

So I was excited to read the piece, but not only because of my admiration for Pollan’s writing. Hunting is something that I’ve thought a lot about. Like many people, I care a great deal about where my food comes from, and I do my best to understand how the food arrives on my plate — and to respect the process and the people that provide it. But, unlike Pollan, I’ve never killed an animal, nor had the desire to.

Because, of course, my husband does it for me.

My husband and his family grew up hunting. When they get the chance, they still do hunt. I try to tolerate it, without indulging it. But that’s somewhat disingenuous. After all, I’ve learned to rationalize his hunting — I’ve learned to feel lucky for it. I’ve even learned to be proud of it, at moments, in a self-consciously conflicted way. After all, I don’t have to take the animal’s life, but I can say that I’ve experienced the food chain, inched a few steps closer to my food — and isn’t that what we talk about, when we talk about farmer’s markets and Slow Food and carefully sourced ingredients? As Pollan says:

“I’d gotten it into my head that I wanted to prepare a meal I had hunted, gathered and grown myself. Why? To see if I could do it. I was also curious to experience the food chain — which has grown so long and complex as to no longer even feel anything like a food chain — at its shortest and most elemental. And I had long felt that, as a meat eater, I should, at least once, take responsibility for the killing that eating meat entails. I wanted, for once in my life, to pay the full karmic price of a meal.”

Pollan goes on to describe his hunting experience, as well as the payoff: the dinner party. On his first attempt, his gun isn’t ready, and his shooting partner gets the shot. He is intent on actually shooting an animal, though, so he tries again — the second time is successful, with a clean shot. He relays his different emotions: pride, relief, gratitude, and disgust at the viscera. Then, only later, as he sees a photograph of him grinning over his dead pig, remorse and ambivalence. His analysis is sharp, and his neuroticism familiar, comforting. I empathize with his reluctance, his glee, and his regret.

Neuroticism and hunting make strange bedfellows, as this blogger pointed out. Well, he calls it “overanalysis.” I don’t see what’s wrong with analysis, in fact the hyper-macho world of hunting could use a healthy dose of it. Pollan only addresses the idea of killing for food, not for sport — a whole different subject. As Pollan says, “I never could stomach the straight-faced reveling 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.”

Pollan kills his pig with a borrowed gun, which is the point at which I part ways with him. He watches his friend gut the animal, sharing with his readers the disgust he feels. He prepares his gourmet meal — which, in addition to the wild pig, includes mushrooms that he gathered, vegetables from his garden, and bread he baked himself — and delights in it. He does it all for the greater good — for journalism, for education, for self-improvement. I feel a little jealousy in all this, that he can seek out and achieve this very visceral experience, dine out on it, and then retreat. I don’t think he has a gun in his house. Sean Aqui, the blogger I quoted earlier who disagreed with Pollan’s overanalysis, also surmises that “Pollan’s discomfort has more to do with guns than hunting.”

Probably, yes. I mean, that’s my discomfort, too. I think (though I’m not sure) that I could cut off a chicken’s head. I could hook a fish. I don’t think I could shoot a gun — let alone aim it at a live animal. I’ve held a gun once, and it terrified me (though, truthfully, I was about 20 years old, drunk on cheap vodka, and sitting around a table of mafiosi in Russia — plenty to be scared about there). I don’t believe, for the most part, that people should own guns. Yet, we have a gun in our house — a shotgun, given to my husband as a wedding present from his brother, in the most unironic fashion. We don’t have children, yet. So far, he’s only used it at the shooting range.

It’s a fine line we walk (and by we, I mean me). We eschew factory farming and espouse the humane treatment of the animals we eat; we buy expensive, locally raised meat because we can, because we like where it came from and how it was treated — because it’s better for us, and better for the environment. If we lived in the middle of nowhere and had to fend for ourselves, my husband’s facility with a gun would come in handy. So, the question is, how do we align our need to exalt the “authentic” when authenticity is a little more than we can swallow?

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  • Sean Aqui

    Thanks for the link!

    A couple of thoughts:

    I don’t have a problem with analysis, for hunting or otherwise. I just think Pollan overanalyzed — as one is wont to do when experiencing something intense for the first and perhaps only time.

    I like Pollan’s writing a lot. The article he did a while back on cattle feedlots was not just great writing but great journalism. But I think this article would have benefited from a bit of paring. Some of it struck me as the equivalent of having an internal debate about whether and how to tie his shoes.

    On the flip side, I have no patience for people like Hemingway who exalt the hunter. It’s shooting food, dude. And while the challenge is one of the attractions, there’s really nothing particularly fabulous about a human with a gun managing to kill an herbivore. It’s an uneven contest from the start.

    Finally, it’s not necessarily “inauthentic” or hypocritical to have qualms about shooting your own food. What you describe sounds like simple squeamishness, which is nothing to be ashamed of. I like sausage; I have no desire to see how it’s made. As long as you follow your principles, how you obtain your food — and how much of the food chain you choose to experience up close — should be irrelevant. If nothing else, you undoubtedly would prefer to not spend at least eight hours a day finding food, which is what authentic hunter-gatherers probably did.