"The Modern Hunter-Gatherer"
The cover story in today's New York Times Magazine (free registration required, I think) is completely enthralling. Michael Pollan is a journalist and writer on science and the environment. His well-received 2001 book The Botany of Desire was about how four plants (apples, marijuana, potatoes, and tulips) have co-evolved with humans. The essay today is an excerpt from his forthcoming book entitled The Omnivore's Dillema: A Natural History of Four Meals. In the essay, Pollan recalls his first experience as a hunter, going into the woods of Northern California to hunt wild pigs, and shooting, killing, cleaning, cooking, and eating a pig.
Pollan is a very good writer, and clearly conveys his own conflicted feelings about the process of killing an animal. One one hand, he describes how the act of hunting makes him feel alive and aware of his surroundings in a novel and focused way (which he compares to the effects of THC!), and on the other hand, he describes how the act of gutting the animal and seeing that its organs look just like those of people caused disgust and thoughts about cannibalism. The essay combines (self-conscious) hunting porn with scientific reflections on hunting and a pleasant description of cooking a dinner party. Here is how he descibes his thoughts while cleaning the carcass:
Since it was my plan to serve and eat this animal, the revulsion at its sight and smell that now consumed me was discouraging, to say the least. That plan was no longer just a conceit, either, since the moment I killed this pig I felt it descend on me with the weight of a moral obligation. And yet at the moment the prospect of sitting down to a meal of this animal was unthinkable. Pâté? Prosciutto? Ventricina? Just then I could have made myself vomit simply by picturing myself putting a fork to a bite of this pig. How was I ever going to get past this?Like most American families, I suppose, mine historically hunted but no longer does. My mother's family is mostly ranchers, and living off the land was part of what they did. My father's parents moved from urban New York City to rural New Mexico in the 1950s, and took up hunting then, but neither my father nor his brother hunt anymore. (His father was an avid hunter, as I noted in my posting on macular degeneration last year.) My father a crack shot and frequent hunter as a young man, and was actually a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association until their politics diverged. I've only shot a gun a few times, and never at anything tastier than a paper target. (But see another essay in today's Times Book Review about edible books...!) The only things I've killed and eaten myself have been plants. The few times I caught fish as a kid, I'm pretty sure my parents killed them for me...
In fact, as a culinary vegetarian for most of grad school, I probably ate less than 10 pounds of meat that I cooked myself over those six years. Most Americans grill that many hamburgers in a single summer. (I ate a lot more meat than that, but only when other people cooked it.) Here's what Pollan says about vegetarianism, after his experience hunting:
The fact that you cannot come out of hunting feeling unambiguously good about it is perhaps what should commend the practice to us. You certainly don't come out of it eager to protest your innocence. If I've learned anything about hunting and eating meat, it's that it's even messier than the moralist thinks. Having killed a pig and looked at myself in that picture and now looking forward (if that's the word) to eating that pig, I have to say there is a part of me that envies the moral clarity of the vegetarian, the blamelessness of the tofu eater. Yet part of me pities him too. Dreams of innocence are just that; they usually depend on a denial of reality that can be its own form of hubris.Now that I've been cooking meat these last few years, should I take the next step, accept reality, and kill my own animal, at least once? Pollan describes the act as "manifest joy". "Perhaps it is the joy of a creature succeeding at something he has discovered his nature has superbly equipped him to do, an action that is less a perversion of that nature, his 'creaturely character,' than a fulfillment of it." Perhaps, or perhaps not. Pollan notes that we are the only species that cooks food:
All the various techniques humans have devised for transforming the raw into the cooked — nature into culture — do a lot more for us than make food tastier and easier to digest; they interpose a welcome distance too. It might be enough for other species that their food be good to eat, but for us, as Claude Lévi-Strauss famously put it, food has to be "good to think" as well; the alchemies of the kitchen help get us there, by giving new, more human forms and flavors to the plants and fungi and animals we bring out of nature. The long, civilizing braise is a particularly effective one, rendering the meat bloodless and fork tender. It was when I pulled the leg of boar from the oven to check if it was done, and a deep, woodsy-winey aroma filled the kitchen, that I felt my appetite begin to recover.Time for lunch...