I was really interested to see how Pollan decided to go about this last meal. Like him, when I was little my parents had my brother and sister and I do a little foraging. Before we started growing them on purpose, my dad would take us out to hunt shiitake mushrooms in the spring and fall, and my mom made it a competition when we went camping to see if we could find things like wild blueberries or blackberries. So I feel a little bit of kinship with what he’s trying to accomplish. However, he’s right when he says “it’s not as though the forager food chain represents a viable way for us to eat at this point in history; it doesn’t. For one thing, there is not enough game left to feed us all, and probably not enough wild plants and mushrooms either” (Pollan 279). So eating wild food has a different draw. I like to think of it as an adventure. And—at least for me—when I eat something I make, it’s a way of connecting to my family even though they’re not here. Pollan says “all winter long [his mother’s] beach plum jelly summoned memories of summer vacation: August on toast” (Pollan 278). As well as being reminiscent of a certain garlic episode on the back deck at my house, this is another reason for food: it’s a comfort. Smell is one of the strongest triggers of memory, and I think that’s because we have evolved as humans to remember what’s good and what isn’t.
I had to laugh when he talked about Thoreau’s quote about the gun and how “That pitiable, uneducated boy [that Thoreau talks about] was me” (Pollan 281). I’ve fired guns before, my dad (the son of a cop) thought it a necessary thing to teach all three of his children, and according to him I’m good at it. However, I’ve never shot anything with a still-beating heart (my dad holds all three of his children to the you-shoot-it-you-eat-it policy). One of the other best parts of this section was when Pollan found “his forager Virgil” (282). Not only is that a hilarious way of thinking of a person who knows how to live off the land, but it’s the fact that he made a point of actually going out and finding one. Angelo Garro—the aforementioned “Virgil”—actually reminded me a lot of an Italian Chef Gousteau, a big, jolly guy who really, really enjoys cooking and what goes into cooking. Seriously, can I go be apprenticed to him? This guy sounds Excellent with a capital E.
The discussion about animal rights was very interesting, mostly because I don’t have a problem with killing things so long as they’ve been well-treated while alive. I’ve always been taught that an animal is an animal, not a human. They don’t think like humans, they don’t feel feelings like humans. Sure, certain animals can form attachments to humans—dogs, horses, cats, and so on—but they don’t recognize that they feel those things. They just exist. They do not think about the fact that they exist. Their minds are busy considering things like: “That is food. That is not food. That is a threat. That is not a threat.” Pollan talks about the writers that are anathema to animal rights activists, saying that “the offending argument, which does not seem unreasonable to me, is that human pain differs from animal pain by an order of magnitude. This qualitative difference is largely the result of our possession of language and, by virtue of language, our ability to have thoughts about thoughts and to imagine what is not” (316). I think Pollan is absolutely right. Animals are different from humans in the fact that “The concept of nonexistence is thankfully absent” (316). Death is a fact of life and they accept it. Humans though, oh man, we have to make a whole big to-do over it. I wanted to applaud when I read the line “As humans contemplating the suffering or pain of animals we do need to guard against projecting onto them what the same experience would feel like to us” (316). I admit I could never eat small furry things (with the exception of squirrels, I could probably manage squirrels)—mice, rabbits, that sort of thing—but bigger animals and birds? Not a problem. I’ve mentioned before how my mom and I cut up chickens last summer. It was disgusting while it lasted, but afterwards we had tasty-looking chicken meat that could easily become dinner. I also admit that I probably wouldn’t have the guts to just walk up to an animal and kill it, but I’d be fine with using a gun. Pollan would probably say that shooting it would distance me from the kill, but in my mind a gun is a weapon, made to kill things quickly and efficiently. If I’m going to kill something humanely with a minimum amount of pain—because animals do feel pain, and actively causing pain to someone or something without their express consent is wrong—I’m going to shoot it. (Another reason I don’t like using industrial meats—the animals are uncomfortable, even sometimes in pain. The fact that this is a normal part of feedlot life really pisses me off.)
After the subject of the animal rights activists—in which Pollan made a great deal of sense, which was comforting after the ideals of the animal rights activists, which to me made very little sense—the discussion of why farms like Polyface are better for the animals and how animal rightists ignore the fact that domesticated animals evolved to be domestic because they had a higher survival rate in a symbiosis with humans was excellent. On a farm like Polyface the animals are leading the kind of lives they are biologically supposed to live, which is better for everyone and everything involved. This is the same with animals in the wild, and Pollan makes this very clear when discussing Matthew Scully and his writings on the “moral degradation” of “predators (like cats)” (321). Pollan responds with “moral degradation?” (321). I agree with what he didn’t say here: animals in the wild don’t really have a capacity for morals…they’re too busy worrying about staying alive. (I could sing a song by the BeeGees here, but I won’t.)
When Pollan started describing the morning of the day on which he was going to kill his first pig, I nearly fell over laughing. I thought, “What, what is this? This flowery prose from the man whose irony and sarcasm I have come to admire so much?” But then he acknowledged that he actually felt this way about what he was doing, and it gave me a new respect for him because he has the ability to write factually but still make it beautiful. When he finally took the shot and killed the pig, however, it was really easy to imagine being there. My dad taught me to take a breath and hold it before firing—the gun stays steadier that way because you move less—so the “crystal stillness of the scene and the moment in time” (352) is a very apt description of the milliseconds between when your finger moves the trigger and when the bullet fires. My dad also taught me that you pull the trigger in a slow, controlled motion (less chance of accidentally moving the gun while it’s firing and ruining your shot), just like Pollan uses when shooting his pig, so I knew exactly what he felt, or as close as target shooting gets to shooting an actual animal. I know whenever I shoot, the extremely small amount of time between when the trigger starts moving and when gun fires always seems like longer than it is, because my anticipation of how I’m going to react to what the gun might do as it fires reaches its high point just before the firing pin strikes the bullet and sends it shooting out the end of the barrel.
On the whole, I think what Pollan is trying to get at with all of this is that humans have lost the responsibility that comes with killing things. My dad’s rule of You Shoot It You Eat It made this very clear. If I’m going to shoot something, I become responsible for it, and I have to deal with it. Pollan talks about something he calls “respect for what is,” saying that “it doesn’t tell you what to do or even what to think. Yet respect for what is does point us in a direction. That direction just happens to be the direction from which we came—to that place and time, I mean, where humans looked at the animals they killed, regarded them with reverence, and never ate them except with gratitude” (362). Indirectly, humans are responsible for the deaths of every single animal raised for its meat, but we forget that because we are no longer confronted with the direct reality of a dead thing as a result of our actions, because mostly our meat comes already dead, prepackaged and shrink-wrapped with a barcode and a price.