In a marathon read this Saturday, curled up in an armchair by the window, I finished Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. I was glued to the armchair until I had made it through the very last pages of the wild pig hunt, the morel hunt, and Pollan's perfect meal. I had already followed Pollan's exploration of industrial agriculture and the American reliance on corn, his investigation of what is really behind organic production, and the story of a grass farmer (Pollan is most favorable to the grass farmer) who dropped the name Louis Bromfield. Pollan's work is fantastic, not because it made me hate the world and all the poorly produced food in it, which it could have easily done with sensationalist facts, but instead because it made me consider carefully the food I have in front of me, made me think about every ingredient, and every human being who had a hand in its production, what that production was like.
Last night, we cooked portobella mushrooms with shallots and couscous, and sauteed some greens on the side. Before I took my first bite, I tried to trace the food chain back to the beginnings of this meal, and while the ingredients had no particular story (mushrooms and couscous from fairway, shallots and garlic from the farmer's market, greens from Trader Joe's), it was interesting to think of the mushroom sitting in a forest bed (fungi are one of the few foods we eat, apparently, that are impossible to manufacture outside of the course of nature) not knowing, or even having the capability of knowing it would eventually end up being consumed in a New York apartment on mismatched old hotel dishes.
Some meals I've had to consider might have a more interesting, locally-flavored, from-nature-to-table story.
About four years ago, my dad was called out of his veterinary clinic by a neighbor up the road: "A deer's just been hit." Dad got to the road and saw that the deer had been killed on impact. He and the neighbor agreed that there was nothing to do for it, and decided to get it off the road and onto the clinic property. Then they decided that rather than let the deer decompose and attract other critters on the roadside, and rather than call someone to come haul it away, they'd divide it up themselves. The neighbor had an interest in the antlers and hooves, and expressed as much. Dad thought he could do with the hide and deer meat, and so they removed the deer to a more inconspicuous location and did what they needed to do.
Dad sent the meat to a processing plant for cleaning and processing, and kept the hide for tanning. Christmas was approaching, and the deer's unfortunate accident had instantly solved the problem of a main course. When Mom told me what we'd be having for Christmas dinner, I was in shock.
"You mean, we're having roadkill?"
"Yes, but you can't tell anyone that. The meat was processed, and we want people to enjoy their meal. Venison is a delicacy."
So I kept my mouth shut. The meat came back from the processing plant in butcher paper, looking like any meat you'd get from any proper butcher's. Mom painstakingly roasted the venison to its fullest flavor, and gorgeously prepared it for serving on a lovely porcelain platter. We had more than twenty relatives home for that Christmas, and as we sat down to dinner, I passed a few smirking glances to the few of us who knew the little secret of where the meat came from. I wasn't going to say a word; let the people enjoy their gourmet deer. Unfortunately, Grandma didn't get the memo. After we had sung "Joy to the World," and half of the family had lifted their forks, Grandma called out: "Everyone enjoy your roadkill!"
This anecdote means something different to me after reading The Omnivore's Dilemma. At the time, I couldn't bring myself to eat the fallen deer. I could only laugh at the concept of roadkill for Christmas dinner. Now that I think back on it, however, my dad did right by the deer to make sure his body was appreciated at a festive event, when people were grateful for the food in front of them, partaking joyfully of the bounty of the earth. Pollan mentions several times the roles culture and tradition play in our food, and how saying grace was a practice that many of us may have wrongly let go of, even any sort of secular grace showing appreciation "for that which we are about to receive." We couldn't save the deer's life, but as we sang "Joy to the World" as our form of Christmas grace (and, yes, my family sings "Joy to the World" around the Christmas table), we were paying our respects to the life and sustenance that his death gave us.
As Pollan might say - "Wait, did I just write that?" It may sound new-agey, but it feels great to come to terms with the food in front of you. It might be a terrifying thing to confront (especially when you're staring a Big Mac in the "eye"), but it's something more of us should do every day. If I had been a little bit more aware back then, I may have been more respectful myself, and realized that the deer was the only thing on the table that didn't require some sort of reliance on petroleum, corn, or chemical fertilizers. And I, too, might have been able to enjoy my Christmas roadkill.
Read the introduction and first chapter here.
(On that note, I should mention that my compulsive writing habits of November have earned me some Memphis barbecue goods from generous fellow NaBloPoMoer Lynnster. I'll have to find a nice grass-fed piece of beef to experiment with, pondering a cow's life while drenching it in barbecue sauce. That may sound insensitive, but honestly, read the book. Pollan makes a great point of how disastrous it would be if we all became vegans. And visit Joel Salatin's cows in cyberspace. Does anyone still say "cyberspace"? I just did...)