Eating the pig

It’s not until he takes the first bite of his pig that Michael Pollan fully comes to terms with his having killed it. He writes,

I suddenly felt perfectly okay about my pig — indeed, about the whole transaction between me and this animal that I’d killed two weeks earlier. Eating the pig, I understood, was the necessary closing act of that drama, and went some distance toward redeeming the whole play. (401)

It is perhaps easier to feel “perfectly okay” with killing if one thinks of it as a theatrical engagement. I’d venture to guess that things haven’t suddenly become “perfectly okay” to the pig, which has seen its “closing act” two weeks earlier and does not, indeed cannot, find anything redeeming in its being eaten. Pollan continues,

Now it was all a matter of doing well by the animal, which meant making the best use of its meat by preparing it thoughtfully and feeding it to people who would appreciate it. (401)

Without further explanation, one might guess this means he’ll serve the pig to people who otherwise would go to sleep hungry. Of course, we know that he is preparing a multi-course meal for “a particularly discriminating group of eaters, several of them actual chefs” (402). The notion that using the pig’s flesh to satisfy a discerning palate constitutes “doing well by the animal” is a bizarre one (perhaps sharing its intellectual foundations with suicide food, the depiction of animals that want to be eaten). It’s an idea that he further develops a bit later:

Another thing cooking is, or can be, is a way to honor the things we’re eating, the animals and plants and fungi that have been sacrificed to gratify our needs and desires… (404)

Even if he genuinely wants to honor the pig, honor is a rather limited concept in that it is defined largely by intentions. Many vegetarians, for example, have stories of their friends or families honoring them with a meat-based meal. In most of these cases, the intentions are good, but the execution — in particular, serving meat — reflects a misunderstanding of the honoree’s interests. In Pollan’s case, though, any arguments about good intentions ring hollow in light of the obvious fact that the pig’s interests were extinguished two weeks ago.

Pollan later writes,

But cooking doesn’t only distance us from our destructiveness, turning the pile of blood and guts into a savory salami, it also symbolically redeems it, making good our karmic debts: Look what good, what beauty, can come of this! (405)

Should distancing ourselves from our destructiveness really be a goal? Might we instead strive to be less destructive? Setting aside the question of whether making a delicious salami for one’s own consumption is really a virtuous thing to do, the point about karmic debt is one that might have dangerous implications. It could, for example, offer “symbolic redemption” to an arsonist who returns to the site of the crime to plant flowers.

As comforting as it might be to talk about “honoring” and “doing well by” the pig, everything Pollan does to those ends is not really about the pig but himself and the other people who will eat it. Of course, that is necessarily the case. The pig is dead, and no amount of cooking (or philosophizing) is going to improve its condition.

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2 Comments »

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Liberation BC, Epicurvegan (Nicole). Epicurvegan (Nicole) said: Nonsense like Pollan's is so frustrating! RT @liberationbc: Eating the pig « Say what, Michael Pollan? http://bit.ly/9s66I6 […]

  2. […] the goat, the whole ceremony surrounding it is certainly annoying. I wrote a few blog posts [Links: #1, #2, #3] about similar issues when they came up in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I may or may not […]

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