A good deal of blood gets spilled in Michael Pollan’s intelligently gory new book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (Penguin Press, $26.95), but amid the accounts of chickens’ throats being methodically slit and steers’ assembly-line encounters with the so-called stunner, the shooting of a wild pig near Healdsburg commands a particularly dark fascination. For one of the shooters is Pollan himself, our guide, narrator, and conflictedly omnivorous Everyman, and his act of marksmanship in Sonoma’s golden hills closes the circle that is the book’s central conceit: of bearing personal witness to, and accepting moral responsibility for, the collection of the food one will then prepare and eat.
The breaking of that circle is a chief objective of the food industry. As Pollan notes, Big Food "depends upon consumers’ not knowing much … beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner. Cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing … [and] the global economy couldn’t very well function without this wall of ignorance and the indifference it breeds." And even in America, ignorance and heartlessness cannot be assumed. "Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively," Pollan writes, "we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do … for who could stand the sight?"
The pig who falls at Pollan’s shot — "a very large gray sow" — was probably shot by Pollan’s more experienced guide, or so Pollan seems to imply. Later there will be ham and prosciutto and other porcine wonders, but under the hot Sonoma sun, the immediate prospect is "a dead wild animal, its head lying on the dirt in a widening circle of blood." One cannot help admiring Pollan’s nerve, his gameness, even as the hunting episode brings forth a spasm of not quite seemly triumph — his sense of himself, candidly described, as "playing the hero’s part."
I would not, could not, shoot a pig, or any mammal, any creature — and I say this not with pride but as a fact. I recoil from accounts of Dick Cheney’s beer-bust quail hunts. If I had to do what Pollan did to eat meat, I would not eat meat. But I don’t, none of us do, and there is our dilemma.