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Under consideration: Michael Pollan, The Omnivor’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Penguin (2006), 464 pages; and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Penguin (2008), 256 pages.*

JEFFERSON COUNTY, KANSAS. A few weeks ago I attended a meeting of Kansas secessionists. The participants were rowdy, complaining of economic gigantism squashing them flat and bureaucratic thugs hounding their every move. They were all sick and tired of worker-ant existence in the hive-mind of American groupthink and they wanted out. Despite the quintessentially political nature of the gathering, politics proper never came up. Conservative and liberal meant nothing in that room, and party affiliation even less.

Kansas patriots fomenting disunion? No, though there are a few of those kicking around these parts. These were local farmers organizing a farmer’s market. I had offered the parking lot of my law firm for their use, and was mostly just an observer of the scene. The locals probably couldn’t tell you the first thing about the politics of secession, but the Spirit of ’76 showed up in force. Damned were the federal busy-bodies who tell local farmers what they can and can’t sell; condemned were the centralized agents of agri-business who want ID chips implanted in livestock; mocked were the credentialed witch-doctors from the department of agriculture who own the brand “organic.”

All that was left undone was a patriotic march to the local Enormo-Mart to dump the limp and faded out-of-season tomatoes imported from South America into the local pond (which isn’t quite Boston Harbor, but it would have served). And while there was no Declaration, it was clear that these small growers wanted out–out of forced participation in the economic union of cheap mass production, central planning, credit money, and the ignorant consumerism they despised.

Michael Pollan would understand. His The Omnivore’s Dilemma and its sequel, In Defense of Food, amount to a manifesto for farmer’s markets and locally produced food across the country. Meticulously researched, Pollan’s work chronicles and traces the gigantism that defines today’s food economy–and all the deleterious effects which result.

“What’s the big deal?” many will ask. Let Pollan count the problems–declining health; an obesity epidemic; the collapse of the family meal; environmental degradation; a food system that will eventually tumble leading to food shortage and political unrest; the loss of joy and beauty in eating; the forgetfulness of a people bereft of one of the most basic pillars of tradition–grandma’s recipes; and ultimately, the loss of freedom for a people incapable of the ordinary work of self-provisioning.

If that’s not enough, our food also tastes like shit. In Wendell Berry‘s apt aphorism, our food economy is busy turning people into pigs rather than pigs into people. Or as Pollan puts it, “Cheapness and ignorance are mutually reinforcing.” Tell me about it.

Pollan issues this simple dictate: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The harping of a food-scold?  Perhaps. But Pollan fleshes his commandment out well, especially the first third. By “eat food” Pollan actually has in mind something quite revolutionary, because you can’t buy “food” most places. Walk into your local Mega-lo-Mart and what you see is not food–it’s processed corn syrup and assorted chemicals and “nutrients” packaged in plastic and shot so full of preservatives it will never rot.

Food rots. If it doesn’t rot, it’s not food. That’s a good principle to live by.

Or try this one: if your ancestors wouldn’t recognize it as something good to eat, it’s not food.  Imagine a pre-historic everyman fingering the oblong yellow cakey substance filled with white goo. It might be the turd of some exotic as yet unknown animal species. Good to eat?  Certainly not–until, that is, he experiences the artificial sugar intake which stampedes his natural resistance and enslaves him.

Twinkies and Mountain Dew–the body and blood of a new sacrament in the temple of foodshit.

Pollan pulls the curtain back on the small cartel of priestly “nutrition experts” and “food scientists” emanating from land grant universities who rule this temple, dominate our government’s food policy, and determine what we will eat.  He demonstrates convincingly that if one can penetrate beneath the glitzy plastic wrappers, the know-nothing food pyramids, and the seemingly interminable processing of our foodstuff, we are in reality little more than a nation of beasts in a continuous state of mastication at a Babelesque pile of corn so massive it stretches to the carbon infused heavens. Not pretty, and hardly the wholesome image of the American family at table.

Nature abhors a monoculture, but bean counters (kernel counters in reality) adore them. And corn is the monomania of American culture. We’ve even taken to pumping it into our SUV’s and minivans.

An aside: In 1890 a small western Kansas town sponsored a public debate on the statement: “Opportunities have never been better in Kansas.” Taking the affirmative was a lawyer recently immigrated from the east. By all reported accounts, he acquitted himself well, giving a fine and persuasive speech.  When the lawyer finished, a local farmer, seizing the opportunity to take the negative, got up and proceeded to shovel a load of freshly harvested corn into the wood stove.  He sat down without saying a word.  As the local press reported it, those in attendance unanimously agreed that the farmer had won the debate. In 1890 corn was worth more as fuel than as food. Deja vu all over again, only now it’s “green.”

In the wider (or narrower) world of the pundit “food wars”–think Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons–these discussions tend to illicit either a retreat into faux philistinism or a mockery of the same. Pollan’s own response illustrates this tension well.  His conclusions are in fact deeply traditional–one might even venture to call them conservative–a fact he acknowledges, yet one which clearly makes him uncomfortable.

Simultaneously exploited and neglected in this debate are the virtues of the actual philistines. Neither conservatives defiantly celebrating their double-whopper and fries nor their liberal counterparts pacing the isle of Whole Foods in search of the perfect dinner party have earned their food war credentials. Both merely play a carefully scripted part in the charade of our national “conversation” over these questions. Pollan’s work has the virtue of refusing both of these easy outs, but then, he can’t he bring himself to tell the whole story.

Pollan’s sensibility is that of the kitchen lover–an admirable thing to be sure–but it’s a love that tends to go unconsummated in an age of genteel decadence. He frets continuously over the ethics of killing a chicken for dinner. He admits he is uncomfortable with the conservative culture of the farm. His tentative solutions tend towards state intervention rather than true laissez faire.

Here is what Pollan and others have mostly missed: honest redneckery comes by dint of sweat on the brow, clods underfoot, and mud on the frock. That Pollan overlooks this is unfortunate, because down at the feed store, the sun-burned, dirty men I talk to would be more likely to open up a can of whup-ass on his hand-wringing self than celebrate his latest gourmand achievement.

This uniquely American disconnect is illustrated well by a short anecdote Pollan relates. In Martin Van Buren’s reelection campaign of 1840, his opponent William Henry Harrison effectively ridiculed Van Buren for bringing a personal French Chef to the White House. Harrison, as he let it be known, preferred “raw beef and salt.” The lesson, as Van Buren and Rod Dreher both learned, is that “to savor food, to conceive of a meal as an aesthetic experience, has been regarded as evidence of effeteness, a form of foreign foppery.”

To bridge this chasm requires a firm recognition that self-provisioning is dirty work done by sun hardened men who obtain not the rarefied sophistication of the credentialed witch-doctors and their organic brews, but membership in the rarefied league of freemen who can pretty much tell anyone and everyone, as circumstances may require, to go to hell without concern for the consequences (taxman excepted).

That’s the feed store definition of freedom in Jefferson County, Kansas, though it’s not taught much in social studies textbooks. Only such men–rich or poor, barber or builder, clodhopper or shopkeeper–know true equality, for they know and honor the true measure of the other. They are “equal to their own needs” in Wendell Berry’s terms, which is the foundation of that quaint Aristotelian notion philia politike–political fraternity–otherwise known as peace and happiness.

There is a sentiment in the punditry for what some have dubbed the emergence of the “Michael Pollan/Wendell Berry right.” Characterizing the food secessionist movement this way is a mistake because the food problem in this country described and catalogued so aptly by Pollan is ultimately a symptom of the much more disturbing problem: that the league of freemen has dwindled to near extinction.  The important questions start not with what we eat but with who we are. Pollan’s insight is to understand that the former tells us a lot about the latter. Pollan’s temptation is to believe that the gold ring in the pig’s snout makes a difference. Gilding the sow doesn’t make her free when the bucket commeth.

Meanwhile, every weekend in my parking lot the secessionists now gather to opt out of economic union with their food masters. Growers and eaters. Neighbors. Celebrating interdependence and independence. And not least of all, as Thoreau exclaimed: “I did taste!”

* A version of this review first appeared on June 24, 2008 in Taki’s Magazine.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Drew April 2, 2009 at 10:12 pm

Mr. Steagall:

You probably won’t like to hear this, but the last four paragraphs of this excellent post mirror precisely none other than Victor Davis Hanson’s powerful thesis in his book “The Land Was Everything.” Having known of Mr. Hanson myself only as, in Pat Buchanan’s words, “The Court Historian to the Neoconservatives”, I was blown away by what is a often hilarious and deeply moving elegy for Jefferson’s yeomen freeholder.

His is ultimately a more tragic vision than even Mr. Berry’s and every bit as hard earned with the calluses to show for it.

avatar Jeremy Beer April 2, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Not sure if Hanson’s vision is less tragic than Berry’s. But I’ll grant you that it’s considerably less Christian.

avatar The Reticulator April 2, 2009 at 11:30 pm

Good article. I blogged about this at my web site in an article titled Anti-Food Safety, but it looks like the trackback didn’t come through here. A Food Safety Institute is being built near where I live, which is promoting uniform regulations that will take us in the opposite direction of eating locally-produced food.

avatar PDGM April 3, 2009 at 8:48 am

A perhaps more minor symptom of, or closely related symptom to, of the lack of freemen: we have largely become a nation of incompetents when it comes to actually doing anything for ourselves, whether that doing involves a small garden or competence in the kitchen. Bread? Something you buy at the store, whether Whole Foods or Wal Mart. Ditto pasta. But being unable to do anything for ourselves except reach for a wallet puts us at the mercy of who’s doing the selling and what’s being sold. Even these minor forms of doing represent a kind of freedom that is profoundly important symbolically; and I’d say that across the board, not just in the kitchen. People who “can stand on their own two feet” and do things are less apt to be patsies for those who sell goods and services.

avatar Drew April 3, 2009 at 8:56 am

@ Mr. Beer:

Hanson’s book is not laced with Scripture citations as is the fine work of Mr. Berry’s. But the man expresses moral outrage over the exploitation of a Mexican who breaks his back gleaning grapes for like 20 cents a ton propmting Hanson to observe that the farmers he knew as a boy would have liked to take the money at the point of a shotgun from the “corrupt” winery, and then onto a distributionist tangent ending with the thud of a pronouncement that true justice for the gleaner would require changing the souls of men.

Not exactly James 5:4′s “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts”, but hardly glib Randroid cant about the virtuous wisdom of free markets either. It seems to me that the whole of “The Land Was Everything” is imbued with the sensibility of the sort of virtuous pagan of antiquity Dante placed in the outer ring of purgatory. It’s almost as if there are two Hanson’s, and indeed the book was written and published before 9-11. I’m curious if Mr. Beer is saying the book and Hanson’s views on agrarianism are downright un-Christian? Maybe I missed something?

What I don’t think I missed is that he and Mr. Steagall’s take on the Pollan persuasion, which has put across many valuable truths into the elite media, are one and that is that it all ultimately will go nowhere. Something is missing temperament wise.
The sort of “bareknuckles” approach Mr. Stegall has advocated would seem to be anathema to the “milk and water New Deal socialism” (and presumably pacifism)of Mr. Berry’s worldview and certainly to that of Pollan’s tenured professoriat on the Berkeley scene. Not so sure about Hanson though.

avatar Caleb Stegall April 3, 2009 at 9:08 am

Hanson’s is (or was, before it was spoiled by neocon preferment) a greek soul, not a Christian one, but the two things are not as far apart as may be supposed. His The Land Was Everything is indeed masterful, though it has been many many years since I read it.

Berry’s is a Christian soul, I agree, however, he is sympathetic with the virtuous pagans … see his treatment of the Odyssean epics for example.

Drew has put his finger on one of the key questions.

avatar Drew April 3, 2009 at 9:38 am

Mr. Steagall:

I am reminded of an article on Thomas Hart Benton I read years ago in which he brutally outed himself as an admirer of agrariansim, something very distinct from those who actually, dare I say, get it done. The context was his brilliant tempera on panel “The Hailstorm” (www.artchive.com/artchive/B/benton/hailstorm.jpg.html). As Benton recalled his orginal vision for the painting was one where two frightened farmers were seeking refuge from the tempest under the sheltering grove. Then he realized, being a Kansas City boy and I guess close enough to sodbusters of that era, many an actual farmer would as soon looked death in the face as leave a valuable mule and plow to be scattered to the four winds. So it became the masterpiece that still hangs today in Omaha, with the dogged sumbitch carrying on right down that furrow, lightening and hail beating be damned. When enough people have learned that sort of toughness again, there may be hope yet for our small farms

Thank you kindly for taking the time to post with all you have going with the pigs. I look forward to watching this place take off.

avatar Jeremy Beer April 3, 2009 at 11:31 am

Drew — Berry a peddler of “milk and water New Deal socialism” who is afraid of fighting for what he believes? You’re either joking or are simply prejudiced against Berry. I assure you he has calluses, having farmed for far more years than your hero, has fought more in a practical way for the farming life in this country than VDH ever has, and is, to boot, not a fanatical supporter of wars that send farm boys, mechanics, and the sons of Mexican grape-pickers off to die for, well, whatever they were supposed to die for. Please.

avatar Caleb Stegall April 3, 2009 at 11:41 am

I don’t know that there is anything in the last four paragraphs above that is inconsistent with Berry’s life or work. VDH has totally discredited himself, as Jeremy points out, but I recall his early agrarian works to be very good. I probably need to go back and see how they hold up.

avatar D.W. Sabin April 3, 2009 at 12:47 pm

Pollan has a perfect classification for the products of the supermarket. First, we have the various items around the exterior…the Baked goods, meats and vegetables and these he calls “food”. Then, one enters the vast and colorful petrochemical nougat in the middle of the market…all the various prepared and preserved foods which he calls “feed”. The Livestock Nation still enjoys its Feed.

Although I think the neo-conservative a detestable sub-human of noxious gunpoint ideology who compounds the taint with a compulsive yammering that possesses all the charms of squeaking tank tracks (see Kristol et al), if they accidentally strike upon the wisdom of agrarianism, I’ll chase their errant mule with pleasure…Greek, Christian, Semite, Lefty, Agnostwhatever, Hindu-Arabic, Animiste or, ….well….this is hard…but, ehhh, maybe even Mormon too….but only if I can reserve my rights of plausible deniability.

Welcome to the era of Political Feed. Just as the Conservatives were once actually “conservative”, the Lefty once saw a certain solidarity with the working stiff whether they made cars or plowed a mean furrow behind an even meaner jackass. Now, we have Supermarket Politics where the Greater country around the outside, the vast and last redoubt of authentic opinion based upon real food for the mind surrounds a toxic middle, that perfidious little pissant town called Washington D.C. where we have bi-partisan feed for the mind pumped up on the preservatives of cant and neatly packaged in flashy plastic boxes.

avatar Josh Cooney April 3, 2009 at 2:12 pm

Since I haven’t read much of Pollan, I’d like to know what it means that he is “uncomfortable with the conservative culture of a farm.” I could make some guesses about this but I don’t want to rush to conclusions.

Something that is very bothersome about the current political scene is the way conservatives have essentially forgotten, or outright repudiated, the value of an agrarian culture. In contrast, most of the folks I know who are gardeners, starting or buying into CSA’s, looking for farm apprenticeships, or just starting their own farm, are socially liberal.

While farming might not turn a liberal into a Mel Bradford or even a Wendell Berry, I suspect that farming for a lifetime will necessarily lead to new values and ways of thinking that are essentially, and in the true sense of the word, conservative. Is this what Pollan fears?

avatar Max Goss April 3, 2009 at 2:34 pm

Excellent piece, Caleb. I especially appreciated the sly reference to Mega-lo-mart. Mike Judd seems to be not only conservative, but in sympathy with the aims of this site. Did you see the one where Hank joins the local food co-op? Hank would fit right in at the feed store. Like you, Judd lampoons both “conservatives defiantly celebrating their double-whopper and fries [and] their liberal counterparts pacing the isle of Whole Foods in search of the perfect dinner party.”

avatar Caleb Stegall April 3, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Here’s an old post of mine from Rod’s former crunchy blog at National Review that addresses some of the interplay between Hanson and Berry.

avatar D.W. Sabin April 3, 2009 at 4:30 pm

Damn ye schweinehund Stegall, after perusing your NRO post, I’ll have to furlough Hanson to a more temperate outer ring of hell in my portable pantheon of all things to be pilloried. This is a major affront to longstanding protocol. If you say something nice about Kristol though, I will hunt you down bearing bucket.

avatar Caleb Stegall April 3, 2009 at 4:34 pm

Max, believe it or not, I’ve never seen King of the Hill, but many people have told me the same thing about the show. But for kicks, here’s my defense of Homer Simpson … this one is for Russell, our resident social democrat.

avatar Caleb Stegall April 3, 2009 at 4:38 pm

Sabin, I’m wise to the ways of the bucket. But don’t worry, Kristol is already toast in some deep inner ring.

avatar Russell Arben Fox April 3, 2009 at 4:50 pm

Caleb, I remember that post of yours! What a wonderful bit of honest contrariness. Home Simpson, the ultimate slave to his material passions, is actually a good working-class, crunchy, Front Porcher…because those material passions do not take him away from his wife and his home, and in fact do not extend further than his locally manufactured Duff beer. Awesome!

avatar Drew April 3, 2009 at 9:20 pm

@ Mr. Beer:

Had to to go out make the rent money so just getting ’round to my reply tonight. Where to begin?

“Milk and Water New Deal Socialism” are actually not my words but those of Thomas Fleming over at Chronicles.org/Rockford Institute. So go poke a stick in his cage since that seems to be your mood, but be forewarned he gives as good as he gets. Secondly, I don’t think Mr. Berry would necessarily take issue with being called a New Dealer, which was in many respects turned out to be watered down socialism and which many good men such as Congressmen Wright Patman and Sam Rayburn did support more often than they opposed. In my view Huey Long was more right and preferrable to FDR. Perhaps I’m wrong and Mr. Berry would agree with that assessment. I do know that my great grandfather’s cattle and truck farm that he started as a young man by himself in southwest Arkansas was hurt far more than helped by Mr. Roosevelt and Rex Tugwell’s paternalism. But his sons only came to realize that in hindsight.

As to your “with us or against us” rhetorical reach of accusing me of “hero” worship”: Horseshit. I don’t happen to support Hanson’s foreign policy agenda any more than you do, so call off that dog. I would point out that the only reason he hasn’t farmed as many years as Mr. Berry is that he was born a generation later.

Never did I nor would I disrepect Mr. Berry’s work ethic, I simply stated the truth which is that Hanson has worked the land too. And you might actually want to reread his books before shooting your mouth off about what Hanson hasn’t done in fighting for small farms when his books discuss organizing neighboring farmers in lawsuits against processors who cheated them.

Maybe it doesn’t tally more than Mr. Berry’s “practical efforts”, but it’s something. You can hate the man’s foreign policy views and his guts personally, but don’t bear false witness as to his physical labors or his solidarity with the farmers in his local community. God will judge on the Iraq debacle, but his being wrong there does not discredit his life’s work in and writing on farming. That is, unless your one of those people who want to drive T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound beyond the pale of literary respectability because of their political views. And lastly, throw another hissy fit if you want, but last I checked burley tobacco farmers still get federal subsidies. Farmers of specialty crops such as grapes and peaches do not.

@ Mr Stegall:

I did not suggest that your last four paragraphs were in conflict with any of Mr. Berry’s outstanding corpus of work. Rather, what I did say is that the heart of Hanson’s particular defense of agrarianism-the culture of personal sacrifice, pratical engagement, and grit- is strikingly parallel to the “bareknuckles” approach you have, in my view, rightly advocated for the Cruncy Con set. My impression is that Mr. Berry is more pacifistic in approach, but if I’m wrong I’ll be the first to cheer him on when farmers start dumping Big Dairy’s milk in the ditch and shooting Big Beef’s cattle, instead of their own as they did in Iowa in the depths Depression.

Also, are you any kin to Congressmen Henry Steagall who teamed up with Senator Glass to save capitalism from the New York capitalists until the excreable Phil Gramm and Bill Clinton revived the unholy alliance between commercial and investment banking?

avatar Caleb Stegall April 3, 2009 at 10:27 pm

Drew,

Also, are you any kin to Congressmen Henry Steagall

Yes, but only very distantly. But I have always been proud that that piece of legislation bore my family name.

I did not suggest that your last four paragraphs were in conflict with any of Mr. Berry’s outstanding corpus of work. Rather, what I did say is that the heart of Hanson’s particular defense of agrarianism-the culture of personal sacrifice, pratical engagement, and grit- is strikingly parallel to the “bareknuckles” approach you have, in my view, rightly advocated for the Cruncy Con set.

I think this is right, but was pointing out that the criticism I levy at Pollan cannot, I don’t think, be made of Berry. But if there is a criticism to be made, I do think it concerns a certain acceptance of “new dealism” in a strain of agrarianism. Where Berry fits in this strain seems an open question to me. Berry’s views in this regard strike me as problematic at times, but also complex, and at times contradictory (as any thoughtful Christian’s must be, from time to time). I do think a possibly profitable line of inquiry may focus on the Greek vs. Christian distinctions raised above.

As for my own views on the matter, I think you’ve read them correctly.

avatar Drew April 3, 2009 at 10:59 pm

That was back when many in the Democratic party actually had some backbone. I too would be proud of sharing a surname with the Congressman because of that piece of legislation. We desperatley more of the sort that cuts big business and finance down to size without simultaneously swelling the ranks of federal bureaucrats.

For the record, it appears the 2005 Tobacco Federal Buyout ended the subsidies so I misspoke upthread. Also, I got a little overheated in my last response to Mr. Beer. Let me reiterate my shared respect and admiration for Mr. Berry and bid peace to all for a blessed Palm Sunday and Holy Week, Passover, spring fiesta…

avatar Jeremy Beer April 3, 2009 at 11:11 pm

Drew — Sorry for assuming that your use of the term “milk and water New Deal socialism” to describe Berry’s approach was . . . your own term. In any case, you’re right that Berry wouldn’t necessarily object (in some ways) to being called a New Dealer, and maybe even a socialist. Caleb’s right, too, that these affinities are, or may be, problematic. It’s the “milk and water” charge that gets me. So Berry’s a pacifist, or at least pacifistic. Is that synonymous with “weeney”? Here is where, as you imply, VDH and WB might part ways; and it certainly is a divergence that is related to that Greek/Christian distinction that Caleb and you have mentioned. But by the same token, it’s not unfair to speculate that VDH’s Greek-inspired agrarianism and his militarism are related–and the same for Berry’s much more Christian-inflected agrarianism and his pacifism (or if that’s too strong, his anti-militarism).

On the propriety of the “bareknuckles” thing–well, it depends on the sophistication of one’s understanding of the concept, doesn’t it? Andy Griffith was a helluva lot tougher than Barney.

avatar Josh Cooney April 3, 2009 at 11:51 pm

I remember the discussion where Wendell Berry was tagged with the “milk and water socialist” label. It began with David Gordon’s silly piece “We Will Berry You,” and, I think, Jerry Salyer’s response in Chronicles. It should be pointed out that Dr. Fleming was actually making the point that in considering Mr. Berry’s body of work, any new dealism he may have is mostly irrelevant to his central ideas.

I agree. I’ve read a plenty of Mr. Berry’s writings and I don’t remember much that concerned the New Deal or farm policy. I’m sure it is there but is beside the point, I think. Let us remember, Berry is more than a political activist, he is a poet, novelist, and moralist.

If anyone is interested in the Greek agrarian view, I recommend listening to Dr. Fleming’s lecture “The Greek and Roman Agrarian Tradition.” Unfortunatley, there is no longer free access to it. Here is the link anyway.

http://www.abbevilleinstitute.org/lectures.php

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