Pollan compares his perfect meal to an "Omnivore's Thanksgiving," or even a Passover seder - - a ritual meal, not realistic for everyday, but necessary every so often, to experience the ideal of a meal in which our consciousness stretches over a complete, graspable, ecologically scaled food chain. He notes that it is the polar opposite of the industrial, McDonalds meal:
The pleasures of one are based on a nearly perfect knowledge; the pleasures of the other on an equally perfect ignorance. The diversity of one mirrors the diversity of nature, especially the forest; the variety of the other more accurately reflects the ingenuity of industry, especially its ability to tease a passing resemblance of diversity from a single species growing in a single landscape: a monoculture of corn. The cost of the first meal is steep, yet it is acknowledged and paid for, by comparison the price of the second seems a bargain but fails to cover its true cost, charging it instead to nature, to the public health and purse, and to the future.
Yet, I might argue that the axis of this book is not so much between this perfect meal and its industrial equivalent, but between the promise of organic food and the multi-billion dollar industry which organics has become. Characteristic of his balanced approach, Pollan doesn't condemn big organics outright. He leaves the question open whether the industrialization of organics is a net good or not. After all, it is bringing thousands of acres of farmland out of the reach of petro-fertilizers and pesticides and this, the author notes is a huge gain for the health of the soil, the workers and the consumers. Yet, the most telling contrast in The Omnivore's Dilemma is between Pollan's experience of his "Omnivore's Thanksgiving" and the statement of Gene Kahn, the former hippy farmer owner of Cascadian Farms, turned organic industry businessman: "This is just lunch for most people. Just lunch. We can call it sacred, we can talk about communion, but its just lunch"
By showing us what a food chain can mean, and what it has come to mean in the reality of industrial food, Pollan has opened a new direction that has profound implications for anyone claiming to follow a religious or ethical dietary practice, including kashrut and eco-kashrut, hallal, stewardship of creation, concern for the suffering of all sentient beings, and others.
Take the example of Judaism: If one makes the assumption that Judaism should provide some guidance to everyday ethical behavior, this book (even if it includes hunting and eating a boar) is an important wake up call for Jews. In the Biblical period the kosher laws arguably embodied and reinforced meaningful lessons about respect for life, compassionate recognition of the bond between a mother animal and her offspring, respect for agricultural cycles of production and rest, and against unnecessary cruelty to animals. However, in course of time, some of the ethical dimensions have become less emphasized and the laws have come to be seen as hukkim, religious law without ethical content.
In the contemporary world, the rabbinic guardians of kashrut have seemed to go even further in sticking to the technical, narrow definitions. We witness the recent front page expose in the May 26th, 2006 edition of the Forward describing shockingly inadequate working conditions of workers at AgriProcessor, the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the country. This follows the 2004 P.E.T.A. videos of the same plant's slaughterhouse that revealed cruel treatment of the animals. The recent article quotes the Orthodox Union as saying that working conditions are not a factor in the kosher certification process. In the 2004 incident, the religious authorities interviewed also claimed that the slaughtering at AgriPocessor fulfilled the laws of kosher slaughtering.
One may speculate on the sociological reasons for this emphasis on the narrow, technical definition of kosher laws. Perhaps the pressures of trying to maintain the borders of a cohesive, religious community in the midst of larger, open society creates pressure on religious authorities to resist anything smacking of "modern" or "Western" values instead of the pure dictates of halakha. Pollan's book may suggest another interpretation: the same way the "organic" has come under the all powerful demands of the market, jettisoning many of its formerly core values to meet the demands of mass production and global distribution, so kashrut appears to be facing similar conflicts between core values and profitable modes of production.
As with organic food, one may trace the countercultural reaction to this narrowing of the meaning of "kosher food" to the '70s when Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi called for an "eco-kosher" interpretation of the laws. Since then the word "eco-kosher" has been bandied about but implementing it has proven difficult. For one, it faces the horns of the same dilemma of the market versus values upon which organics has foundered.
The Talmud states that one who eats food without saying a blessing over it is as one who steals food from God. Yet, the Talmud's discussion there doesn't consider the situation in which the production of the food is a kind of robbery of the creation, a profanation of the gift of the life of animals, an assault on the fertility of the soil, an insult to any sense of sacredness of nature or society. Knowing this, what would our blessing mean?
There are no easy answers to this dilemma. In another fine book on the growth of the organic foods industry, Organic, Inc., Samuel Fromartz notes that organic food would have remained a small niche market, never having the impact that it has today without making some of those compromises. He wistfully concludes: "It isn't the revolution, but it'll do."
An important interfaith initiative, The Sacred Foods Project takes a similarly balanced, multi-pronged approach in activating the market power of Jewish, Christian and Moslem institutions to push the food industry toward more sustainable and eithical practices. On the other hand, Pollan himself suggests that the most important thing that a consumer can do is to buy local. There is at least one Jewish group that has taken up this idea: Hazon, whose original raison d'etre has been promoting long distance bike rides to raise funds for Jewish environmental causes, has started a Jewish Community Supported Agriculture (C.S.A.) project in New York city.
From his writing it doesn't appear that Pollan is an observant Jew in any conventional sense, yet he mentioned (not in this book but in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air) that he will no longer eat meat which is not free range and grass fed. Can any "kosher eating" do less? Kosher eating has always been, in essence, about the sense that the food we eat is more than what meets the eye. It has a history, and that history has moral and religious implications. For the kosher eater, it's never "just lunch."
Rabbi Natan Margalit is the Director of the Oraita Institute for Continuing Rabbinic Education of Hebrew College, and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Rabbinics at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School.