The Omnivore’s Dilemma

by

Michael Pollan

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The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Chapter 18 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
1. A Walk in the Woods. When Pollan goes hunting, he feels an intense sensitivity to his environment as he looks for the signs of pigs that Angelo told him about. He notices that, in approaching his dinner, the predator becomes just as alert as the prey, just as in tune with his animal instincts. Angelo explains that there are two ways of thinking about the landscape: the hunter’s mental map of where he or she has found food before, and the pig’s map of the best places to eat and sleep. The hunter’s aim is to find an overlap between those maps, so that the encounter can take place. Pollan admits that he enjoyed shooting a pig more than he ever thought he would. He had always looked with contempt on the “hunter porn” of writers who indulged in the “macho conceit” of the solitary male hunter, but there was an element of enjoyment in hunting that surprised him.
Pollan had been skeptical of people who praise the pleasures of hunting, but he admits that something about the experience tapped into his primitive instincts. For him, the pleasures of hunting were linked to the way it put him in touch with the prehistoric past—by sharpening his mental instincts and physical senses, which became more attuned to the world around him. In this sense, he feels more attuned to the skills that were so important to his hunter-gatherer ancestors but have been somewhat neglected in the modern world.
Themes
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2. A Cannabinoid Moment. Pollan decides to hunt a wild boar, ostensibly because these pigs are regarded as pests that disrupt the local ecosystem—so he felt that there was an environmental benefit to hunting them. But he also admits that he enjoys pork and wanted to try the taste of wild prosciutto. Angelo says that he also hunts for the pleasure of eating, never hunting more than can feed him and his friends. On the day of the hunt, Pollan is nervous, since his experiences on the rifle shooting range had been less than successful. Angelo finds a spot near a tree and instructs Pollan to wait.
Pollan claims that there is an environmental benefit to hunting pigs, but once again he admits that he is in fact motivated by more primal impulses—he enjoys the taste of the meat. Similarly, Angelo’s hunting practices are driven by the pleasure of eating rather than need (since, after all, today very few people need to hunt and gather in order to survive).
Themes
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As he waits for a pig to approach, Pollan finds himself in a state of heightened awareness of his surroundings. His lack of consciousness of the passage of time reminds him of the experience of smoking marijuana, and he notes that cannabinoids (the compounds active in both marijuana) are also present in the human brain in moments of intense concentration like hunting. He suggests that his “cannabinoid moment” while hunting is an example of an evolutionary adaptation designed to help hunters lose awareness of their bodies and focus on the task at hand.
Pollan finds himself more and more persuaded by the idea that hunting brings people back to something fundamental about their cognitive wiring. The experience of hunting puts him back in touch with the prehistoric past, stimulating the brain in ways that show the extent to which humans have evolved for precisely the task of hunting and gathering their food in the wild.
Themes
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3. Ready. Or Not. Pollan, Angelo, and their hunting partners sit down for a delicious lunch. Pollan gets relaxed and slightly drunk, and consequently, when a group of pigs appears, he hasn’t loaded his weapon. Another hunter takes the shot and brings down the pig, but Angelo is disappointed that Pollan had not been prepared. Pollan wonders whether his failure to load the bullet signifies some reluctance on his part to shoot the animal. He accepts meat as a gift from another hunter, but feels slightly degraded by not having shot a pig of his own. He also feels that he has not taken full responsibility for the killing of his dinner, as he had hoped he would, so he asks Angelo for another chance.
Pollan’s reluctance to accept the gift of a pig he hasn’t slaughtered himself suggests that the essence of his project is to take personal, direct responsibility for the killing of an animal. He had hoped that hunting would put him back in touch with the natural connection between predator and prey that has been so thoroughly obscured by the industrial food system. This is why it is so important to him that he be the one to slaughter the pig personally.
Themes
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4. My Pig. On his second outing with Angelo, Pollan manages to shoot a pig. In the moment before he shoots the pig, he feels an intense sense of focus and awareness of his surroundings. Angelo congratulates him on his shot and the meal it will make, but what Pollan sees isn’t meat—instead, he sees a “dead wild animal.” At the same time, however, he feels happiness and elation at his accomplishment. The expected feelings of remorse and guilt do not appear; instead, he simply feels pleased with himself.
Pollan is at first surprised by his own lack of guilt and shame at killing the pig. Instead, his feelings of elation and happiness suggest that there might be something fundamentally natural and prehistoric about the urge to hunt meat. Pollan feels more in touch with his hunter-gatherer instincts that modern human society has repressed (or channeled into different kinds of violence).
Themes
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5. Making Meat. When it comes to actually dressing the animal, Pollan’s sense of elation fades. He writes that what hunters call dressing is actually an “undressing” of the animal that requires skinning the corpse and taking out the dead pig’s organs. Pollan is disgusted by the stench, and is incredulous that Angelo can still be talking about the food they will make: pate, prosciutto, salami. Far from thinking about food, Pollan feels that he might vomit. He wonders why he feels so disgusted by the pig’s blood and guts. He remembers Paul Rozin’s theory that disgust is one of the ways humans navigate the omnivore’s dilemma: people feel disgust at animal matter like feces, vomit, and decaying flesh, which can indeed be harmful to humans. In this sense, disgust is an evolutionary advantage. But Rozin also argues that people feel disgust at animal matter because it reminds them of their “own animal nature”—their vulnerability to similar physical suffering and, ultimately, death.
Pollan’s sense of pleasure at the act of hunting and killing an animal is mixed with disgust at the actual process of turning a dead animal into food. He points out that this is a perfectly natural response conditioned by years of evolution—he feels disgusted by decaying flesh because it has not yet become food fit for human consumption. The fact that a pig can be disgusting before it is dressed and edible when it becomes prosciutto demonstrates the extent of human intervention in nature. By cooking food, people have been able to overcome their disgust at eating a dead animal and make eating meat a more pleasurable (and safe) experience.
Themes
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In light of this bloody and sickening experience, Pollan ponders how he could have felt so happy and triumphant when he shot the pig. The pleasure that hunters feel in killing looks reprehensible in retrospect, and now he feels ashamed. But he also feels that the moral ambivalence of hunting—the way it makes him feel both pleasure and guilt—is more honest than the “mechanical killing” practiced “without emotion” in the industrial slaughterhouse. In this sense, by killing an animal consciously and respectfully, Pollan feels more ethically responsible for his place in the world’s ecosystem as a predator.
Taking pleasure in hunting makes Pollan feel guilty, but he also ultimately feels that such pleasure is a better response than the lack of consciousness with which most people eat meat. His emotional reaction at least acknowledges the full extent of his connection with animals and the natural world, whereas slaughterhouse killing is mechanical and impersonal.
Themes
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Compromise Theme Icon
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