Pollan writes that this meal—made entirely of ingredients he had hunted and gathered himself—was “perfect” for him, even if some of the ingredients and seasonings may not have tasted quite so delicious for his guests. He laid several ground rules for himself before beginning: every ingredient must be in season, fresh, and gathered with his own hands. The meal thus felt more “real” to Pollan than anything he had ever eaten before, because he was responsible for every stage of its creation.
Pollan was so scrupulous about the “rules” of this meal—that every ingredient must be hunted and foraged—because the point of the project is to account for the origins of and connections between every ingredient. Pollan wants to take full responsibility for this meal in a way that he can’t for, say, a meal bought in a grocery store.
1. Planning the Menu. As he plans the meal, Pollan finds that he has to adjust some of the initial ground rules he had set for himself. He had intended to harvest his own salt from ponds near the San Francisco Bay, but the brine was so inedible that he had to use a store-bought alternative. His “freshly foraged” mushrooms were in fact dried from a previous expedition. And although he had planned to serve a starter of abalone—a large mollusk that grows underneath rocks on the Pacific coast—his expedition in the ocean in a wetsuit was physically punishing and left him with only one abalone, which he ate on his own. He also asked Angelo to bring a pate he had prepared from the liver of Pollan’s pig, violating the rule that everything had to be prepared by Pollan himself.
Pollan approached this meal with high expectations, planning to forage every ingredient—even the salt. In practice, however, he found that he had to make more than a few compromises. Some of his goals were simply unrealistic, like harvesting salt from the Pacific Ocean. At other moments, he found that he in fact needed help from friends and supporters and couldn’t prepare the meal on his own. Pollan’s compromises show that even the most authentic foraged meal must make some concessions to modern life.
As he looks at his final menu, Pollan realizes that his hunted and foraged meal comes largely from the forest—from the boar to the wild mushrooms to even the cherries he picked from local trees. Rather than consuming calories from farm animals, Pollan and his guests will be gaining nourishment from the energy captured by trees. His hunted and foraged meal “reverses the trajectory” of human eating, allowing the forest to feed him once again, as it had early humans in the prehistoric past.
Human intervention has transformed some natural ecosystems beyond recognition, as in the case of agriculture. By feeding himself and his guests entirely from the forest, Pollan calls back to a much earlier moment in human history, when humans relied on hunting and gathering for sustenance.
2. In the Kitchen. Pollan begins preparing his meal nearly a week in advance, since he has to gather wild yeast for his homemade sourdough bread. He also goes to visit Angelo and collect his pig, which they trim and dress for prosciutto. Angelo uses some leftover meat to make ragout pasta for their lunch. Although Pollan is initially dismayed by how quickly his pig turned to food, he feels that he has “done well by the pig” by making use of all its meat thoughtfully and feeding it to people who appreciate the food.
Pollan’s ethical qualms about killing the pig are eased by the “respectful” use he makes of its body. For him, respect for an animal involves acknowledging the connections between people and the natural world. Meat does not merely come from the grocery store; it involves a real sacrifice on the part of animal.
By the end of the week, Pollan has collected all his ingredients. He creates a punishing schedule of cooking on the day of his dinner, beginning at 8 AM. As he struggles with various kitchen disasters, he wonders why he is going to such trouble to make a single meal. Ultimately, however, he feels that this is his way of “honoring the things we’re eating” by wasting as little as possible and using as much of the pig or the mushrooms as he can. By cooking, humans transform what could be a fairly brutal and transactional act into a more elevated and “cultivated” experience. For Pollan, thoughtful cooking redeems the “karmic debt” of killing other creatures to gratify human needs.
For Pollan, cooking and dining is not only a pleasurable experience for himself and his guests—it is also an ethical necessity. Because human eating involves the sacrifice of animal life, he thinks people have a responsibility to prepare their food consciously, thoughtfully—and yes, joyfully. By taking the time to savor his food instead of eating it quickly and thoughtlessly, he shows respect for the sacrifice of the animals who die so that humans can enjoy a meal.
3. At the Table. As his guests sit down to eat, Pollan proposes a toast to the people who helped him learn about foraging in Northern California, mentoring him, giving him advice, and taking him on their own foraging trips. He thinks of offering thanks to the pig and the mushrooms, too, but decides that the meal itself is a “wordless way of saying grace.” Although Pollan has some critiques of his own cooking, the guests enjoy the food and the stories that come with each dish.
Pollan ultimately acknowledges the many compromises that have gone into this meal, which he could have made only with the help of friends and supporters. Compromise isn’t a matter of weakness or lack of ideological rigor; instead, he sees it as a source of strength and adaptability.
For Pollan, this is the perfect meal. He values its “transparency,” the way that he knows the origin of every plant, animal, and fungi he serves at his dinner table. Unlike industrially-produced food, he knows the “true cost” of this meal in terms of the “sacrifice of time and energy and life it had entailed.” The perfect meal, he suggests, is one that leaves no debts to be paid—although he acknowledges that such a meal is unrealistic in everyday life. Still, he thinks that the exercise of preparing and eating such a meal should remind people of the true cost of things they take for granted.
Even as he regards this as “the perfect meal,” Pollan acknowledges that it would be unrealistic to expect people to eat such a meal in their everyday life. For better or worse, human culture has moved on from hunting and gathering as a means of feeding people. His willingness to admit the ultimate elusiveness of the dream of a “perfect meal” demonstrates Pollan’s flexibility and willingness to compromise.
Pollan compares this hunted and foraged meal to the McDonald’s meal he ate with his family. For him, the meals stand at two extremes—one eaten in “perfect knowledge,” and the other eaten in “perfect ignorance.” He thinks that both meals are unrealistic and not suited for everyday eating. Instead, people should strive for more conscious eating that knows “what we’re eating” and “we’re it comes from,” and which acknowledges the place of food and eating within the larger context of human engagements with the world around them.
For Pollan, the answer to America’s “national eating disorder” is not a return to a primitive state of hunting and gathering, as appealing as such a vision might be. Instead, he calls for more conscious and self-aware eating that acknowledges the sacrifices of animals, the labor and effort that goes into preparing a meal, and the interconnectedness between humans and the natural world.