Pollan posits happiness and pleasure as important criteria for evaluating our food choices. As he follows the book’s four food chains (industrial, large-scale organic, small-scale organic, and locally foraged) and evaluates the meals that result from each one, he often stops to take note of the pleasure generated for him and the other people and animals involved. While pleasure and happiness are inherently positive, Pollan imbues these feelings with a deeper significance, linking them both to nature and culture, to the individual and the community. He finds happiness in an individual’s true expression, in things and species fitting together and doing what they’re designed to do, in knowledge and its pursuit, in personal responsibility, and also in the communal experiences and traditions that humans have built around food. He also shows how pleasure and happiness redeem less comfortable activities, like difficult farm work, slaughter, hunting, or eating a subpar fast-food meal.
Pollan’s emphasis on happiness doesn’t just pertain to the humans who are eating food. Pollan observes the animals in all four of the food chains he follows as part of his judgments about the quality and success of the food chains themselves. The steer that he buys in order to be able to follow it along the industrial food chain and eventually into a fast-food burger, named 534, is not the picture of happiness. Pollan writes, “I don't know enough about the emotional life of a steer to say with confidence that 534 was miserable, bored, or indifferent, but I would not say he looked happy.” Pollan’s description of the steer serves as a contrast, on one hand, to the joyful image of the small-scale organic farmer Joel Salatin’s “happy pigs” rooting around and his chickens doing everything chickens want to and are wired to do, and on the other hand to the even worse misery of the supposed free-range chickens crammed into their stinking pen, or the pigs imprisoned in industrial farms and biting each others’ tails out of desperation, before having them cut off. For Salatin, and, it seems, for Pollan, animals being allowed and facilitated in being perfectly themselves constitutes their highest form of living, and a good measurement of their happiness in the absence of a verbal ability to express emotion.
Humans, who don’t have one perfect, hardwired of way of eating or of living, nevertheless similarly have certain unique attributes whose expression and fulfillment can lead to happiness. For Pollan, pleasure comes in the cultivation and active pursuit of the proper meal, and way of being. Pollan notes how he finds rewards in the process of his work as an “ecological detective,” gaining satisfaction by finding things out, seeing them up close, and learning to connect to this most primal part of life, combining the physical, spiritual, and intellectual. In food chains that are happening at a human scale, Pollan’s guides are people who are immensely happy with what they do—such as Salatin and Angelo (Pollan’s guide to hunting and foraging). For Joel Salatin, pleasure is intricately bound up with the way he lives and works. He says, “The way I produce a chicken is an extension of my worldview.” Angelo, meanwhile, is a foodie looking for the perfect tastes, and ones in particular that remind him of his childhood in Italy. Both men lead Pollan to new worlds, and successful meals. And both are fulfilling their distinctly human hardwiring—Salatin in his spirituality and philosophy and Angelo in his adherence to culture and tradition.
Pollan cites the writer Brillat-Savarin, who “draws a sharp distinction between the pleasures of eating—‘the actual and direct sensation of a need being satisfied,’ a sensation we share with the animals—and the uniquely human ‘pleasures of the table.’” And, indeed, vital to his evaluation of the four meals Pollan chronicles in the book is the setup in which they’re consumed. Pollan matches these scenes to the mood of each food chain, from the McDonald’s meal consumed in the car to the final, foraged meal painstakingly gathered and cooked, coming together in a group with many of its members contributing something personally. This represents a uniquely human culture and social life, and his evaluation of the four food chains takes into account the way their four meals are conducive to this, or not.
Despite his bias towards the more social meal providing a more valuable kind of happiness, Pollan looks for different pleasurable elements in any situation. When work on Salatin’s farm, Polyface, feels particularly arduous, he reflects on the fact that, “Joel and Daniel plainly relish their work, partly because it is so varied from day to day and even hour to hour, and partly because they find it endlessly interesting.” For Salatin, “One of the greatest assets of a farm is the sheer ecstasy of life.” Even for the fast food meal—although it fails to deliver in many aspects of taste and nutrition—Pollan acknowledges that, “Like other comfort foods, it supplies (besides nostalgia) a jolt of carbohydrates and fat, which, some scientists now believe, relieve stress and bathe the brain in chemicals that make it feel good.” About his son, Pollan writes, “For Isaac, the nugget is a distinct taste of childhood, quite apart from chicken, and no doubt a future vehicle of nostalgia—a madeleine in the making.” Pleasure and happiness also mitigate the more distressing aspects of slaughter in the book, where possible—at Polyface, Pollan finds comfort in the rhythm of killing chickens, and the faith that it’s the most humane way he can do it. Much to his surprise and slight consternation, he even gets a thrill from hunting, an activity he had previously dismissed.
The various kinds of pleasure and happiness that Pollan finds throughout the book culminate with the foraging of his last meal, which is most satisfying because it takes place on an entirely human scale. He is most directly knowledgeable about and responsible for this meal, noting that this level of engagement is in many ways ideal for human satisfaction, though it is time-consuming and impossible to live that way all the time. Pleasure and happiness are one factor in his comparison of food systems, but cannot be the only one.
Pleasure and Happiness ThemeTracker
Pleasure and Happiness Quotes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma
So violent a change in a culture’s eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder. Certainly it would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating.
We show our surprise at this by speaking of something called the “French paradox,” for how could a people who eat such demonstrably toxic substances as foie gras and triple crème cheese actually be slimmer and healthier than we are? Yet I wonder if it doesn’t make more sense to speak in terms of an American Paradox—that is, a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily.
The power of food science lies in its ability to break foods down into their nutrient parts and then reassemble them in specific ways that, in effect, push our evolutionary buttons, fooling the omnivore’s inherited food selection system. Add fat or sugar to anything and it’s going to taste better on the tongue of an animal that natural selection has wired to seek out energy-dense foods.
It looked and smelled pretty good, with a nice crust and bright white interior reminiscent of chicken breast meat. In appearance and texture a nugget certainly alludes to fried chicken, yet all I could really taste was salt, that all-purpose fast-food flavor, and okay, maybe a note of chicken bouillon informing the salt. Overall the nugget seemed more like an abstraction than a full-fledged food, an idea of chicken waiting to be fleshed out.
Every meal at a table recapitulates this evolution from nature to culture, as we pass from satisfying our animal appetites in semisilence to the lofting of conversational balloons. The pleasures of the table begin with eating…but they can end up anywhere human talk cares to go. In the same way that the raw becomes cooked, eating becomes dining.
And while our senses can help us draw the first rough distinctions between good and bad foods, we humans have to rely on culture to remember and keep it all straight. So we codify the rules of wise eating in an elaborate structure of taboos, rituals, manners, and culinary traditions, covering everything from the proper size of portions to the order in which foods should be consumed to the kinds of animals it is and is not okay to eat.
This for many people is what is most offensive about hunting—to some, disgusting: that it encourages, or allows, us not only to kill but to take a certain pleasure in killing. It’s not as though the rest of us don’t countenance the killing of tens of millions of animals every year. Yet for some reason we feel more comfortable with the mechanical killing practiced, out of view and without emotion, by industrial agriculture.