Chapter 20 Summary
Pollan is the first to admit that “The Perfect Meal” sounds a little too smug for one’s own cooking. However, he points out that by “perfect” he does not necessarily mean that his cooking was great. Instead, Pollan explains over the course of the chapter how meaningful his final meal was, particularly because of the amount of preparation it took. It also connects him to the ecology behind food.
In exploring the personal food chain, Pollan explains that he set out to make a meal he prepared from scratch. Some of his goals were compromised. For example, although Pollan attempted to get salt from the San Francisco Bay, he found it too toxic for consumption. His desire to serve abalone as an appetizer also proved unrealistic because acquiring abalone is time and labor intensive and because it loses a great deal of its flavor if not eaten fresh. Somewhat amusingly, Pollan explains that he did not end up even cooking every aspect of the meal because Angelo Gallo agreed to prepare a couple dishes. However, in other ways, Pollan’s final meal is indeed a perfect culmination of his goals in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Pollan invites everyone involved in helping him prepare his personal food chain meal, from the people who helped him hunt for mushrooms to the people with whom he went boar hunting. Pollan spends an entire day cooking—after almost a week of preparation—and frets that because so many of his guests are professional chefs that they will not be satisfied with his offering. However, as the guests begin to arrive, Pollan finds that the conversation gives way to a warm atmosphere. After thanking his guests for their contributions, Pollan is gratified to find that they are indeed enjoying the meal.
Perhaps the most perfect things about the meal are revealed when they are contrasted with Pollan’s industrial food chain meal. Pollan admits that his personal food chain is hardly realistic, but he maintains that it should draw his audience’s attention to how rarely people are so aware of the food chains that feed them. Pollan can readily describe every step involved in preparing his personal meal, from the conversion of sunlight into matter to the gathering and hunting to the cooking. He also highlights the culture in cuisine, a culture that seems to be disappearing from American culture. For Pollan, food should be understood as a means by which people connect with the world. He emphasizes this in his concluding remark:
We eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.