R: That piece was so amazing because you really managed to make us feel for these people who were doing such terrible things.
P: My editor in that case deserves a lot of credit because I was utterly lost in that piece. I got immersed in all the different issues tied to beef production, from feedlot pollution to hormones and antibiotics to corn. I was drowning in amazing information. My editor took me out to lunch and I did the data dump and he starts to glaze over. Then he says, “Why don’t you just do the biography of one cow?” That was brilliant. I immediately saw how you could connect the dots. And I saw how you could meet people exactly where they are—eating their steaks or burgers—and take them on a journey. I was very careful to tell people at the beginning of that story that I ate meat and that I wanted to keep eating meat. Otherwise, people would not have gone on the journey with me.
R: And the other thing that you did that was so smart was to make the ranchers sympathetic. Because they are. They’re caught between a rock and a hard place.
P: They’re selling into a monopoly. It’s a terrible predicament and they really resent it. They’re doing things the way they’ve always done them, only the market is more concentrated and they’re under enormous pressure. I was very sympathetic to them, though they weren’t pleased with the story.
R: But that’s when you’re really successful. If the people you write about like it too much, you probably haven’t done the right thing. But I do think that Omnivore’s Dilemma was a really major moment. Again, a surprise best seller. Who would have thought?
P: I didn’t. I was shocked because, first of all, I thought, “I’m late on this, this issue has peaked.” But I can remember the moment where I sensed that there was something going on. It was at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, at the beginning of the tour in the spring of 2006. I went there to find a huge crowd hanging from the rafters and screaming as if it were a political rally. There was this energy unlike anything I ever experienced as an author. I could feel it during that book tour that the culture was primed to have this conversation.
R: At Gourmet we were all talking about that but we hadn’t put it together in a satisfying package. And so what Frankie Lappé was for me, Omnivore’s Dilemma was for my [college-age] son Nick. This is not a deeply political generation, so it gave them something.
P: Food is definitely one of the defining issues for this generation.
R: It’s a cause his generation can feel good about. I’d say half of Nick’s friends are vegetarians for ethical reasons and a quarter of them are vegans and I think that’s not uncommon.
P: Their food choices are central to their identity. And they’re more fanatical than older generations. I’m always meeting them and I’m like, “Wow, you are really a purist.”