On Food

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

I recently finished reading Eating Animals by the brilliant Jonathan Safran Foer. Understandably food is a delicate issue. No other day-to-day experience is so universal (although one might argue the necessity of breathing). Food is not breath. Food is both communal and personal. Earlier in the year I touted the principles of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (primarily eating in season) in a newsletter for the US Botanic Garden. (After reading that, I gave up bananas.) Each author provides a different angle on the choices they've made. They are food advocate; one a recent vegetarian, the other not.

Approaching the holiday season is an appropriate time to tackle the idea of food gluttony to be more precise. Overindulgence becomes a competition sport. We roll from party to party, noshing on baby quiche, skewering chilled shrimp, and nursing a sugar comma for nearly a solid month. We take plates of goodies to social gatherings and even gift food to friends and neighbors. I'm part of that. I love that. Food is, and always has been, a prominent piece of my life. Shopping for and preparing it. Sharing it. Waxing eloquent (read: conveying guttural moans of delight) to both family and friends. Food is nearly always the first topic of conversation with my family members. Every. Single. One. We build traditions around certain dishes. We relish the stories savored in each offering. (JSF talks to the idea of storytelling and food, providing countless examples that the two are inexorably linked.) Yet this past Halloween I shared in every part of my family's annual holiday meal, except the main dish. I didn't eat it. I couldn't persuade my mother to use a meat substitute, and since I've given up red meat for good, this was the sensible choice on that occasion. And, apart from my mother, no one noticed that I didn't put a heaping pile of goo on my plate. But here's the rub, while I may have given up one animal product, I still eat chicken. I still love sushi. And turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas? Well, they are about as American as apple pie (hold the hot dog please!) and over inflated patriotism.

But something is shifting. When I learned, in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, that turkeys cannot reproduce naturally I felt ashamed. As I watched documentaries like Food, Inc. and Fast Food Nation I am haunted by what Michael Pollan, another food advocate, calls The Omnivore's Dilemma. Should I care? Does it matter? What choices am I making to make a difference? The scriptures indicate that the flesh of beasts and the fowls of the air, have been given to us by the Lord and are ordained to be used with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly. And it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.* The trouble is, this was written at a time when meat was processed more humanly. People knew where their meat came from then. In fact, most of them were the farmers earning their livelihood from the poultry, pigs, and livestock they processed. That doesn't exist anymore. Factory farming is the norm. It turns my stomach and makes me angry. But I still eat butter. I indulge in ice cream and yogurt far too often. I'll never give up cheese. So how do I reconcile being a crusader against meat consumption while still eating products that clearly come from the same slaughtered animals? While nearly half of the year is spent crafting recipes from my CSA and farmer's market finds, when it's easy to let go of carnivorous cravings, I'm standing on the verge. Ready to commit to a life with no meat. At least for now. My choosing to not eat fish and chicken is a personal choice. It's a hard choice, but it's one I feel I need to make. It isn't one I can force on others. It is one I will often have to explain. It is a decision I'd like to talk reasonably about, but it is one that makes people uncomfortable. When I read jaw-dropping statistics, when I look at the giant corporations that are not interested in feeding the poor but turning a profit, when I know that animals don't live a life that they are naturally suited for (roaming, nesting, producing offspring, enjoying fresh air and sanitary living conditions), when I feel healthier eating grains, lentils, fruits, and vegetables, when I know that by abstaining from meat I am not contributing to environmental pollutants caused by factory farms (which produce 99% of all consumed meat), when I appreciate that I actually live in a place where I have the option to not eat meat, when I make amends for the cruelty that I am indirectly responsible for, then it becomes easier for me to give up this temporary sensory experience.

I will continue to struggle to allow other people, who are informed and have the facts, to make that decision for themselves and their families. I will continue to encourage others to seriously evaluate how they vote with their mouths and to make decisions to buy locally and try perhaps only eating meat for one instead of two meals a day or perhaps even eating it only two or three times a week. As I venture into a new world of advocacy I'd like to be open to the possibilities. Open to how this will create a dialog rather than a divide. I'm hoping it will. I am, after all, only one. But one, after all, is one more.

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