I recently read a short interview with Gene Baur, an animal rights activist who lobbies in Washington on behalf of the turkeys who can’t even hold their massive weight on top of their tiny legs. In his childhood he did commercials for McDonald’s, and said if he could do it all over again, he would never have done them. That he did not know better back then.
As I read about the boy-calves sent to death because they cannot produce milk, those genetically modified turkeys forced to have breasts far bigger than they can fully have a life with, my personal politics with food came rearing up. In my childhood I took up being a vegetarian for political/spiritual reasons. Let’s not have another being die for us. Let us not harm.
I took my first bite of meat in many years when I went to a party with a bonfire some time in my late teens, and I remember that they were burning not just meat on long skewers, but a Power Ranger pink doll as well. Someone offered me some (meat, not the Power Ranger), and I said that I don’t believe in the industrial food complex’s treatment of livestock. They said that it was from the farm of “that guy over there” (as they pointed), and that the cow had lived a full, well-treated, life. I figured, well, why not.
If my issue is with the way food is made, then this should make it better. After all, this cow was only brought into the world because it would become food, or be used as a tool for food (ie goats being used for their milk). If I know that, and the issue is their treatment, then this would resolve the issue. If it is because of the impact on the environment, then it is a different direction of concern in my head – the strip-clearing of forests to make room for more mass-produced cows, or the massive heaps of manure poured into rivers never meant to be sewage systems. But this man had a sustainable farm.
Religious and spiritual arguments come into play if we look at life with the notion that if it has a heartbeat, or if it has blood, it has consciousness. And if it has consciousness, then it can suffer. And we cannot cause suffering to another being – human or otherwise. I attended a discussion dinner recently on Animism, and that notion on how we approach consciousness and items, elements, et al was on the table (along with tasty Thai salad and vegetarian curry). This is the little note that Justine put up on the boards:
It reminded me of an episode of Tiny Toons that came out back in 1991. They spend the whole episode talking about how meat processing works, and by the end, Babs and Buster Bunny have decided to become vegetarians. They are relieved, and begin to eat the vegetables… but they scream – don’t eat me!
Where does the line on consciousness get drawn? Plants have been shown to respond to threats from people that have caused them harm. And so many have experienced specific pieces of technology (from violins to cars, laptops to looms) responding in such ways as to show personality. They react differently to different folks, that squeak stopping as soon as they go to the car doctor. We give them names when they move in our minds from “generic car” to “our car.” Pet rocks are no longer “just a rock,” a childhood friend now to be held tight.
In many places around the world, including downtown in our big cities, the notion of “personhood” is being denied to so many humans. Sex workers, homeless individuals, and drug users are cast as faceless masses that are statistics and vermin, rather than complex individuals with their own tales to tell. Workers are being shipped like cattle from SE Asia to the UAE to build structures of wealth and greed, being housed in conditions of squalor and boiling heat. We seem to treat our bundle of precious green grapes better than we treat the people who picked them.
The ethics of food is the ethics of how we live our lives. After I stopped my vegetarianism, I moved into a space of “happy food only.” Grass-fed meat gave me a feeling that at least they moo’d under an open sky before they were told to look away and quickly put out of their misery. And I have friends who raise their meat that way. But more often than not nowadays, grass-fed does not necessarily mean that. It might mean grass-clippings delivered to that cage. It’s just like the word “organic” – it doesn’t always mean what we think it means. But if vegetarianism is about health – at least we are eating less GMO government-subsidized corn. Happy food requires knowing the farmer. If is going to the farm to meet Bessy the cow, paying up front for how she will be raised, and getting ¼ of her when she is killed. It is raising her yourself.
But then we get to how animals are killed… and we are reminded that meat is a consumable commodity ever so much as the corn it has been fed. Line them up, walk them down the thin, disorienting corridor, drop one into the front, bolt to the head, move carcass, repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It is somewhere between harvesting wheat in its streamlined machines, and picking those grapes since a human has to interact with each one personally to make sure the bolt lines up. The good ones minimize suffering. Blessed be the skilled abattoir workers who minimize suffering.
I pause and breathe, looking down at the food on the table before the two of us. Tomato soup, grilled cheese with tomato and arugula, a small bundle of grapes on my side of the table. Nearby, foie gras, prosciutto, pickles, toasted bread and mustard. My brain has been down meat-alley, spins for a moment, but then shifts over to the tomato, the arugula.
I was recently in Bolivia, one of the worst countries in the world to be a vegetarian. No really, Anthony Bourdain apparently thinks the region is one of the worst ones to be one – not that he thinks highly of vegetarianism to begin with. When her cousins heard I was a vegetarian, they took me for sushi. I’ve been an “I prefer to be vegetarian, but I’ll work with whatever and listen to my body if I’m feeling low on iron” person for a while. I make “exceptions” regularly for chicken stock, pho, good salami, piece of bacon, occasional chicken nuggets (yeah, right?! Food ethics my own ass) or a hamburger. I don’t eat mass-trolled shrimp due to the dolphins still embedded in my mind, and veal in the USA is right out.
Gearing up for Bolivia, I started upping my meat intake. Everything is meat there. So many ways to prepare meat, grill meat, season meat, dunk meat, boil meat. Meat, and 100 types of potatoes, including chuño, freeze-dried potatoes that are then boiled to be edible. The month in advance I started eating beef in stir-fry, chicken in soups, and then a steak and on up. For which I am grateful. I would not have been able to survive well without it. I still ate less meat than my table-mates, but beef is king in Bolivia.
This is of course ironic since it was the vegetables and fruit that astounded me in Bolivia. Durazno. Peach. Giant heaps of peaches presided over by native women in colorful garb and tall hats. Peaches that you bite into and the flavor explodes into your mouth like an orgasm. Piña juicy and yellow. Cherimoya lush and pudding-like. Pacaya that came in pods and had cotton-fluff-fruit inside. Fruits that astounded.
The tomatoes were lush and wantonly red. Bundles of greens of every type, the scents filling my nose at the market. It was all so amazing… but what everyone serves is meat. The salads are often getting second fiddle… a shame given how amazing the salads are. And remember, this is Bolivia, not Mexico. The bean is barely at court, let alone holding any authority.
But I found myself thinking about the fact that peaches there were picked, put on a truck, loaded into a wheelbarrow, and dropped off at the market with their lovely vending lady for the day. That’s it. No processing plant. No pre-picking three to seven (or even more) days early so that the fruit can make it to the grocery store before it goes squishy. It goes straight from farm to farmhand (whose careful control quality is their own eye) to transport to market. No giant distribution warehouse like the one we passed between Austin and San Antonio – Walmart trucks as far as the eye could see.
Just fresh, delicious, durazno.
When we pick our food days early, we also leave out days’ worth of nutrients from our food. A carrot in a plastic bag is not a carrot from the farmer’s market. It just isn’t. I’m not saying the first one is bad in some way – but comparing them and saying they are equal in nutrients, caloric value or taste is simply inaccurate. When the nutritionists say to eat so many servings of fruits or vegetables a day, which fullness of fruit and vegetables did they mean?
Part of picking early is also transport. Asparagus flown up from Chile in the winter to be enjoyed on the plate in North America have added fuel to the atmosphere. The lettuce farmed locally adds far fewer chlorofluorocarbons to the environment. We have forgotten to seasonally cook, because we can go to the grocery store and get grapes in January, and even have the audacity to complain when the only bags available have some squishy spots. Philosopher Brent Dill used to remind me that each time I would eat a strawberry in winter, I was consuming the tears of Guatemalan children, and destroying the planet. One tasty red bite at a time.
And then, I sit with the fact that I now live in Alaska. Other than locally caught fish, and a few farms that operate during their given seasons, everything else is brought up. Everything. I heard a statistic once that there is only enough food in Alaska for its citizens to last a few days without outside connections. I can believe the statement. Storing up food in bunkers is not paranoia, it is reasonable planning. We forget that come harvest time we all used to stock up for the winter.
My politics, spirituality and body feel like they are in turmoil over food. What is vegetarianism, and does it help? How do I feel about the non-recyclable packaging on this tempeh patty? Are soybean subsidies being affected by the sheer volume of stuff we are putting it in? What is happening to humans and the ever growing food sensitivities? How are my shopping choices affecting the ability for people to make a living wage? If the Dalai Lama would dig up worms to relocate them before building a theatre, why can’t I stop using chicken stock for making soup? Is it better or worse to eat mass-produced steak or mass-produced bread?
And then, breathe. Deep breath, inhale, release.
Give thanks to the grilled cheese, and be with it. Thank the cow, goat or sheep that gave us the milk, and the person who milked it. Give thanks to the cheese factory workers who made the alchemical process possible, and those who found the magic so many years ago. Thank the tomato itself and the people who planted and picked it. Thank the arugula and the bread, and all of the complexities of each.
I know that giving thanks is not enough. That appreciation and acknowledgment are not action. It is not enough to say “yes, treating homeless people like nothing but a blight upon our city is not appropriate” while you vote against funds for shelters or rehabilitation programs, while you hold your leftovers that you know will get thrown away instead of offering them to the man begging for food.
Giving thanks is a start though. And today, I give thanks for this tomato soup, and the lives of every living and non-living being. I pray for the end of suffering, torment and slavery for living and non-living beings. I ask myself and others for consciousness to be brought to our supermarket and farmer’s market choices.
Breathe deep, and release.
I give thanks.
I examine my actions, and take action in turn.