What it all boils down to

“How we choose to eat represents our most profound engagement with the natural world.” –Michael Pollan

One of my very first memories is sitting in my usual spot at the kitchen table, in front of what was a huge sliding glass door that opened out into wilderness, across from dad’s seat, except he had long vacated it, as had my mom and brother. All that was left at the table was me. And a hot dog – cut into bite-sized pieces. My parents had barked orders tens of minutes before: I was to eat the rest of it before I was permitted to get up.

Photo Credit: Emma Stratigos, victim of stuffed animal harassment.

My parents were not meat mongers, forcing bloody cows down my throat. But my dad, a hunter and fisherman, did hang the carcasses of dead animals on every wall in the house. They practically screamed “EAT ME,” and oh – I did. It was also endlessly fun to remove a particularly menacing stuffed mink (who earned the nickname “Walrus”) from the wall and chase visitors around the house. My best trick was stick my arm into the fish’s fanged mouth. I was proud to admit my favorite food for a while was smoked venison, and I was also proud to say my daddy didn’t shoot the fawns. I reminded him of this every night before bed, when he was telling me what to dream about, which was always something adorable like playing with puppies in a sunlit meadow – yes, I led a charmed life. Thanks dad.We had plenty of wonderful family dinners, like the one during which my brother and dad were locked in battle over the ketchup bottle and its contents landed squarely on my mother’s head. But when my mom was serving ham, I was happily sneaking a bowl of cereal at the end of the night, having gone hungry. For Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ house, my cousins were laughing Sprite through their noses onto my turkeyless plate (everyone knows this holiday is all about the cranberry sauce anyway, right? Nope. Eighteen percent of turkey consumed annually is on Thanksgiving, according to Jonathan Safran Foer in his book Eating Animals).

My odd distaste for meat, then, made it fairly easy to tell mom I wasn’t going to be eating anymore of it, though I did have my reservations. They were eased by my brother, whose affinity for meat made up for my lack thereof. My avidly carnivorous counterpart vowed to serve Turkduckenow-stuffed-pig (or something along those lines) for Thanksgiving if I attempted to introduce Tofurkey into our home.

What a family photo. This guy made it onto the wall; My mom got a new car.

But there’s something extraordinarily intimate about food. In a way, I was scared that a rejection of a food group was a kind of rejection of a mother’s gift. Food is the first act of love parents show their new-born children. It’s part of our culture. Here, take this nourishment. You need it to live, and I have made it my life to give it to you.

And it definitely isn’t just about need. The best conversations happen across steaming mugs and pastries at coffee shops. The most momentous celebrations are had with hands clasped under dinner tables blanketed in roasts and the season’s harvests. Our connections with friends are formed alongside cafeteria ham-and-cheese-on-a-bagel and dining hall hangover-home-fries.

Eating is the most basic and the most complex way that we interact with the world. I’m not going to pretend that the relationship we have to food is some kind of artful act of cultivation. This isn’t the garden of Eden and we aren’t kissing the feet of the animals or cradling the fruit in our hands before they embark on a journey through our intestines. I’m not suggesting we should be.

These are memories, stories, which each of us bring to the table every time we sit down to eat (this idea is heavily reinforced by Safran Foer). What I’m saying is that we should think about approaching our food with the same deliberation as we approach the rest of the things we do – and that might mean being utterly (heh) disconnected with what we eat.

But any way you slice it (oh dear, you can see where this is going), the relationship every human has with food is supremely important. We have to eat something or we don’t live. We provide food to one another as an act of nurturing and kindness. We dine together in specific ways to demonstrate and construct social interactions. Food is built into how we think about the world, even if we really don’t take the time to stop and think about it very often.

Back in my days as a philosophy minor (Illustrious, I know. I thought I was going to become a lawyer, but instead I just became depressed about the state of existence in this universe and decided to pursue a career without a paycheck …), I took a class called “Environmental Ethics.” I admittedly stopped paying attention when we moved from ethical models into policy making and economics but there was one thing that I took away from it: when it comes to how we feed ourselves, there’s no good answer.

Do their tails freak you out? Not me! I ate these suckers straight out of the Mediterranean. I like having the guts to look my food in the eye.

It’s what everything boils down to. We rely on the resources the earth provides us to exist, and we have to. There’s no way around it (yet). We are stuck between a rock and hard place, only one leaves a really bad taste in my mouth. But there’s no absolute solution. Selflessness, complete avoidance of harming other living things, equals starvation. And from there, it gets fuzzy: you can qualify harm with things like sentience and psychological capacity and potential and peripheral pleasures versus basic needs and all of that, but at some point, an individual has to draw a line.

This is a defining question for human beings because we are the only ones capable of asking it (so far), and because the answer indicates so much. Complete self-reliance isn’t logical or realistic (It’s really a shame we can’t photosynthesize). Feeding is the fatal flaw of our existence.

So how do we make a decision to feel good about? My first move was to educate myself. This was two-fold. First came the food industry. I would recommend Eating Animals, but for some people I guess ignorance is bliss. You can watch lots of horrendous videos of animal abuse online (I refuse to link to Meet Your Meat but if you do a Google search, I promise PETA outdoes porn). The other, broader way to think about food consumption is simply how we think about the world and the resources it offers. Read Ishmael. Let go of the culture that you bring to eating and then embrace it with open arms.

If the dilemma of eating animals universally speaks to anything, it’s that there’s no universal answer to eating animals. So while I dream of a viable alternative to poop burgers, I don’t expect dear old dad to go vegan.

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4 thoughts on “What it all boils down to

  1. Wow, what a thoughtful post- thanks!

    I can’t say I endorse reading Ishmael, but I was a huge Daniel Quinn fan, even when I started teaching, so I can’t criticize it too badly either…..

    I like your letting go and then embracing sentiment, awfully mature!

    -Aaron

  2. Thank you!

    I think maybe the best thing about Ishmael is there are a bajillion things wrong with it (the very least being that it’s an awful piece of literature). But I appreciate that it’s willing to redefine the terms that we use to think about the world. Haven’t read anything else by Daniel Quinn … I was kind of turned off by the hokeyness of the Ishmael trilogy, adventures of the mind and spirit garble.

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