Sunday, May 06, 2012


Quite a weekend. Bisou is now a year and a day old, and groomed. Not matted in the least, thanks to daily brushing and combing, neither of which she's grown accustomed to. Would-be poodle-owners, take note. And in what might be good news in the long run, what I'd thought were severe nature allergies brought on by a long woods walk with Bisou is actually just a cold. So for today, less hanging out with a bunch of astrophysicists, more vegging on the couch with poodle and Pinterest.

Speaking of vegetables...

Should those squeamish about eating whole animals become vegan? That's what Mark Bittman seems to think: "The combination of tenderness and crunch makes it [soft-shell crab] one of the great delights of eating. (If you’re squeamish about this, I suggest you get over it, or swear off animal products altogether.)" My question here would be why non-squeamishness makes animal-product-consumption somehow more acceptable. If I were to proclaim my willingness to slaughter a cow myself, if I were to go out and prove it, would I somehow not be taking a cow's life for a hamburger?

I know I promised that when the NYT contest panel (Bittman among its members) failed to pick my brilliant defense of meat-eating, I'd post it here on WWPD. Close enough - what I remember as being my main points, give or take:

-Meat and animal products are over-consumed, and this is the case whether or not you think it's unethical to kill an animal for food. But it's possible to drastically reduce your animal-product consumption without declaring yourself a vegan or vegetarian. The advantage of this is that you will not need to be constantly asking what broth might have slipped into a meal your hosts have prepared for you. (I get that there are vegans and vegetarians who make such concessions, but on the whole, those who don't seek out meat but also don't ask for an ingredient list tend not to so identify.) There's a positive value of going through life an agreeable person, and of choosing your battles. If your refusal of an ingredient is about finding it abhorrent to eat X, about it going against your religion to do so, about the horrible allergic reaction eating X will set forth, fair enough. But if it's simply a matter of, you think X raises some issues, a fuss might not be worth it. Dealing with these issues on a large scale, in terms of government subsidies and the like, may free you up from the relatively petty concerns of what goes into your digestive tract in particular.

-The goal of an ethical approach to food should be reforming the food system, not making individuals feel at peace with/smug about their personal choices. An overemphasis on individual consumer choice makes those who do care about this issue feel that they've done their part by asking the waiter a dozen times precisely what went into the seasonal-vegetable risotto.

-While one might argue that individuals making a fuss add up to a social movement, this can also have the opposite of the intended effect, repelling many from the cause, and producing a defiantly carnivorous caste.

We should not be surprised that the contest winner, Jay Bost, doesn't question that the individual should be continuously preoccupied with personal food choices. The contest presupposed not only that eating meat is unethical (thus the twist - explain why it is ethical), but also that individuals' choices at the supermarket have significant ethical content. My own argument, I suppose, boiled down to thinking that we shouldn't be treating grocery trips in this way, even if we should absolutely subject our food system more broadly to that kind of scrutiny. The individual consumer should have the option of good and bad choices, that's reasonable, but at the level of produce section vs. processed-frosted-trans-fat aisle. The idea that we need to know the backstory behind each vegetable, to make informed decisions about local vs. organic, to know, off the top of our heads, what's in season when, and to remember that "in season" only really applies to things grown nearby, or does it, etc., this I can't get behind.

Bost's conclusion:
For me, eating meat is ethical when one does three things. First, you accept the biological reality that death begets life on this planet and that all life (including us!) is really just solar energy temporarily stored in an impermanent form. Second, you combine this realization with that cherished human trait of compassion and choose ethically raised food, vegetable, grain and/or meat. And third, you give thanks. 
I'm not convinced, and not only because I so clearly had the stronger arguments, even if I have no intentions of getting a PhD in soil science (although there are days my dissertation has a dirt-like quality). 

Re: the first point: accepting mortality, including our own, sounds very zen, or something, but we clearly draw a distinction between humans and other animals. Even the most zealous vegan will not be aghast at seeing someone walk by in leather shoes as anyone - vegan or otherwise - would be if they knew the "leather" had "Silence of the Lambs"-ish origins. 

Re: the second, individuals are rarely in a position to have any idea what was produced how. Meat might be labeled in one way or another, but who among us knows where their "grain" comes from? (Does "a bulk bin at Whole Foods off Route 1" count?) The government - sorry, libertarian readers - needs to draw a line. If some hippies - sorry, hippie readers - want to go above and beyond, that's great, but if choosing this tomato over that one is really of such consequence, the evil tomato shouldn't be in the store in the first place.

Re: the third, perhaps I was simply born-and-raised too cynical for that sort of thing. There are certain people/milieus whose personalities lend themselves to ostentatious or just abundant pronouncements of gratitude, but I'm not sure where that gets you. I suppose everyone not starving is on some level grateful for that. But other things might be going wrong in your life that are legitimate, and that having food on your table doesn't fix, even if whatever the problem might be plus not having enough to eat would be worse. But more to the point, and to bring things full circle, being thankful for your meat, much like being unsqueamish about it, hardly changes anything about the ethics of meat consumption. 


Related: great minds think alike.


Not unrelated: within biking distance, I could go pick my own asparagus. The catch is that the self-picked asparagus costs the same as the pre-bunched from the very same farm. An unpaid internship in asparagus. 


Britta said...

As a kid we used to pick our own berries and often peaches every summer, but the draw was that after a 45 min drive and hours of hot sweaty monotonous labor, your berries were much cheaper than they would be in the store, plus it was all you can eat while you were picking. ( unbiased opinion is that Oregon berries are far superior to berries from anywhere else.) If you didn't want to pick yourself, you could buy picked berries from farm stalls, which were midway between store prices and pick-it-yourself prices.

I guess I am now officially a crotchety old person.

Phoebe said...


Fruit-picking does seem like it would either be free (foraging) or close to it. But it seems there's been a move towards turning it into a yuppie tourist activity - or so said a 2006 Slate piece on apple-picking.