Thursday, April 25, 2013

-Thank you, Michael Pollan! said the Hasid with the bacon

Here's one for the food-is-the-new-religion crowd: Michael Pollan just (well, pre-recorded jogging-ready podcast) told Leonard Lopate that he (Pollan) thinks pork should be kosher. Pork, Pollan explains, can be eaten ethically, and kosher eating is about eating ethically. This sounded to me on the cusp of, Michael Pollan thinks he is in fact God (not that I, an atheist, object on anything but that's-kinda-arrogant grounds). And even Lopate, food-movement adherent and apparent Pollan enthusiast that he is, seemed skeptical, noting the thousands of years of tradition Pollan was readily dismissing. Chutzpah, I believe, is the technical term.

As for analogies... one might see where the anti-circumcision people are coming from, as in the ones who think Judaism needs to scrap that requirement. If you believe circumcision constitutes harm (maybe? maybe not?), then it might go in the way that whichever other now-we-know religious practices did as well. But what exactly is the harm done from not eating a certain kind of animal? It would seem that there's harm in eating too much meat, or unethically-farmed meat. Maybe there's some argument that certain types of shellfish actually help aquatic ecosystems and as such humans are under some kind of earth-saving duty that trumps religious conviction to eat more of them, although that's a stretch. (See: the vegans-should-eat-oysters argument.) But pork?

Not seeing it. Pork as is generally available is not something one's under a secular ethical obligation to eat - quite the contrary. That there exists (relatively - vegetarians will disagree) ethically produced pork doesn't make pork vegetarian, because "vegetarian" doesn't mean eating what Michael Pollan thinks is OK. It means not eating meat. "Kosher" means, among other things, avoiding pork.

There would need to be a compelling reason to eat whichever less-problematic pork, as opposed to a lack of a compelling ethical reason not to do so. And the existence of some feral hogs in some parts of the country (this had come up earlier on the same podcast) doesn't seem as though it would obligate whichever % of an already-tiny minority actually avoids pork to start eating it. There may be no good health reason in this day and age for non-vegetarians to refuse to eat pork, but so what? Isn't Pollan always saying that we'd do better to eat traditionally - in really whichever tradition - because seemingly arbitrary restrictions are what keep us eating reasonable amounts and balanced meals? Wouldn't that make a dietary system like keeping kosher - even if there's no specific reason not to combine meat and milk, say - advisable under his own view? Simply the fact of restrictions - of qualms - keeps people in line. Why couldn't Pollan stop while he was ahead, promoting home-cooking, being sensible?

9 comments:

caryatis said...

Agreed. I've actually heard the argument that pork is the last meat you should eat, because pigs are significantly more intelligent than cows, chickens, or fish. Possibly less intelligent than octopi or squid, but you probably don't eat them too often either.

Phoebe said...

It's curious, then, why Pollan argues this, given the fish-in-a-barrel ease with which one can point out the absurdity. There's some really interesting analysis here (also the other comments and post itself), both of Pollan and pork specifically and of Jews (oh, btw, Pollan is Jewish) not just eating but celebrating pork more generally. I hadn't known his book Omnivore's Dilemma ended with a "secular seder" serving pork, but there you go. I guess it's a kind of provocation. But to what end? It's nothing but ordinary in this day and age for a secular Jew not to keep kosher. No rabbi is going to have Pollan banished from his village. The only possible goal I can think of, without having read that book, is, it's a way of asserting that food is now religion. A vegetarian seder wouldn't get that point across.

ATM said...

One benefit of pigs is they are scavengers and can be fed on a wider variety of foods, unlike cows that are restricted to grains/grass.

That said, Pollan is being weird.

Phoebe said...

ATM,

That might be an argument against beef, but keeping kosher doesn't mean one must eat beef - it just doesn't exclude doing so. Although in effect it often does - those who keep strictly kosher are quite limited in terms of what meat they eat, plus kosher meat's expensive, so those who keep kosher often end up eating less meat for that reason. A dietary system that makes it impractical to eat meat is arguably a good thing if we're all supposed to be eating less of the stuff.

That this thread continues means I get to add yet another point I keep forgetting - there are all kinds of problems with kosher-as-it-currently-exists - the reliance on rabbinic certification; concerns about insects in lettuce that may discourage consumption of ordinary vegetables; the mistaken belief among some non-Jews that "kosher" means foods are healthier or more ethically produced. And because these rules are fundamentally about keeping people apart, it's fair game to argue that that's not so great (as long as one doesn't try to deny anyone the right to eat as they wish). So if someone wants to challenge Jewish dietary restrictions, there are plenty of ways to do so that wouldn't involve suggesting that a basic fact of what it's about historically be scrapped altogether.

Jesse A. said...

"the mistaken belief among some non-Jews that "kosher" means foods are healthier or more ethically produced"

Let's not forget that it is the same mistaken belief that leads Pollan to say that pork should be considered kosher.

Phoebe said...

Jesse,

True enough - the arrogant belief that "kosher" means not what Jews for thousands of years have thought it means, but whatever one journalist would like it to.

I mean, it's also the broader issue of, some people would like individual religions to abandon all particularity and be about some kind of generic, secular Good. In which case religion is a problem not only when what it advocates conflicts with that Good (subjugation of women, say), but also when it asks for any sacrifice or ritual above and beyond whatever secular ethics might demand. Maybe that's his deal?

Petey said...

"Pork as is generally available is not something one's under a secular ethical obligation to eat"

This is incorrect.

Pork is delicious, and if one does not have a compelling secular ethical obligation to eat bacon, prosciutto, mortadella precisely because they are so delicious, I think we've succumbed to the the soft bigotry of low expectations in terms of secular ethical obligations.

OTOH, chicken, as is generally available, is kinda flavorless, and thus treyf.

"It's nothing but ordinary in this day and age for a secular Jew not to keep kosher. No rabbi is going to have Pollan banished from his village."

You never know. My people, (who likely include Pollan), are the Hellenistic Jews who lost the war to the Maccabees. We mourn our catastrophic loss every Hanukah by eating pancetta, spare ribs, and cooked bucatini sauteed in garlic with lard while loudly proclaiming, "Never again!"

But our bravado aside, nobody ever expects the Maccabees. And so we live in quiet fear that they will one day come again to take away our delicious speck and jamón ibérico.

Phoebe said...

Petey,

I anticipated your counterargument in the post title.

Petey said...

"Petey, I anticipated your counterargument in the post title."

Wise anticipation on your part. But the hasids are just neo-Maccabees...

"Isn't Pollan always saying that we'd do better to eat traditionally - in really whichever tradition - because seemingly arbitrary restrictions are what keep us eating reasonable amounts and balanced meals? Wouldn't that make a dietary system like keeping kosher - even if there's no specific reason not to combine meat and milk, say - advisable under his own view? "

The more subtle and accurate explication of this theory is that one should eat traditional cuisines that are based on the waterfront. So traditional Japanese, Italian, and broadly Mediterranean (which influences French) are all to the good. But traditional Polish or Mongolian? Not so much...