29 December 2009

A Brief History of My Relationship with Food

My mom's friend Laurien gave me the new book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer over winter break. Reading it has forced me to re-examine what I thought I believed about why I eat what I eat. I first began thinking about my own consumption as an ethical issue in my sophomore year of college in Peter Singer's class Practical Ethics. I had always considered myself an "ethical" person, despite not being a religious person by any means, but it wasn't until Singer's course that I encountered different systematic approaches to personal decision making. My college boyfriend fancied himself a deontologist and I fancied myself a rule utilitarian and we would argue for hours. Based on my rule utilitarian analysis of the world coupled with a heavy dose of Peter Singer, I became a strict vegetarian for a few months, eventually expanding my eating to animals that were "ethically treated," an ambiguous phrase that I wasn't even sure how to define myself.

In my junior year of college that deontological boyfriend gave me my first Michael Pollan book, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and I devoured it. I went on to read The Botany of Desire and In Defense of Food and began to revise my definition of what it meant to eat ethically. I became obsessed with factory farming, corn and sustainability and decided that there were a number of factors that would impact my decision to eat meat. In In Defense of Food I learned the word "flexitarian" and adopted it for myself. Venison and other wild game became my meat of choice.

In my senior year of college I visited several farms for my journalism courses, including Bobolink Dairy. The owners of Bobolink, Jon and Nina White, were generous hosts and showed me what a farm could look like. Both Jon and Nina knew most of their cows by name, and could point them out to me from across snowy fields. They introduced me to a newborn calf named Beltane, and then invited me back in a few months for the festival of Beltane, when they would eat him. In those few months before the festival, I thought long and hard about what it meant to be eating an animal that I had met and been literally introduced to. Did it make it more wrong, or more right? Should it matter?

One of my biggest pet peeves is people who will eat absolutely anything unless it has eyes, or a beak, or some other feature that is a reminder of the animal the meat comes from. I used to be like that as a child, covering my eyes in front of the fish counter at Ralph's or while walking by the hanging ducks in the window of the Asian grocery. But this ickiness feeling is a construction of our culture, not a part of human nature, and a harmful construction in my opinion. Are we really so disconnected from the origins of what we put in our bodies that we can't deal with anything that reminds us of the fact that these animals were once alive? If we can't deal with the fact that these animals were once alive do we have a right to eat them? I say no. With this in mind I set out to catch a fish in Yosemite this last summer and insisted that the ranger who lent me his equipment let me kill it. It was hard, and there was a little ickiness in my stomach, but I did it and felt good about it because it didn't last long (and also the trout up there are not native). I breathed a sigh of relief and ate the trout for dinner (that's me on the left eating my trout). I have never felt so connected to what I was ingesting and it felt awesome. I can't wait to be in a place in my life where almost everything I put in my mouth was harvested or killed by my own hand or that of someone else I know.

Anyhow the point is I ate Beltane the calf and I liked it, and I felt better about it than any bovine I had ingested before or have ingested since.

Eating Animals takes a stance that is a lot more hard-core than Pollan's philosophy. Although Foer praises Pollan's writing, he implies that the author has not gone far enough in his recommendations. Foer is convincing, describing the horrors of factory farming in far gorier detail than Pollan or Food Inc. But I am halfway through the book and he has yet to address the possibility that one can eat eggs, dairy and meat responsibly. I am not going to give up my flexitarian status yet, but I am going to be a lot more discerning about food labels that claim things like "cage free" or "organic." I've also given up a lot of seafood. If Foer's statistics are correct, it is almost impossible to find real food out there from real farms. However, it is out there--I've seen it in New Jersey--and I can probably find it in Santa Cruz. That makes me happy.

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