Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What Should we have for dinner?

With apologies to Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma), the responses to Saturday's pig rant prompted me to reflect on the whole question of vegetarianism again--an exercise I seem to undergo on a fairly regular basis. Before my latest bit of navel gazing, I had last spent some time on the issue when I bought Pollan's book last year. For an overview of modern American eating habits, it hasn't been surpassed, but I've since found a couple more perspectives to add to the list, and his question ("What should we have for dinner?") is still at the heart of it.

I'm pretty sure that my first "stint" on a meatless diet was prompted by my respect for my grandmother's near century-long vegetarian life. She lived to be 104, but she stopped eating meat at about age 10, after the calf she had been raising showed up on the dinner table. She loved the fact that I'd stopped eating meat at about the same time that I started having babies, despite the fact that my intentions weren't all that pure.

As I mentioned in the last post, I had decided that if I didn't have the cojones to kill an animal, I had no right to eat it. This was brought on in part of a growing distaste (both physical and philosophical) for anonymous meat--even though the kosher chickens and beef I had been consuming were relatively humanely killed. But the less pure reason was sheer laziness. It's a pain in the tuchus to keep meat and milk separate, and even before meat became off limits in the house, we'd been eating less and less fleishig, and more and more milchig.

My reasons for keeping kosher in the first place weren't primarily religious; they were more communitarian than anything. I wanted anyone, from orthodox Jew to gentile to be able to eat at my table. I also liked the mindfulness involved with maintaining the ritual cycle during the year, especially at Passover, when spring cleaning takes on enormous significance, and favorite china and utensils come out for that one week. It marked the true beginning of spring, and always meant great food and company.

But as my community began to change, and fewer and fewer Jews were part of it (philosophy of technology doesn't attract many Jewish students), food-related rituals became decreasingly significant. The children began to hanker for meat, loudly. They famously leaned over the meat counter at the supermarket, and pined audibly. I couldn't take the little monsters anywhere without their commenting about how utterly deprived they were.

So I began by introducing chicken, trying to get organic ones even though we were by then living on grad student income, while I tried to complete enough of a degree to get a job after ten years of being a stay-at-home mom. Even then I was still focused on the humanity of meat-eating, and still having trouble reconciling myself with carnivorism (I know; that doesn't seem to be a word).

One of the points GEM raised in response to "A Pig's Tale" is especially relevant here. A particular strain of American meat-consumption involves a large dollop of sentimentality about animals. We do not eat dogs or cats or--for the most part--horses. We don't eat many rabbits, and I don't know anyone north of the Mexican border who eats guinea pigs. We seem to be okay with swine and bovine species, less so with sheep and goats (although folks do eat lamb and cabrito, in much lower numbers than other meats). Birds come in a variety of species, but not that many folks eat once-considered delicacies such as starlings (abundant though they are) or pigeons, or even doves and quail (except in season, and when you know someone who shoots 'em; though I've bought frozen quail from Central Market, and eaten it roasted at Papacito's). It's as if the cuter or more symbolic the animal is, the less likely we are to see it on the menu. Anywhere.

People eat less veal than they once did, because the way it's generally processed is so abhorent to many of us. I will, however, happily munch down on μοσχάρι (calf) in Greece, knowing that a few days ago it was nursing on a hillside while its mother grazed contentedly. Foie gras is off the list for those of us who don't like the idea of force-feeding an animal (not to mention the fat involved). But that's about as far as our concern goes, unless we end up on a highway next to pig transport or drive by a feedlot (or what I call a "feedlot dairy") where the stench is enough to put you off your own feed for weeks.

I used to be swayed by the idea that a vegetarian diet was more sustainable than that of an omnivore (we're none of us exclusively carnivores). But an article in the June/July issue of Mother Earth News, "The Truth about Vegetarianism" (an excerpt from Lierre Keith's book, The Vegetarian Myth) pretty much blew that presupposition out of my comfy little intellectual cosmos. Reading (albeit slowly) Green Barbarians had already alerted me to some of the problems associated with vegetarian substitutes for meat proteins (things like soy), but Keith's essay made me feel a bit more comfortable about the role of meat in human diets. As usual, balance seems to be the key.

Now, I'm admittedly as sentimental about animals as the next guy. Witness my sobbing fit on the highway last week. And I still would have a lot of trouble killing a critter--even though I've got a perfectly sustainable crop of fuzz-tailed tree rats just asking to be made into squirrel stew (and maybe a nice winter hat).

But human beings have evolved alongside the animals they eat, and some of our sentiments stem from that very fact. Folks don't (usually) eat dogs, because dogs were probably just about the first domesticated animals and were useful to hunters (as hunters were useful to dogs, apparently). Yes there are cultures where this relationship doesn't hold as much sway; I can't count the number of puppies that went missing during "dog season" in Taiwan. And I laughed knowingly when the "Good Dogs" sign in the first episode of Firefly clearly didn't refer to frankfurters.

But since not all land is suitable for farming, and since Big Agro has made the traditional farm model more and more difficult to pursue, perhaps what we should be focusing on is how to eat more lightly on the land, how to minimize human damage to the planet by eliminating chemical farming, and how to feed ourselves without practicing animal-torture--all of which can be addressed by truly sustainable practices on farms and ranches. I can no longer take comfort in the idea of smug vegetarianism, because raising soy crops may be every bit as problematic as raising grain-fed beef.

This is a vastly complicated problem. But nothing's solved by ignoring the fact that enormous amounts of crop land are being used to grow soybeans and corn that are not being used for food, and even what is may not be all that good for us. Ellen Sandbeck opened my eyes about the problems of plant sterols and other drug-like qualities in soy products, and Lierre Keith has now reinforced that by alerting me to the role that thoughtful, humane animal husbandry can play in a world that respects nature rather than simply exploiting it. None of this is easy, and it certainly isn't cheap. But think what we could do for local economies if we said no to monocultures, genetically modified crops, and factory animal farming, and yes to pastured meat and dairy products, organically grown produce, and hand-raised poultry and eggs.

I can only hope that the more positive effects of the economic downturn--the return of victory gardens and the rise in city chicken populations--can be maintained, and that we don't settle for tortured pig parts and grain-stuffed beef simply to keep our expenses down. We can surely make meat a smaller part of our diets, enrich the rest of it with locally-raised produce and dairy products, and decrease our dependence on monocultures like soy and corn. In addition to being not all that nutritious, cheap food is morally very expensive.

Image credit: Julien Dupre, Farm Girl Feeding Chickens, painted some time before he died in 1910. From a photo by "Daderot" via Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Pig's Tale

It all started the other day when I was on my way down to school for a department meeting and got stuck in traffic. And I do mean stuck: in the middle lane, with exits backed up, and with nobody the least bit interested in providing me with space to move over and get off. So I sat there, and both Vera and I were fuming, because her mileage was plummeting. We started off the most recent tank of gas with an mpg average of about 58. Since I tend to drive only when I have to, that means two thirty-mile trips per day, four days per week--and not much else.

By the end of the traffic jam, we were down to 52. Yeah; I know people who would kill for that, but for us it's disappointing. And it took an hour and forty minutes to go thirty miles.

But that wasn't the worst of it. For some considerable chunk of that 100 minutes, I moved along side a truck transporting pigs to an abattoir. The temperature on the highway had to have been 102F at least, and the poor pigs were becoming ham before they were even dead. Some of them poked their noses out of the grating, trying desperately to get some fresh air. Some were fighting. Some were biting the metal grille on the side of the truck. Fortunately for me, Vera's recirculation system works splendidly, so I didn't have to breath pig perfume; but I was so upset by this experience that I burst into tears right there on Central Expressway, and sobbed uncontrollably for a good ten minutes.

There's nothing like the spectacle of abject suffering to open one's eyes to the ultimate insensitivity of modern "civilized" human beings. How could we possibly allow another creature to suffer like that, just for a cheap pork chop?

That night, as I downed a bratwurst at the ball game (rationalizing my enjoyment by noting that this particular pig had not died in vain, and that it would probably be the last mass-processed pig product I ever ate), I discussed the problem with the Beloved Spouse and my daughter, and reflected on the Culture of Anonymous Meat.

Mind you, this is essentially what led me to my vegetarian days when my children were growing up. For fourteen years I ate no meat except that which had been killed by friends, or fish that had been caught by relatives. I've actually got nothing against eating meat; rather, I thought that unless I had the guts to kill it (or at least knew who killed it), I didn't have the right to eat it. Later, I tried to eat organic and/or sustainably raised meat and poultry, which has become easier and easier to do. Sometimes "all natural" is the best I could do, but I've at least tried to be conscious of what I was doing. Eating responsibly has, at the very least, to include being mindful of where your food originates and how it's processed.

I think that one reason this situation was off my radar is that 1) my vegetarian years were also Kosher years, so pigs didn't factor into any consideration of carnivorism at all and 2) the pigs I'd known in Taiwan lived happy, sloppy lives before being swiftly dispatched not far from where they'd been raised.

Coincidentally enough, this morning I was reading an old issue of the British version of Country Living (August 2008), which featured an article on commercial pig-farming in England, and noted that "The pig, along with the chicken, is the most abused of all farm animals--sheep graze year round and cows only overwinter in a barn, while most pigs live in concrete prisons" for their entire lives. And while neither sheep nor cows are particularly gifted intellectually, pigs are pretty bloody smart--which makes their torture all the more alarming. All this mistreatment leads to "bland and flabby" meat "devoid of character," according to the author (smallholder Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall)--and (to prevent infections in close quarters) it's laced with antibiotics. So why are we eating this stuff at all?

Perhaps it's because we're just ignorant of how bad things really are. After all, many of us are now aware of how "milk-fed veal" gets treated and haven't touched that in years. So I'm hoping that most people are just uninformed. But if it's willful ignorance, more people need to be stuck beside a pig-transport on a hot day. Without air conditioning.

Complacency is in some ways a coping device in a complex, problem-ridden world. I do harbor hope that most people tend to wake up when faced with information that exposes that complacency (things like vast oil spills, perhaps). So in case anyone reading this isn't quite up on the nature of pig farming in these United States, or if you don't believe me about how bad factory pig farming is, read this article from BoingBoing (Big factory pig farms are some of America's worst polluters)--but don't go there unless you're prepared to be horrified.

None of this is necessary. For information on bettering the lot of pigs, and sources of humanely raised pork, see the following:
If we choose not to pay attention to the problem, I fear for our future as a species even more than I already have been. A culture that decides to torture animals for expediency is capable of all manner of atrocities--as we have, come to think of it, seen all too frequently in the past.

Image credit: Sow and piglet, by Scott Bauer, via Wikimedia Commons. At very least, this mom seems to be out rooting--something factory-farmed pigs don't get to do.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Skywatch Friday: The Boys of the Solstice

Thanks to my daughter's great connections, we spent the evening of the first full day of summer back at the Ballpark in Arlington, at another interleague game: Rangers vs. Pirates.

Now, since the Beloved Spouse is a Pirates fan, this was just recompense for my having whooped it up as the Cubs beat the Rangers last month. Alas for him, however, the Rangers came from behind to win--and the shot above captures the fireworks (with a waxing Gibbous moon peeking over) after Josh Hamilton hit the third home run of the evening for Texas. After the fireworks had finished, I got a slightly better shot of the moon (albeit a bit blurry).

Our seats were situated directly behind the left field foul pole, which offered an interesting perspective, but we chose a lousy day to watch a game: 102 degrees F, and the sun blasted us in our faces for the first hour or so of the game. But the tickets were free, the beer decent (St. Arnold's this time--although there was Guinness for sale in the pub nearby), and the company well worth keeping.

Since I'm finally on holiday for a couple of weeks, I'll get back to bitching about oil spills tomorrow--but for now, I wanted to wish folks a happy Skywatch Friday, and a terrific weekend.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Father's Day Blues

Father's Day always waxes a bit melancholy for me since my own father died. This year, because my academic quarter ended on Friday and grades have to be posted by Monday, I don't even get to join my daughter and the Beloved Spouse (and gathered siblings and their children) to celebrate the day with my father-in-law. The fact that he's still with us (despite brain surgery earlier this year) is in itself worth enjoying, and I'm sorry I can't be with them.

Instead, the "puppies" and I are hanging out together while I grade exams. Even their presence is a reminder of the last weekend I saw my father, because we had adopted them the week before, and on the morning my daughter and I left for our final visit, I took pictures of them frolicking in the snow to show my Dad. By that time he was in hospice, but still alert enough to enjoy our being there, and the presence of other family and friends.

One of the reasons I try keep this blog up, despite growing pressures at school and the weird contraction of time that seems to be taking place as I age, is that my father would have loved it. He and I had been carrying on a lively e-mail dialogue for years, and if I had entered the blogosphere a few years earlier, he would have headed in with me, probably regaling us all with war stories and contributing his own excursions into Owens Valley lore.

Yesterday, after I'd been slogging through exams for the better part of the day, I took a break and Googled real estate offerings in Lone Pine and Big Pine. This amounts to an occasional attempt at therapy, makes me homesick as all get out, and probably does more harm than good. But one of the things that keeps me going is the idea that at some point in the future, my family can buy a little place in the Valley where we can get together on occasion, or stay for a real break from our workaday lives. Even the searing desert heat in summer is preferable to the local atmosphere, where the humidity is so high my glasses fog when I move from the frigid air of school and shops into the ozone-loaded, superheated swamp gas we breathe around here all season--and the "season" started early this year.

For the last two mornings I've actually been able to sit out with the dogs to read the paper from about 7 am until 8:30, although I have to douse myself with Cutter's to be able to avoid the mozzies. I keep buying up herbal concoctions in hopes that they'll work, but they don't, and a 7% DEET spray is the only thing that allows me to stay out of doors for more than a minute or two. At that time of day there's usually a breeze, and the temperature has dipped to the low 80s, so I can enjoy the birds and digest the Daily Poop before things start to heat up.

At any rate, house-shopping in the Valley offers a respite from the trials of exile, and if I could gather up about 10 million bucks I could buy a whole mess of gorgeous land and . . . . Well, maybe not. But one of my father's greatest gifts, as I have no doubt mentioned before, is my Valley heritage. He also left it reluctantly, but moved just to the other other side of the Sierras, only a few hours' lovely drive away.

I may still be at least a little ambivalent about digital technologies, but they do make it possible for me to "visit" virtually when I can't do it physically. And even while I'm tied to the prairie because my old house needs me to fix it up during my brief summer holiday (all two weeks of it), I can slip away occasionally with the computer, or the iPad, or my Uncle Art's video of a trip he took with my grandmother many years back, and just enjoy the Valley and old family haunts vicariously. If nothing else, my family's presence there over the years has given me more fond memories than I can possibly exhaust, so I can look forward to many more of these little moments until I can actually fire up Vera, pack up the dogs and the Spouse, and head into the sunset for real.

The photo, by the way, is captioned "Dad 1949" in my computer files; the guy next to him is "Ed" (perhaps his cousin?), but I don't know where it comes from. I would have been about two at the time, and he had already joined the Air Force. The shot's kind of cute, and shows a hint of the goofy grin that would stay with him for the rest of his life.

Happy Father's Day to any dads or kids with dads who happen to read this. If you still have yours, go hug him and thank him for sticking around.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Of Books and Time

I've been trying to reduce my book-buying of late, in part because we're running out of wall space for more book shelves, and in part because of the tree issue. I'm fine with recycling books, but buying new ones reminds me of how many monoculture forests are being grown to provide pulp. Then I heard that downloading books onto an electronic device (Kindle, Nook, iPad) would actually lessen one's footprint if one were the sort who buys more than a hundred books per year.

I've been know to buy twice that (usually in those years that include at least one trip out to Booked Up in Archer City, where Larry McMurtry houses thousands of antiquarian books in four warehouses around the town square), so having already succumbed to the lure of the iPad I now have a better use for it even than keeping track of balls and strikes during a Rangers game, or keeping an eye on the weather. There are now fifty five books on my iBooks shelf, most of them downloaded for free thanks to Apple's partnership with the Gutenberg Project. Lots of these are duplicates of titles the Beloved Spouse and I already own (in case we're out camping and a sudden urge to read Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy in German comes upon him, or I feel the immediate need to consult a nineteenth-century cookery book). The Free Books app from the iTunes store brought me portable editions (as if the paperbacks weren't already portable) of Morris's News From Nowhere and Wells's In the Days of the Comet, and a dozen others.

Fittingly, I think, my first actual purchase was Bill McKibben's newest book, Eaarth; the second was Juliet Schor's Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth. In concert with an actual physical copy of Sharon Astyk's Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front, I'm now equipped with enough blog fodder to last for the next couple of months. Be forewarned.

Since I need to get back to grading, I have to quit for now, but the Skywatch Friday entry for this week appears above. It was inspired by Schor's idea that a different concept of wealth would include time to do the things one loves. I can't help but think of this photo, of Red Rock Canyon along highway 395 in California, taken more than five years ago, as a potent and poignant reminder that I haven't been home since it was shot. I would be quite happy to exchange the almost other-worldly dry heat of the California desert and its searingly blue sky for the frequently oppressive, moisture-saturated heat of north Texas. But that, too, will have to wait for later.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Skywatch Friday: Sunday Afternoon at the Ballpark

As anybody who reads this blog may already know, I am an unrepentant baseball fan. Absurdly enough, I'm a Cubs fan living in a town whose only team is not only not the Cubs, but is not even a National League club. In fact, my favorite American League team is the Angels, because they're the ones I used to skip seventh period PE in high school to go watch play in Anaheim.

But baseball lovers are an odd lot; we're so devoted to the game, that when we can't be with the one we love, we often love the one we're with. So it is with me and the Texas Rangers. Except when the Cubs are in town for inter-league play.

This is the second time I've been able to see the Cubs play in Arlington. I probably only went to three or four games the whole time I was living in Chicago, a block and a half from Wrigley (20 years ago), so two games in recent years isn't a bad average. What's great about watching the Cubs in the Ballpark (Texas has managed not to sell naming rights to the field, so it's just "Rangers' Ballpark") is that it's inevitably populated with almost equal numbers of Cubs and Rangers fans.

The best job in the world: being on the ground crew at a baseball park.

So when we went to a Sunday afternoon game a couple of weeks ago, with great seats close to the visitors' dugout, we were surrounded by fellow Cubbies fans who energetically announced that we'd "root, root, root for the Cub-bies" in the seventh-inning stretch. The beloved spouse wasn't all that impressed, being as he is a Pittsburgh fan and rooting for the Rangers, but I loved it. Talk of Chicago pizza and Wrigley and such just warmed my little cockles right up.

Marlon Bird, former Ranger, signing autographs before the game.

Not that they needed any warming. It was 90 something degrees, and the only way I kept from being fried was by wearing a big straw hat and a long-sleeved shirt. Not to mention occasional clouds to relieve us from the sun that beat down on us for the entire game (see the opening shot).

For me the afternoon provided balm for the troubled soul. Baseball, because it's its own universe, offers a kind of momentary utopia--a no-place suspended in time where one can enjoy the precision, excitement, and even the goof-ups that happen on the field. The rest of the world doesn't matter, at least for as long as the game lasts. Technically, it could last forever, but I'll take what I can get. For nine innings I forgot about oil spills and climate change and the decline of education in America.

And the Cubs won.

Happy Skywatch Friday, folks. Thanks to the SWF team for their work, and enjoy the weekend.