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.


jabblog said...

As you say, balance is everything. We all suffer a degree of vertigo stemming from insufficient or incorrect information. Your last two paragraphs indicate the least harmful path to follow.

Becky T said...

It's a false choice to either eat soy or eat meat. Some amount of organically-grown soy in the diet, just like some thoughtfully raised meat, is probably healthful for both the person and the earth. However, this obsession with soy and high-protein vegetable matter drives me nuts. Vegetables have more protein per calorie than meat and as a physically active vegetarian, I have never needed to eat soy-based products to get enough protein. Of course, your point stands: that it's most important to think about where your food comes from and how it's grown/raised, not whether it's animal or vegetable. However, considering the huge quantities of meat that Americans eat, cutting down on that aspect makes a lot of sense, no matter what.

Owlfarmer said...

Becky's certainly right that meat vs. soy isn't the only choice; if I implied that, I apologize. But too many of the vegetarians I've known in my life have simply substituted soy for meat, without thinking about what all that soy might mean--both physically and economically.

I read Frances Moore Lappé's Diet for a Small Planet back in the '70s and thus knew to eat combinations of proteins that provided a good substitute for meat without resorting to soy everything. I still love edamame in a salad, and am happy to use various soy products as part of my diet, although I tend to shy away from highly processed versions, like "burgers" and such that try to imitate meat. Better, I think, to eat small amounts of pastured meat instead.

I think we're all on the same page here: balance and sensibility. The best advice from the foodie world seems to be to use meat as a flavoring rather than a major source of protein. I'd add to that the "ingredient" of humanely raised animals and sustainably grown vegetables.