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Friday, May 18, 2012

Too far from food

What my brain does when it hears the word "steak"
Beatrice Marovich has a fascinating essay at Religion Dispatches called "Eat, Pray, Kill: The Basic  Brutality of Eating," in which she writes about the ethical quandaries of food in the context of secular morality and religious traditions. It's fascinating to me both because of the sheer number of different perspectives she manages to cover while following the twisting topic of whether there is an ethical argument to be found, secular or religious, in favor of eating meat, but also because of the jarring awareness it provokes of the kind of cultural context in which a person could write such an essay. A cultural context, that is, of being far from food.

The kind of distance I'm talking about when using the word "far" is geographic-- most Americans do not live anywhere near where the majority of the food they consume is produced. But it's also informational-- most Americans do not know very much about what's in the food they consume, or how it was produced. That's by necessity to some extent, but it's also by design. The food we eat is artificially colored and flavored, decorated with pictures of quaint, casual, spacious farms from which it didn't come, delivered to us out of season from distant lands, filled with chemicals we can't pronounce, and in general modified within an inch of its non-life into appearing and tasting like something it isn't. Just reading that previous sentence makes me feel like a curmudgeon, as if these facts are so ordinary and basic that they hardly bear mentioning. But Michael Pollan, who is mentioned in Marovich's essay, spent more time than anything else in his books discussing the duplicity of large-scale food corporations and the enormous power they wield in perpetuating such, in cooperation with the government. They quite simply do not want us to know what's in the food, or how it got there. We might demand that it be cleaned up or produced more ethically, or stop eating it altogether. And that all costs money. From the corporations' perspective, it's better for us just not to know.

It's for this reason that the primary question of how to eat ethically continues to be, and is treated in Marovich's essay as, the matter of eating meat or not. Ethics are about avoiding harm, right? And avoiding harm with regard to food means not killing animals and eating them, right? Weeeelll.....no. Actually it's a great deal more complicated than that. There's also the carbon footprint-- how much damage is caused to the environment in order to produce this meal? And the blood footprint, which constitutes the sum total of suffering and death involved in getting that meal to you, is about far more than whether that meal is composed solely or mainly of dead animal. What about the animals whose existence was threatened or ended in the process of collecting the non-meat components of your dinner? What about the well-being of the workers who did the collecting and processing, packaging, shipping, and serving? The vast majority of us are food consumers but not producers-- we don't kill the meat we eat. So why should that be the only part of the process of consumption for which we hold ourselves morally responsible? Oh yes...because it's the most obvious. It's almost impossible to avoid, and for many of us avoiding it is the last thing we'd want because the presence of meat is either anathema or obligatory in a good meal. That doesn't mean it's the only consideration, or even necessarily the most important one.

These are things that are easy to forget when we're far from food. But what is it like to be close to food?

When Louis recalls first becoming a bloodsucker in Interview With a Vampire, his memory is of having fled his own home in horror at the thought of needing to kill humans to survive, and he is discovered by his amused maker living off the blood of rats in the sewer. It would have been impossible for Louis to become a vegetarian, but you get the impression that he would have done so if he could. Gradually Louis is convinced that dining on humans instead is not only tastier and more dignified but entirely acceptable, because humans are petty, finite, lesser creatures. Most of us never have to encounter a similar shock as children at the thought that we are being asked to eat the flesh of the same creatures we anthropomorphize constantly in books, TV shows, movies, video games, etc. Or at least. any shock that does occur is mild considering that the meat of those animals doesn't look like those animals, and sometimes doesn't even look like meat. Almost nobody has to go out into the barn and and slaughter a pig for Sunday ham, or learn how to most efficiently slice a chicken's throat, and the rarity of anyone doing such things anymore has gone mostly unnoticed. It has just been part of the distancing.

Being close to food seems to inspire ritual, and Marovich's essay is mostly focused on that, having been inspired in large part by a presentation at Columbia University on religion's general relationship to animals, which she in turn narrows into a discussion on meat. Food is a thing that is consumed into our bodies (which is kind of bizarre when you think about how rarely that happens otherwise-- there's medication, and that's about it), there are concerns about purity and pollution, which of course is religiously relevant...goodness, could it be any more religiously relevant, without being sex? But ritual purity and hygienic purity are not quite the same thing, and neither are ritual pollution and actual pollution. A religious rule regarding the avoidance of eating some particular kind of food might be based on actual poisonous or otherwise unsafe properties, or it might be based on poisonous or unsafe properties that the food used to have when the rule was originally devised by doesn't necessarily any longer, or it might be based on that food's associative properties as unfit to introduce into the human body. Meat was necessary for our ancestors to eat, and they had to find a way to clearly and firmly articulate what kind of meat was acceptable, and how it must be slaughtered in prepared, in order to make it safe to eat both physically and psychologically. Hence, ritual.

Sustainable farmer Joel Salatin's TED talk in 2009 was framed in very religious terms:

Salatin is a devout Christian and makes no attempt to hide it. When interviewed about slaughtering chickens for Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma, Salatin talks about how nobody on his farm slaughters everyday because it's desensitizing, and claims that priests recognized this concern and spoke against the same people performing continuous slaughter for that reason. Salatin definitely makes the sustainable production of meat and produce a sacred mission, and speaks of it passionately as his calling, his attempt to do service to animals and the earth by acknowledging their interests and the continuous roles they serve for each other-- cows and pigs eating grass, chickens following in the path of the livestock and eating the insects attracted to their waste, and contributing their own waste to the land which produces more grass to feed more livestock. It's for this reason Salatin describes himself as a "grass farmer"-- grass, he proposes, is the beginning of everything, the link that is missing in the current CAFO and factory farm production of chickens and cows who are raised solely or primarily on grains, growth hormones, and fat.

That's not a model that requires a farmer of a particular faith, or really any faith at all, but it does introduce a notion of sacredness that I find very useful-- a model of doing things that is very important for reasons that aren't immediately obvious, for a deep-seated and satisfying purpose. That's a form of ritual which is repeated not because it's ritual, but because it remains relevant, remains sacred. A ritual created by someone close to food. We can't all be anywhere near that close, but we can listen to those who are.

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