I love food. Real food. For the most part, the conversation in my house is carried by the current of food. Even the eddies and side conversations are still in those central waters. My husband, currently in the process of developing a fish company as a side project, has been sent to Australia for business. As a consequence of our assignment and my attendant leave of absence from my “real” life, I’ve found an intermission—a bizarre pause in my life, surrounded by ghost gums and screeching white cockatoos.
My first discovery: a fascinating lot of new food-- at least--new to me. In less than two weeks, I have been delighted by some of the most exotic and exquisite fare I have ever tasted. Australia, it turns out, like America, is a bit of culinary and cultural patchwork built on a fertile bit of dirt, an agronomist’s dream, and therefore a gourmand’s, with Mediterranean bits at the corners. The quilt is a bit lighter and more colorful than the American version, more Asian and less Hispanic, but however you characterize it there’s all kinds of great food here. With these culinary charms there’s been a second stroke of luck: conversation. Almost immediately, my food conversation has been folded over itself. There have been demands made, inquiries conducted, pillows fluffed, bedrooms ransacked, a challenge issued to my food discourse and eating habit. It’s time for The Politics of Eating.
I’ve been asked a question that isn’t new to me or new to the discourse of eating, a question that pops up from time to time in my twenty-something, health-conscious, fad-acknowledging-if-not-following eating life: Do I eat meat? Why of course. In all shapes and sizes, dear.
But then came the second question. Here in this new place, in a new conversation with new friends and food lovers, it slammed right into me despite my clear right of way and solid preparation derived from the Michael Pollen books on tape we listen to while driving: WHY?
Though I ponder it from time to time, most recently on a drive up the 5 through California’s Central Valley as the dusty manure and cow piles that pass for modern US cattle ranches flashed by the window, in the soupy spaghetti of my daily musings the issue of meat is peripheral at best. Let me be clear, I am quite passionate in my distaste of factory farming, mass produced meat, and all of the other disgusting practices our backwards generation tolerates if not outright demands in the name of cheap eats and convenience. But I am not interested in that—I have clear values, positions, views on that—or do I?
My privileged place in the universe affords me the luxury to choose what I eat. Ultimately, it is a choice. I like meat, I choose to eat it, I buy lamb rump steaks and my husband makes his own sauce from mint that grows wild under our apple tree. We are quite charming.
In making my choice I’ve too often, conveniently, left out a big part of the ground work. What are the constraints that bound that choice? What responsibilities come with the privilege of my freedom? What values, universal or cultural, define the choice and how do I defend it on those terms? Over time, we have developed a dirty little demand for the luxury of choice – no question. My husband tells me that the US is one of the only places in the world where food is a normal good – this is economic gobbledygook for a thing we don’t buy less of when the price rises. In other words, the rest of the world changes how much they eat when they have less money, while we do not. Why should we? Calories are cheap, after all. Like a child stomping its foot in the candy aisle of the grocery store, we expect abundance and access. The resulting indiscretions abound. We pacify ourselves on the topics of GMO, subsidies for chemical companies that make toxic stuff to spray on our food, and filthy slaughterhouses with belief that we lead a crusade for affordable ‘food for all.’ Through the tiny opening of that justification, through that pinprick of a white lie, the corporate meat industry has wiggled, stretched, barged its way into an ethos that over time burgeoned into something utterly reprehensible, wickedly destructive, and above all, damned. Factory farmed meat: science experiment limbless chickens, ammonia soaked pork, and E. coli infested frozen mystery meat burgers. Sick, nasty.
And the vegetarian at my dinner table looks at me with big, innocent eyes: This is the way of living/eating I CHOOSE? No. I don’t think so. Isn’t killing evil? Yes, that’s what I’ve been taught. So where do I fall in all of this? I carefully choose which face wash to use and what recycled toilet paper to buy…why haven’t I considered something so serious as death, blood, destruction, cruelty on my dinner table?
My vegetarian friend
Raised by an avid vegan mother who skipped preaching and went straight to the propaganda, my friend is well versed in the political and spiritual underpinnings of her diet. Her thoughts and words are clear, articulate, and passionate. She had strong points, good points, and above all, good-person points, the moral high ground. Her three year old son is a blonde buoyant placard of good, whole-grain energy. Our conversations were difficult for me. Where do I fit in? How do I justify myself? Should I? Must I?
My dietary choices, as far as I could tell as I scrambled to take inventory, was based on mostly selfish motives—no corn syrup, organics, less sugar, more olive oil—these were the things of health and vanity, not politics. Is eating a political decision? I teetered carefully and respectfully at the edges of the conversation. We could talk about fish—she eats fish, though she feels tremendous guilt for it. I easily address and console the guilt. We move on. Killing can be suffering, suffering is unimaginable bad wrong. I wade in two steps—but killing is natural? Maybe…We both politely take a step back to our corners and swish water…And how does it impact the whole? Ethics, morals, our relation to ourselves and our social world? How does this choice fit in with who we want to be—how we conduct our affairs and direct ourselves into the future? She sits facing me, a perfectly successful, capable, considerate, thoughtful being. I envy her clarity, her deliberation.
She told me a story. She has a friend who went to Japan after a tumultuous year of replacing a career as a corporate attorney with one in the entertainment industry due to a crisis of conscience over her own impact on ‘the environment’. This friend, let’s call her Fred, described it in this fashion: She couldn’t take the environmental meaninglessness, if not destructiveness, of her legal calling, what with representing BIG business, and followed her conscience to a career trading carbon offsets for raves and other events. A few months after the switch, Fred found herself in Tokyo with a new boyfriend and a new life, going to all the swanky Japanese bars, exclusive clubs, shops, hotels. She tried exotic foods, including horse and whale, in exquisitely adorned, private-roomed restaurants. Fred even took a shot of sake with a live goldfish in it. At this point in the conversation, my friend is visibly shaken. Not over the goldfish. That’s not where I’m going. Well, over the goldfish, but in the tiniest sense. The way my friend explained it: Fred’s hypocritical approach to a philosophy (environmentalism) my friend shared devastated her. Whale? Live animals? Seems a bit odd after exchanging the Prada for the Pine. Was she a bad friend for even thinking her accusation of hypocrisy? Fred needed, deserved to cut loose. Don’t we all have at least a small allotment of forgivable indiscretions and inconsistencies? We are human, after all…
It struck a similarly piqued chord for me, and relayed a story in turn. I recently went on a trip to Argentina. It was the worst timing for all involved, immediately before the move with my husband to Australia, at a low point in our family finances, with a group of friends who also couldn’t really afford the time away but couldn’t, all good sense aside, miss the chance to go somewhere wonderful together. Good friends, in other words. We were professionals, scientists, artists, and devoted ‘environmentalists’, some with impressive conversationalist pedigrees. We had grandiose intentions of trekking in Patagonia, losing ourselves in the space of the unknown, catching dinner (non-native trout) to cook over open fires (carefully buried afterwards), sleeping in the cool darkness of a wild place. And we did a lot of that. But the Argentines are not as dismissive of the riches of their terroir as we had expected. To our utter (surprising) disappointment, time after time, after hours of driving, hiking, hauling, breaking unmarked trail, we would round a bend in dense cane to find plenty of others already there. Fishing, camping, eating, cooking, laughing. Where was our wild? Our space? Our privacy?
Driving back to hot showers and parillas of wild boar and chimichurri, our disappointment was embarrassing on two fronts: One, we felt like amateurs, incapable of even locating the true wild, whatever that may be; and two, of more interest to me, that we were further incapable of accepting the human (other humans) use of ‘the environment’, which is what we set out to do in the fist place. We were, if only quietly in our own minds, hypocrites. Isn’t the goal of our recycled burgundy bottles and reduced evening bath water just that: to preserve a place for all to use? Or for none? Which is it? We noticed, concealing our dirty, envious thoughts from each other, that many of the other extranjeros who had been similarly disappointed but who had the resources (which go a fair bit farther in a country rife with a combination of constant financial catastrophe and systematic subordination of the rural poor by centuries of successful oligarchs) had satisfied this desire for their own wild: Estancias. Gorgeous, expansive ranches comprising some of the most pristine land in the world, each neatly enclosed in fence and lock to assure rightful priority over prying native or envious traveler.
It’s easy, as an envious and educated outsider, to judge the estancia owners, to ask them, rhetorically: How do you set your priorities, publicly and privately, with regard to the environment, and not acknowledge, in the slightest, the implications for the whole? But it might be more honest to acknowledge the difficulty of these choices and to ask instead: How do you make choices about protecting a big block of land without being either too exclusive or too lenient? How do you engage other people, whose laws and civil institutions and goodwill (at times born from the powerlessness of poverty) ultimately enable your choices about that land (whether your choices are for the sake of all or the sake of one) while simultaneously protecting it from the tragedy of the commons? It’s easy to deflect the criticism of the bourgeois vegetarian, who can afford organic veggies and great nutrition, by asking: How do you define your nutritional choices with politics but then ignore or condemn others for their lack of a choice? What use are ideas like environmentalism, vegetarianism, sustainability, or whatever else, if ultimately, they are only indulgences for the privileged?
And on a personal level: where do we demand consistency of ourselves and others? Does eating a live goldfish mesh with swapping trees for rides on private jets? How does an altruistic preservation scheme fit in with gated communities designed for outright disenfranchisement of the indigenous? Well, shit, quite swimmingly in realm of the absurd… Back to the beginning…
I have absolutely no intention of answering any of the above questions. I just want to go looking for my own coherence (a self-serving endeavor, for sure) beginning with FOOD, specifically, MEAT. Stated premise (ha): Before I can understand the ramifications of my decision and its place in the world of life, beings, matter, atoms, I need to actually MAKE the decision. For have I really decided anything? Isn’t that the entire point of conveniently wrapped, inoffensively colored pre-cut and pre-cleaned rounds of my supermarket meat – to protect me from choice? Of course, I thoughtfully search for the buried packages with the green fluorescent Organic sticker…sometimes…
The point is, right now, I have a few other luxuries: time and copper wire. So really, why not kill, eat, and blog?
It’s a simple ambition –explore my extravagance. Pleased to meat you: I am a dissatisfied, stay-at-home expat with a desire for the perspective of wild blood? No, worse: a yearning to bank an ‘authentic experience’ to draw on the next time I am in a high end boutique café arguing over food? Damn. How about a desire to chase the absurd: a tangible, first hand understanding of a simple decision I make every day and take for granted: meat.
So…How? The answer came in the form of fifty pairs of tiny beads that flashed in the headlights on our way home from a dinner party. They scattered into the darkness as we rounded the corner, fleeing the flat open grass back to the cover of their coastal bush. I roll down the window. In the darkness, between the crashing waves and high pitched night sounds, I hear the patter of floppy hops. Two days later, an article in the paper describes the local council’s ongoing (and losing) battle with the invasive European rabbit ‘PROBLEM’.
This is my tiny, experimental exploration into a twenty first century privilege of choosing how, when, what, and why to eat. Maybe the beginning of an ideological autopoesis? Probably not. More like a search for scaffolding. As a point of information: I have no experience in any of this. I do not even kill my own spiders. I tried the trout thing – by which I mean catching, killing, and grilling an eight inch, finely speckled specimen of Salmo gairdnerii, a Rainbow Trout (invasive), in Argentina, but only while fortified by a wild herb and Pisco concoction whipped up by an ingenious (and terribly good looking) friend and guided by two experienced hunters standing over me for support. I do not arrange and roast my own chickens. I do raise them, but only to eat their eggs, and only after said eggs have been conveniently arranged in the coop like in the cartoons—I had no idea for months and still pretend that it isn’t the case that my husband first collects them from under the avocado tree, behind the front stoop, next to the hose…
I will make a snare, set it, catch a rabbit, kill the rabbit, skin the rabbit, clean the rabbit, cook the rabbit, EAT THE RABBIT. Or not – my husband likes to remind me of the insecurity of the hunter-gatherer’s food supply with a smirk. Through this endeavor, maybe I will better define the ethical/moral/political boundaries of one of the many complicated choices we face as 21st century humans. Or not. We’ll see…