Sunday, December 9, 2007

Carnivore Politics (Part I): “What Do We Eat When We Eat Meat?”

In an essay for the New Yorker, Bill Buford discusses three recent books with different authors—“a farmer, a chef, and a pig-slaughtering, bacon-loving descendant of butchers”—that “are remarkably alike in their gleeful chauvinism about being carnivores.” He remarks that this collective attitude towards meat-eating perhaps signifies that “it’s finally cool to be a carnivore” after vegetarianism and veganism have become increasingly attractive from an ethical standpoint. At first, this redemption of meat-eating seems somewhat improbable. Buford’s brief rundown of the meat industry’s remarkably unhealthy and destructive practices (rampant hormone use, toxins, and environmental degradation) are just highlights of what Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan have documented through their research. Moreover, Schlosser notes that until we are willing to accept higher food prices, cheap industrial meat in particular will result in a terrible long-term health cost.

In light of these realities, the above-mentioned unrepentant carnivores—British farmer and food celebrity Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, French-Canadian chef Martin Picard, and French butcher Stéphane Reynaud—do two important things in their respective books. The first is that they acknowledge (either overtly or implicitly) how, as Buford writes of Reynaud, “we’re losing our connection to our animals.” Although Pollan does an excellent job of tracing the farmyard-to-plate pathway for beef and chicken in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it safe to assume that many of us (myself included) either don’t know or properly consider the origins and production methods of the meat we consume. Buford finds that for Fearnley-Whittingstall, this requires a stark reminder that we are eating an animal:

“For all the disarray, there is a coherent ideology [to Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Meat Book]. It is evident in the opening pages, an eleven-photograph sequence that shows the author taking two cows to slaughter…There is little accompanying text, apart from a rhetorical aside: Why is it considered entertainment when a predator kills another animal in a wild-life film, Fearnley-Whittingstall wonders, ‘whereas the final moments of human predation of our farmed livestock are considered too disturbing and shameful to be made available even for information.’ The reader understands the point. Meat comes from an animal—a banal connection that has been obscured by the way supermarkets prepare and present our food—and the animal has to be killed. If you fear the sight of a carcass, you shouldn’t be eating from it.”

And this last point is what Buford intends as an answer to his essay’s subtitle (“What do we eat when we eat meat?”). My own recent personal reminder came the week before Thanksgiving, when I was preparing to roast a turkey for the first time. Wrestling to rinse the fifteen-pound bird and properly arrange it in the roasting pan, it struck me that I was handling what had once been a living, free-ranging animal—a fact that often escapes me, even though I eat meat on a daily basis.

This leads to a second element that Buford’s subjects argue is equally important: “What do we eat when we eat meat?” also means “What quality is the animal which we are eating?” Fearnley-Whittingstall completely distrusts mass-produced meat and raises his own animals; Picard relies on local suppliers for his Montreal restaurant and “rarely offers beef in his restaurant, because he has yet to find a producer he trusts”; and Reynaud insists that it’s impossible to “ ‘get good hams from good pigs,’ ” with “good” meaning naturally raised and slowly tended swine. Again, this is something that is easier to overlook if our meat is coming from, say, Wal-Mart (which is where I bought my hamburger patties in college) as opposed to a local farm or a company like Niman Ranch. Fortunately, all-natural meat often sells itself on taste alone if we’re willing to try it; the experiences of eating Niman Ranch ham or the Trader Joe’s turkey that I roasted have been compelling. When combined with its ethical advantages, good meat becomes worth its extra price tag, and not only brings us closer to the animals from which it came, but also moves us away from a system of production that blinds and harms us.

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