Monday, February 5, 2007

Carnivorous Morality

From today's Gazette, an article on Michael Pollan: "Think about what you eat, author urges. Consider processes, health benefits."

On Thursday at Colorado College, Pollan will talk about “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Searching for the Perfect Meal in a Fast-Food World.” The title of his talk is a takeoff on his latest book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.”

The book explores the three food chains that sustain us: industrial, organic (broken down into largescale organic, such as Whole Foods, and local organic) and hunter-gatherer.

In his book, the perfect meal is the one he hunted, gathered and grew himself.

“It was perfect,” he says, “not because it represents any sort of practical solution to the problems we face around food, but because it was a completely transparent meal. It was one of those rare meals that I knew the prominence and the true price of everything I was eating.”

He’s not advocating everyone hunt down a wild boar for dinner as he did. “I really don’t think that a world with more people like me in the woods with guns is what we need.”

But he would like us to think about the source and true cost of our food.

“Our food chain has gotten very long and complex and brutal when it comes to animals for food,” he says.

And on Thursday night, I plan to be there.

I might have missed this article, but name was familiar to me because only days ago, Enrevanche posted a brief excerpt from Pollan's recent article in the NY Times. (If you want to read the whole article--and I highly recommend it--surf on over to the Enrevanche post and follow the link.)

But the real reason for this post is that Pollan's brief interview in the Gazette captured an important moral rule for me: if you're not willing to kill it, you ought not eat it. And if you are willing to eat it, you sure as hell ought not cast any stones at those willing to kill it themselves.

This became a rule for me back in 1990, when, living in Chapel Hill, I had an opportunity to go dove hunting with some of the boys from the fire department where I was a volunteer (answering fire department calls in Chatham County was about the only exercise I got while finishing a Master's thesis). I'd been married about three years at that point, and I might have gone hunting once before in that span, and if I did, I didn't bring anything back. This time, I brought back my limit. Not a bad day for a guy using a single-barrel 12-gauge that once belonged to my great-grandfather (great-great-grandfather of the author of Enrevanche). I was pretty proud. In the end, we had the next-door neighbors over for corn-on-the-cob, new potatoes, and four dove each, wrapped in bacon and broiled in a shallow pan of white wine. Before we got to that point though, we had one of those pivotal marital moments.

I swear to you, the look on my bride's face when I told her, beaming, of what I'd brought home, would have wilted all the corn in Iowa. You would have thought I'd just shot our Cocker Spaniel. I was flabbergasted. This woman was no vegetarian. My father still ran a general store that included a butcher shop, and there was no shortage of meat in our freezer--just not meat from animals that I'd personally killed.

What saved that evening was that our neighbors enjoyed the meal as much as I did. But before they arrived, there had been a tense moment or two as I pointed out the moral contradiction in that initial withering look. You can't condemn a man for putting meat (okay, morsels of meat) on the table, yet feel no compunction about buying Frank Perdue's chicken breasts at Winn Dixie. What saved the next week was that I knew better than to worry that our newly vegetarian menu was going to be permanent.

Bottom line: if you don't have the heart to take life to sustain life, then you need to embrace beans, rice, fruits, and vegetables. That's what Pollan means by a transparent meal, by knowing "the true price of everything [you are] eating." That's not knowledge everyone can live with and continue to eat the way they do now. It's why our family's grocery bill is higher than most. Because I've read Fast Food Nation and Deadly Feasts, and I've lived near turkey and pork processing plants, and I prefer not to be a party to that brutality so far as I can afford not to be. There are alternatives other than giving up meat, but as Pollan points out in that NY Times article, "real" food isn't cheap.

And just for the record, I'm okay with the people who condemn me for my rare hunting trips, provided they live their convictions. I can respect that. But no casting stones at the hunter if your glass freezer contains meat you wouldn't be willing to kill yourself. Beams and motes, brother.