Friday, October 16, 2009

The Food Issue

On Sunday, the NY Times Magazine released its annual Food Issue.  I finally got around to reading some of the articles in the online version and I'm very glad that I did.  I wanted to post and comment on one of the articles that resonated with me.  It is not my intent to use this blog as a political platform or a clearinghouse of news articles, but since I love food and all that it's preparation entails, I cannot help but discuss where food comes from.  Eating is one of the most basic human necessities and the fact that it is often politicized is sad to me.  From my point of view, all people benefit when they ask themselves, "where did my dinner come from and how was it grown or raised?".  With that disclaimer out of the way, I hope you find time to check out the articles and think a little more about where your dinner came from. 

Against Meat is a wonderfully written piece by Jonathan Safran Foer about why he gave up eating meat.  Foer speaks to connections between family, food, and memory.  His issues with meat speak directly to mine!  Since I have never considered myself a true vegetarian, I often have trouble explaining my views around meat--it has nothing to do with my politics and it's not as simple as saying "I feel bad for animals" or saying "I'm an animal lover".  I appreciated this article because Foer brings to light how important, and difficult, it is to force ourselves to carry our morals over into the kitchen.

For me, the process of becoming what some of my friends refer to as a "kitchen vegetarian" (meaning I don't usually cook meat or eat it at home) has been a long one.  After graduating from college, I considered myself a lover of all things meat but I found myself living in intentional community in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps with a very small stipend.  Due to limited resources, my community rarely purchased meat.  Oh how the lack of lunch meats and ground beef left me sad!  Yet over time I got used to eating less meat and I began to learn more about agribusiness; I starting wondering where my food came from and making the connection between plate and farm.  As the years passed and I continued to educate myself, I stopped buying meat almost altogether, although I still buy it occasionally when I am at a greenmarket like the one in Union Square and I can talk to the farmer who raised the animal.  But things are not always black and white: when a friend makes meat for dinner, I will usually eat it.  I also tend to be loosey goosey about my meat rules if I am eating at a nice restaurant, although I'm trying to work on that.  Things get really tricky though with family and when the holidays come around.  For as Foer writes in the passage below, food is very strongly tied to cultural memory. 
Changing what we eat and letting tastes fade from memory create a kind of cultural loss, a forgetting. But perhaps this kind of forgetfulness is worth accepting — even worth cultivating (forgetting, too, can be cultivated). To remember my values, I need to lose certain tastes and find other handles for the memories that they once helped me carry.
I have incredible family memories surrounding meat.  On cold winter days my Mom would make beef stew with dumplings and when she lifted the lid, the steam rising off the pot was so deliciously fragrant!  It was hot enough to heat our bellies and the house.  Although I miss beef stew, my Mom has begun making vegetarian chili that is also warm and beautifully fragrant.  Ok, so what about Thanksgiving without turkey?  For a few years I struggled very much with that one--turkey is inextricably tied to the holiday but factory farmed turkeys live a horrific life and my family has never bought a small farm, happy life turkey.  Finally last year I stuck to my guns and didn't eat turkey for the first time.  Honestly, I didn't miss it!  I realized that the other foods were enough.  It felt so good sticking to my guns and allowing my everyday life to flow into my family's holiday table.  And, it is very true that when you stop eating as much meat, you develop new tastes and let go of old ones.

In case you don't have time to read Foer's article, here is a snippet of his reason for being vegetarian that closely mirrors my reason for being a kitchen vegetarian:
According to an analysis of U.S.D.A. data by the advocacy group Farm Forward, factory farms now produce more than 99 percent of the animals eaten in this country. And despite labels that suggest otherwise, genuine alternatives — which do exist, and make many of the ethical questions about meat moot — are very difficult for even an educated eater to find. I don’t have the ability to do so with regularity and confidence. (“Free range,” “cage free,” “natural” and “organic” are nearly meaningless when it comes to animal welfare.)
According to reports by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. and others, factory farming has made animal agriculture the No. 1 contributor to global warming (it is significantly more destructive than transportation alone), and one of the Top 2 or 3 causes of all of the most serious environmental problems, both global and local: air and water pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity. . . . Eating factory-farmed animals — which is to say virtually every piece of meat sold in supermarkets and prepared in restaurants — is almost certainly the single worst thing that humans do to the environment.

So, there you go.  A case against meat I suppose--but more so a case for understanding our food supply and learning about your place in it.  


  1. Gretch, this totally resonates with me... especially the family traditions associated with meat. What happens when you let these go??? My family sometimes feels I have turned my back on my childhood which is a sad bit of info to sit with. So, I am still mostly vegetarian but had to give in on holiday meats so as to keep peace with family tradition. Thanks for sharing! Peace to you! - Julie

  2. I love this one, Gretch... what are we going to do about the Turkey for TG? Think we can get one from a greenmarket???

  3. Wow Gretchen what a great post. I have an uncomfortable relationship with meat, when I meet my husband I was veg but then found myself cooking meat for him and I also kind of followed the policy of not making a big deal out of being veg with other people so I would eat what ever was served, still do in fact. And like you I have an absolute aversion to factory farmed meat and try to avoid it wherever I can, I know what just what you mean about the problem with labelling. I come from a farming family and I respect the decision of people to eat meat I just think we should all know where and how it is produced and consider the possibility that if you are not prepared to be resonsible for the process and the slaughter of an animal you consider the alternatives. I know traditional style farmers who are also repulsed by the modern practice of factory farming and now that the enivromental factor comes into it, it brings the whole pracitce into question on so many levels. I have really enjoyed reading your views.