My passion for and appreciation of high-quality, artfully crafted food began at an early age. Perched upon a stool in order to reach the countertop at which my mother diced farmers-market-fresh vegetables and minced bright green herbs grown right outside our back door before adding them to an olive-oiled soup pot to yield a satisfying sizzling noise, my 7-year-old self learned the extremely basic skills of cooking with unprocessed ingredients. Peering into the wood-burning oven, diligently tended by an old Italian man named Peppino who had slaved over an enourmous New Year’s meal in a farmhouse void of electricity since sunrise, the 9-year-old iteration of myself began to understand the notion of a meal as providing more than mere sustenance. Seated beside my aunt and parents at a long butcher paper-lined marble table in the middle of a wine cellar in Assisi, a 13-year-old me sniffed (but opted not to taste) the subtle aromatic nuances of a variety of wines, each paired with an appetizer featuring housemade fruit spreads, crusty breads, and cheeses (obviously, I had not yet become vegan).
By the eighth grade, Food Network had become my television channel of choice. Alton Brown and the Iron Chefs, my new heroes, imbued my psyche with aspirations of kneading the perfect pie crust, rolling out the perfect pasta dough, stocking the perfect spice pantry, and basting the perfectly moist turkey for Thanksgiving (ugh). Encasing a cod in a dome of sea salt and whipping impeccably airy egg whites suddenly seemed integral to my growth as a budding cuisinière, while terms like “foie gras,” “kobe beef,” “bacon fat,” and “sweetbreads” came to denote delicacies sure to cinch a win in any Iron Chef battle. Even if my then-pescatarian self didn’t eat them, she sure could appreciate them.
In my Sophomore year of high school, my interest in the culinary arts shifted from the decadent, technically complex fare of haute cuisine to the style of mainstream “healthy” eating that emphasized more plant-based fare yet still extolled the virtues of Greek yogurt, oily fish, and skim milk. Prompted by my omnipresent desire to source the highest quality, most artisan ingredients to obtain the most gastronomically impressive results, coupled with my newfound enthusiasm for incorporating more fruits and veggies into my diet, I established the ritual of stocking up on organic, locally grown produce at the Dane County Farmers Market every Saturday. In doing so, I introduced myself to a host of lesser known, heirloom vegetable varieties while surrounded by people who enthusiastically shelled out $60 for a 1-oz bag of morel mushrooms. Selecting rainbow-colored tomatoes became an orgasmic endeavor, chatting with farmers about how truly “carroty” their multicolored carrots tasted became commonplace, and any potato without a purple, pink, or golden hue became unfit for purchase. A photo of me carrying three totebags overflowing with fennel, lacinato kale, and chiogga beets could have appeared next to the term “locavore food snob” in the dictionary.
Clearly, I’m no stranger to romanticizing the biologically based process of eating, as so many locavores and proponents of “humanely raised” this-and-that do. I understand, ardently support, and consider myself one of the individuals who choose to combat America’s processed-food-induced health crisis and corrupt agriculture industry by taking charge of their food choices and forming a deeper connection to the origins of what they eat. This notion renders the acts of patronizing farmers markets and buying locally immensely empowering, so that purchasing a head of organic broccoli from Jim the farmer transforms from a necessary measure in ensuring that you and your family won’t starve into a democratic act on the road to social justice, and sitting down to a meal based around that head of broccoli translates to a step in significantly improving our broken food system.
It all sounds pretty darn fine and dandy—supporting the local economy, shouting “screw you!” to big ag, and sustaining yourself on the most superb edible products—until you consider that said products don’t always mean gorgeous fresh produce, but often include a substantial amount of animal exploitation. Ranchers hawking slabs of flesh from cows raised not but 20 miles away set up their farmers market stands right next to those at which I purchase my innocuous salad mix. Market-goers fawn over the logs of herbed goat cheese produced at [insert name of bucolic family farm here]. Restaurant menus that feature local ingredients, which run rampant in my hometown of Madison, WI, seem to highlight the artisan cheeses and grass-fed meats—the only local connection of which is that the commodified animals slaughtered to create them happened to live near Madison—much more prevalently than the truly local fruits and vegetables that depend on Madison’s specific climate and ecosystem to grow and flourish.
Regardless of whether or not animal flesh and secretions produced locally merit the same locavore status as the plants imbued with every aspect of the local land, they most certainly do not contribute to any shift toward a more just society or to the fight against America’s corrupt food system. Considering that most of us agree about the antithetical nature of animal abuse within a just society (would you want to live in a culture that supports the throwing of rabbits out of windows?), I must ask why we continually dismiss these compassionate beliefs and values with the food we consume, whether locally produced or not. Do we think that shopping in a manner that we consider morally sound, in that it supports the local economy, serves as a legitimate excuse to overlook the ethical implications of other aspects of our food choices, such as whether or not a sentient being—who would undoubtedly choose life over slaughter—died merely to satisfy our taste preferences, even though we know that humans can easily thrive on a plant-based diet?
But wait, whoa, hold on a minute—I’m missing the whole point. Don’t people patronize local family farms in rejection and avoidance of the egregious animal abuse inherent on factory farms? Aren’t proponents of “humanely raised” meat shopping and eating in a manner consistent with their moral values, since the animals they consume could spend their days frolicking in verdant pastures rather than wallowing in their own feces? I turn to James McWilliams to eloquently answer these questions:
How, then, can we nurture this belief in the moral worth of animals, so much so that we act on this belief by rejecting factory farms, and then turn around and support an alternative system that raises animals to kill, commodify, and market for food we do not need? I don’t care how big or small the farm is, but when the market tells the farmer that the animal must die to feed us food we don’t need, all welfare considerations for that animal come to a screeching halt. All previous acts of kindness become little more than material for marketing. Never underestimate the similarities between the factory and the alternative farm, nor the power of the human mind to think away the essential similarity. Indeed, these animals that we’re fine eating are killed in the prime of their lives–even before then. Their slaughter is just as painful as is that of a factory farmed animal. Let me be very clear: they do not want to die.
Do we really want to build a new system of animal husbandry on the back of this troubling reality? Even granting that the animals in this system do have a good life, do we want to rebuild our food system on the premise that, just as in factory farming, a human who owns an animal can end that life because there happens to be a market for its flesh and milk? In the end, does this essentially inhumane act confer to an animal any real sense of dignity? Who are we to say we respect an animal and then kill it to sell at a restaurant that will charge a mint because it was humanely raised? Who are we kidding here? I urge everyone to think seriously about this problem, this contradiction.
Second, there’s the problem of inadvertent support of factory farming. In a way, our choice to go alternative might not mean what we think it means. It’s worth considering that the decision to eat happy meat directly reinforces the most fundamental prerequisite for factory farming’s existence: the belief that there’s nothing wrong with eating meat per se. Indeed, supporting the production of happy meat reiterates the belief that it’s perfectly acceptable to eat the flesh of what was once a sentient animal. In many ways, the rhetoric of localism and the bucolic imagery of the free range ideal encourages this perspective. But here’s the crux of the problem: unless eating meat is culturally and morally stigmatized (sort of like smoking is today), factory farms will always remain the dominant mode of meat production. They will always be the default choice for the vast majority of meat consumers. The reason is simple enough. In a capitalistic society, unfettered demand for anything provides the political, economic, and technological incentives for producers to achieve efficiencies of production. He who produces more with less wins. This is great if we’re talking about inanimate widgets. But it’s utterly tragic if we’re talking about animals. We shouldn’t tolerate it. But again, as long as it’s considered ok to eat meat, factory farms will always have the upper hand.
Not only does purchasing the flesh and secretions of animals raised close to your home ultimately support factory farming and animal exploitation, it also propagates an increasingly popular practice that further integrates the desensitization to an normalization of violence into society: backyard slaughter. Surely if buying meat produced just up the road screams of locavorian virtue, then raising and killing animals on one’s own property serves as the next step toward achieving self-sustainable bliss? However, along with promoting patriarchal values and recreating the disease-ridden atmospheres of commercial farms, keeping and slaughtering one’s own animals also familiarizes individuals with acts of violence and introduces slaughter, the largely hidden step in meat production, into their daily lives. In her book, Slaughterhouse, Gail Eisnitz interviews workers employed on factory farms who display incredibly disturbing mental states, due to prolonged exposure to the death and suffering inherent in their jobs, and how it affected the mental and physical wellbeing of themselves and those around them. For example, one worker admits that, “I’ve taken out my job pressure and frustration on the animals, on my wife, […] and on myself, with heavy drinking.” […]with an animal who pisses you off, you don’t just kill it. You […] blow the windpipe, make it drown in its own blood, split its nose […] I would cut its eye out […] and this hog would just scream. One time I […] sliced off the end of a hog’s nose. The hog went crazy, so I took a handful of salt brine and ground it into his nose. Now that hog really went nuts […].” Clearly, killing sentient beings all day long takes an extreme toll upon those forced to do so. Especially in light of the recent Newtown tragedy, can society really afford to support another practice that imbues our lives with violence?
Don’t get me wrong—I don’t seek to reject the Italian upbringing that taught me the unifying nature of a homecooked meal and the impeccable craftsmanship involved in creating artisanal edibles. I don’t doubt the power of individuals choosing to become more intimate with the food they eat by shopping at farmers markets and growing their own fruits and vegetables in order to provoke a beneficial shift in the nature of food production in America. I don’t want to abandon the community that understands when I get a little verklempt over a particularly aromatic cantaloupe. In other words, I don’t think we need to stop romanticizing the food—the fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes—that truly nourishes our bodies, our communities, our environment, and the other-than-human animals with whom we share the world. But we do need, for the sake of the same groups I just listed, to stop romanticizing the notion of “local,” “humane”, “ethical,” “family farmed,” etc. meat that perpetuates the widespread acceptance of eating animals, unintentionally endorses factory farming, and further introduces violence into the lives of American citizens.
Until next time, Ali.