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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

What's for Dinner? Part I

One of the topics I've been wanting to take on since I started this blog is the matter of diet - what to eat. I've been dancing around it and avoiding it and deciding I'm not quite ready to write it because the topic is just so damn huge. I just can't see any way to handle it in one blog entry. It may not seem so big to you in view of some of the things I've taken on in here, but I've probably spent as much time in my life thinking about what to eat as just about anything, and I have at least thirty years' worth of thoughts on the topic trying to organize themselves out of the spin cycle in my head -- hence the title of the book I just read by Michael Pollan, The Omnivores' Dilemma.

I'm not going to really try to review the book as there are hundreds of good reviews of it out there; thanks for the recommendation, Phyllis. The compelling part of this book is that the author comes at the issue of proper diet not through some didactic premise, i.e. vegetarianism or veganism, but the simple open question of, What am I to eat? Because no matter what your moral commitments are, Man is an omnivore and evolved to be one. If your mind tells you you shouldn't be what you are, then you have the trademark problem of the intellectual being and the moral one, the difficulty of accepting oneself.

I was raised in the sixties, on the standard bland American diet of the time, including meat with every meal. It was in the post-hippie world of the seventies and its accompanying spritual movements that I, like millions of others, became tempted by vegetarianism -- not too surprisingly, as most of those movements came from Hinduism. By the time the low-fat craze of the eighties kicked in, just about everyone except Republicans and the beef industry was equating eating meat with evil and stupidity, and vegetarianism with enlightenment. I have always flirted with vegetarianism, even up to the present day; about the closest I ever got was a couple of years without any meat except seafood (just loved it too much to give it up, and how much empathy can you have for a fish?). There were a lot of positive sides to this; I discovered many good vegetable dishes I never would've otherwise, and some of my favorite cuisines, notably Indian.

I don't think there's really too doubt that a little meat every now and then is healthiest in the human diet. Historically, there's just no doubt that we evolved as omnivores, as evidenced by our teeth, our digestive tracts, and the fact that we were hunter-gathereres living on top of the food chain as chief predator long before we invented agriculture. Saying that we didn't evolve to eat meat is about as delusional, as, well, denying evolution. I first came to face the inescapable dilemma of meat consumption in college, as a philosophy major when I took a class called Animal Rights which included of course Pete Singer's classic of the same name. To cut to the chase, the question is, is it morally acceptable for us to eat animals, despite what our physiology tells us.

I came at the problem from a slightly different perspective from many of my classmates since I was raised on a farm and helped raise cattle, hogs, chickens, the whole population, from an early age. I hunted rabbits, killed them and ate them. I knew that I could be looking at a steer one day and eating him a week later. And of course I had pets, mostly dogs and cats. So I always sort of knew the problem was there. What later came to outrage me (I had no idea at the time how accepting most people are of there own delusional natures) was the people who could only eat meat while thinking it came from the grocery store. My own conclusion at the end of the Animal Rights class in 1978 or so was, if you can kill an animal and eat it, knowing what you are doing, then you should eat meat. If you can't you shouldn't because you can't deal with the reality of your own actions. Pollan's book comes to pretty much the same conclusion on a social level, and today I reassert my beliefs.

It strikes me now that vegetarianism is a form of escapism. We think that we can avoid doing harm by not eating animals. If I may slide around on a mobius strip of meaning, it is definitely doing harm to eat meat but that does not mean we should not do it. The fallacy is in thinking that in failing to eat meat, we do not do harm. Yes, it should bother you that something else has to die that you might live. They would die with or without you. Veganism is the delusion that we can make it OK with animals. We cannot make it OK. Neither our lives nor theirs. Neither our lives nor theirs can ever be free of suffering. That is the fundamental truth of life. Enlightenment is the acceptance of that truth, not the avoidance of it. True enlightenment is the end of the search for enlightenment. From birth to death, it's just like this.

Again, I'm not going to recycle all of Pollan's arguments here. I'm going to come back to some of them thought. This blog is being spit, or rather shit out to get rid of the mental constipation I've been enduring on this topic. But let me make a few more points. First, before you eat that steer, look him in the eye. When you feel sorrow in the killing in the eating, you'll understand a little more about what it means to be alive.

On a more mundane note, Pollan's book is (1) an excellent indictment of the way Big Oil and the military/industrial complex have changed our diet and our lives for the worse, (2) a suggestion of what is better (a return to rational scale and sustainable cycles of food production, and (3) a bunch of worthless personal adventures at the end which teach us nothing. However, his chapter on Animal Liberation is the best concise summary of the subject I've ever seen, with all the proper academics referenced. And I must add at this point that sustainable food production will only be possible after the inevitable wars, famines and plagues of the next century.

Okay, this has been a rapid sequence of disjointed nonsequitors. Maybe now when I come back to the topic I can address its bits and pieces with more coherence and restraint. But dammit, there's just no more intimate relationship we have with our world than what we eat. Sex doesn't even come close. And of course, there's just no way to do it and feel totally good about it unless you're totally insensitive. Such is life.

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