Monday, January 10, 2011

Seven Fishes and The Ethics of Vegetarianism

Every Christmas Eve a friend of mine has a "seven fishes" dinner. This year was no different, but with one change. Since last Christmas the mate and I have been off meat and fish. We are not fanatical or self-advertising about it. We eat meat if it is served to us or if we have a craving. But overall, for about a year, we have eaten little meat. Since last December, I haven't cooked meat (maybe once this summer for a cookout or something).

Why no meat? Like all other white American women of a certain class and culture, I have dabbled in vegetarianism throughout my adult life. Much of this vegetarianism was driven by a desire for peer inclusion or for silly body-thin ambitions.

But, when I became the foodie that makes up one half of my Skeptical Foodie moniker, I went to meat in a big way. At first, since my foodism was born out of research on the 1970s natural food movement, my explorations were vegetable based. But later when I dug deeply into contemporary food culture, I went the way of meat--really for the first time since my childhood when meat was regular family fare. This is not to say that I was roasting big hunks of animal or eating chops on any kind of regular basis. But my culinary experimentations took me to braising chicken and lamb shanks, stewing up Beouf Bourguignon, and making fish tacos.

Unfortunately my expansion coincided with my mate's recoil from carnivorism. He had tried for a couple of years to get me to fully abandon animal flesh, but not with a lot of success, until last year when he laid out the details of his troubles. He teaches an ethics course every spring semester and devotes one segment of the course to the consideration of vegetarianism via Peter Singer's Animal Liberation. So every spring he has to confront his own relationship with the ethics of meat eating. Many of his students turned vegetarian or vegan after taking this course. But he remained on the borderland of meat and veg.

His achilles heel was me. I am the cook in our house, very much by choice. And he is not, very much by choice. If I wouldn't give up the meat, he couldn't give up the meat. Sure I hear folks thinking, well if it was so important to him, why didn't he learn to cook. But really, the food I make is generally pretty good. I like to do this work. So why would he rock that excellent boat. Hot interesting food made regularly, if I had that deal, I wouldn't screw with it.

Somehow last December, he turned me. We went over the fine details of Singer's argument, much of which I knew but hadn't honestly considered. And I came to the realization that I had no grounds on which to continue meat-eating, except for desire and taste. Taking into account the conditions under which most meat is produced, I couldn't continue to justify my meat eatings. So I gave it up, reluctanlty, sadly, but I gave it up.

Like I, before this new food regime, most people do not like to be challenged about their meat eating. I found this out when teaching Singer's work in a food history course last spring. People like to say that meating eating is in human nature, or it is evolutionarily justified (humans have been eating this way forever, that's why they survived several millenia or why they have meat eating teeth) or that health necessitates it.

A recent end-round argument, forwarded by Michael Pollan and others, states that if one kills an animal with one's own hands or gets meat from an upstanding local farmer, one is not implicated in ethical crimes inherent to mass meat production and consumption. I am not satisfied with these new outs. In the end, one is killing another being not for survival, but for taste and for pleasure. I am all for pleasurable tastes, by gosh I spend most of my waking hours considering tastes and the pleasures of the palate. But I can't sit comfortably with the idea of killing another being because I like and miss the taste of meat.

Folks also like to go to "what if" scenarios, when arguing for meat eating. "So you're saying that Nepalese shepards who only have access to lamb meat and wild greens should only eat the greens, and die!" Viola! Isn't ethical vegetarianism rigid and goofy and elitist? But in reality, my vegetable convictions are only based on the choices that are before me, in 21st century, ex-urban America. And holy shit, do I have some choices, lots of food options. So, again, why choose meat?

Oh yea, folks also like to argue that animals don't have consciousness or don't feel pain in the same manner as humans. That they don't have a concept of self or of the future, so they don't have the same dread of death or plans for the future. Or they don't know what's coming, so it's okay because they are oblivious to their impending demise and then they're dead. So what's the big deal? That one doesn't fly for me for obvious reasons. Does a being have to be exactly human to be warranted the right to be alive?

Don't get me wrong, I know humans use animals for their purposes, they always have. If I eat eggs and cheese, which I most adamantly do, that animal is being forced to produce for my benefit only. Thus veganism is really the only valid position for an animal rights advocate. I'm not there yet. I'm still imperfect. And anyway, I feel there is a difference between killing, ending a life, and using a life. Hmm... that's starting to sound a bit flimsy, I know it. Ok let's move on.

Back to the Seven Fishes dinner. I originally assumed that I would not be eating fish at this dinner or maybe only a little. But my husband reminded me of his, what I will call, "manners and community before ethical purity" rule. The rule goes like this. When someone makes you food, you eat it. If you are a vegetarian eat your mother's meatballs, eat a burger at your friend's bar-b-que. If there aren't other options, just eat, don't make a fuss. And when this happens, enjoy the free ride away from vegetable world.

I like this rule and I like my husband for having it. It does not put my private decision, based on very private and thoughtful considerations, in the face of my host. It doesn't require that he/she recognize my food quirks and curiosities. It makes me a gracious visitor, not a proselytizer or a bore.

I don't love being a vegetarian. I wish I could think my way back to meat. But I don't think I can. And fish, forget about it, the state of fish life is a mess.

I don't feel like joining any vegetarian clubs or cliches. I don't subscribe to vegetarian food mags, cause I don't trust vegetarian cooks. Any surprise that the Skeptical Foodie is a Skeptical Vegetarian?

The Seven Fishes feast was delicious: Crab Dip, Shrimp and Mango salad, Fish Stew Crawfish Etoufee. Holy Moly. I can't wait until next year.