Monthly Archives: April 2012

The ethics of eating meat

My friend Kate and I submitted the following essay to the New York Times’s “Tell Us Why it’s Ethical to Eat Meat” contest. We didn’t win, but hey, that’s what blogs are for.

Cross-posted at Kate’s new blog about the food movement, Begin with a Beet. Go check it out. Seriously.

In posing the question, “Why is eating meat ethical?” the New York Times has asked us to divorce the ethics of eating meat from its context. With all due respect, it’s not that simple.

Here’s a real-world example: in rural Nicaragua, a middle-aged couple, Lourdes and Jose, raise chickens in their backyard. The butter-colored chicks live in a spacious coop. As they grow older, they are given free rein of the yard. And when they are fully-feathered and plump, they are killed, plucked, butchered and sold to the neighbors.

This is not a money-making enterprise; Lourdes and Jose charge just enough to offset the costs of buying and raising the chicks. It is instead a response to a need. The members of this community are not starving, but neither are they wealthy. They cannot afford the retail price of meat, limiting them to rice, beans and cheese as their daily sources of protein. Not a terrible fate, but a monotonous and nutritionally limited one. The chicken-raising enterprise is a way for Lourdes and Jose to make sure that their friends and neighbors can lead well-nourished, balanced lives.

When we question the ethics of meat, Lourdes and Jose are just as much a part of the conversation as we are. Whether sitting in privilege in the United States, or just making ends meet in a rural barrio, the ethical shape of eating meat is the same. Lourdes and Jose have made an ethical choice; what about it makes it ethical?

A strict non-meat eater might regard this story with suspicion. You are describing life in a poor country, they might say, and how does that apply to us? In the United States, where most people interact with chickens in the form of a saran-wrapped, battery-caged broiler from the supermarket, it makes sense to regard the death of animals for human consumption as ethically suspect.

And there’s the rub. There is nothing invalid about this perspective and its consequent moral conclusions. But there is also nothing wrong with Lourdes and Jose’s perspective: for them, the connection between chickens and humans is based on explicit respect and mutual dependence. To imply that one of these perspectives is superior to the other betrays an arrogance unbecoming any ethical argument worth its salt.

Everywhere in the world, organisms live and die together. This cycle is non-negotiable. Regardless of human ethical convictions, we all get it in the end. Life’s dinner table plays host to all of Earth’s plants and animals, uniting humans with the species we have bred for eating. It’s an uneasy meeting that tests our empathy, especially given the developed world’s growing penchant for treating animals as commodities rather than mess mates. And it gives the lie to the notion that one pattern of eating meat–or choosing not to–is applicable in every situation. Eating meat is inherently an ethical act, because it is part and parcel of the interconnectedness that moves us to treat animals well in the first place.

The fact is, we humans eat meat in the real world, a messy landscape brimming with life and replete with imperfection. If we are to address the ethics of this essential act, we cannot cloister ourselves in a vacuum of theory and expect our conclusions to have bearing on our real-life experiences, or those of the animals we may eat. There is no justice or morality in playing this God-trick. Our ethical choices should instead acknowledge the seat we hold at table. From there, we have a much clearer view of what we are eating, and why.

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Tom yum

I have the flu. Third time this year I’ve been sick.

Sad trombone.

So, for the third time this year, I made a powerful, brothy soup to combat the bug. This time my weapon of choice was tom yum, or Thai hot and sour soup. It’s fiery, sharp, and a little bit sweet–terrific stuff, even if you’re the picture of health.

Where Chinese-style hot and sour soup uses white pepper and vinegar, tom yum gets its punch from red chili and a trio of tart aromatics: kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and lime juice. Some recipes add a small amount of sugar, which I think works well to offset the aggressiveness of the other flavors.

My favorite Thai restaurant does a simple vegetable tom yum that I love: straw mushrooms and baby corn in a lipstick-red broth, topped with cilantro sprigs. I tried to duplicate that here, with some degree of success. Working from this base recipe, you could include your favorite soup vegetables–carrots, broccoli and cabbage work beautifully–or add chicken or shrimp for a more substantial meal.

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Girls

So I stayed home from work sick today. And in an effort to do something productive, I watched the pilot episode of “Girls.”

I wanted to like it. I did. This is a show about young women my age, who were born on the same floor of the socioeconomic skyscraper as me, trying to make their way in an economic climate and an expensive metropolitan area that feel very familiar. Sub in San Francisco for New York, and I’m very nearly there.

But I just can’t with this show. I can’t.

There are so many reasons why, and many of them have already been beautifully articulated elsewhere: the navel-gazing, the stilted writing, the breathtaking entitlement and reflexive brattiness of the main character, the fact that there are no non-privileged characters or people of color in this show’s version of New York City. But there’s something else, something that makes me squirm, that hasn’t really been discussed.

There’s been a whole lot of hullabaloo about this show being groundbreaking for showcasing a character who is “normal-looking” and not conventionally attractive. So why are all the other actresses on the show thin and feminine and TV-trope-familiar? Why is she the only one?

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Meaty red bean and kale soup with cornbread croutons

This was the kind of meal I wish I made more often.

My friend Kate joined me at Sam’s apartment on Saturday night. Our dinner was grounded in the remnants of other meals: a pair of sturdy goat bones left over from a roast at Marin Sun Farms, and a few wedges of week-old cornbread. We had a pound of red beans and a bunch of kale, a can of tomatoes and a bottle of good wine. From there it was a long and loving spin into soup: the bones became a stock, rich and animal-smelling, and the stock became the cooking liquid for the beans. We went grabbing through the kitchen for odds and ends to nestle into the soup pot–fresh thyme, whole allspice, the rind from a gargantuan wedge of Parmesan–and then set the whole thing simmering.

Sam pointed out that the soup smelled an awful lot like pizza. He wasn’t wrong.

When the beans were half-done, we nestled in an impossible quantity of kale shards and let them wilt and turn silky in the soup. Then we cut the Styrofoam-cornbread into cubes, tossed them with olive oil, and baked them until they turned into the world’s most divine croutons: golden-crisp on the outside, buttery and soft on the inside.

This was the kind of meal I wish I made more often. While the soup simmered and the croutons baked, the three of us drank wine a little too quickly and had long-ranging conversations about ethical theory and science fiction and the bizarre historical artifact that is the Gold Standard. Then we ate soup, thick warm-blanket soup with pillowy croutons on top, and for a while all the conversation was tucked off to the side in favor of “mmms” and “ahhhhs” and sighs of contentment. Because that’s what a good soup does: it gets you talking while it’s cooking, and shuts you up while you’re eating.

This is the kind of cooking that keeps me going. Cooking with people, with wine, with bits and drabs of other delicious meals, is quite possibly the best thing there is.

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Matzo crack

This is Murphy.

Murphy is my aunt’s partner’s dog. He’s a little canine gentleman through and through–charming and well-mannered, without the intense neediness most dogs his size seem to have. As my aunt says, “He’s a good little Irish boy.” But Murphy has one odd, very un-Irish weakness.

Matzo.

I highly doubt I will ever love anything as much as this dog loves matzo. Where other dogs will do tricks for doggy treats, Murphy will do tricks for matzo. If he sees a matzo box, he’ll start showing off even before he’s asked, because he knows there is salty crunchy goodness in his immediate future.

But whereas Murphy can’t get enough matzo, some of us humans–especially those who have to live on it for a week every spring–aren’t so enamored. So, here is a very un-Murphy-safe way to make matzo irresistible: by smothering it in toffee and then smothering the toffee in chocolate.

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Letting the terrorists win

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted. Frankly, I’m overwhelmed.

Every day, every paper, every broadcast, every news site, brings a new and upsetting wrinkle to the “debate” over women’s health and reproductive rights. And yes, that’s “debate” in scare quotes: this isn’t a debate, it’s a temper tantrum. It’s is the farthest thing from a reasoned push-pull of wits that I’ve seen since I worked at a preschool. The lies are getting bigger, the screams louder, the talkers themselves more brazen and unapologetic. The extreme fringe–people who would hesitate to condemn outright acts of violence against women and those who care for them–are the ones driving the discussion. The fate of women across the country is being used as a distraction, a sop thrown to the wingnuts.

I am not a sop to be thrown. And I’m so, so tired of this.

My jaw is sore from gritting my teeth. I find myself wanting to curl my knees to my chest, protectively over my uterus, and just go blank. I’m sick of screaming to myself, the same disconsolate wordless wail. It would be so much easier to stop thinking about all of this, to convince myself quietly that the good guys will win in the end, to retreat back into my daily business and not let all of this mishagas get to me so damn much.

But I’m afraid that if I do that, the terrorists will win.

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