"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it—this is knowledge." (from The Analects of Confucius)

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Marching to a Different Beet: Eating and Ethics

“I'm not convinced we'll become a nation where man, beast, and vegetable live in exquisite natural harmony. That is not the American way,” so concludes Alan Richman in “Eat No Evil” in the July issue of GQ. Earlier this year the renown food journalist left his skepticism of the ethical food movement behind and headed out across the country to gain a firsthand understanding of the subject, not from food philosophers like Michael Pollan but from “the artisans,” as he calls them, “the people who labor to raise, grow, prepare, and eat food that meets whatever…definition of ethical eating they have embraced.”

Richman explains that he's "always eaten exclusively for taste, which seemed like a good plan until now." On his quest to understand why that may not be the best plan, he visits farmers, restaurateurs, chefs, and other highly mindful foodies that are at the forefront of food ethics. By the end of his month-long quest, a journey that included vegetable fields in Florida and Maine, upscale restaurants in New York City, and barnyards and pastures in Massachusetts, Michigan, and North Carolina (where there was also a barbecue joint that serves local tofu), Richman was not any more hopeful that Americans can effect the profound shift it would take to implement real change in the way we eat. But he was definitely more enlightened. And he was impressed, particularly with the people who dedicate their lives to raising food in ways that they deem more ethical: “Farmers are, literally, America's unwashed nobility.”

Synthesizing his cynicism with a realistic approach to the way so many of us eat, Richman is not afraid to place himself in the midst of the ethics maelstrom. And it’s one thing to pause and relent that, indeed, vegetables (preferably locally grown ones) absolutely need to be more than “insignificant commodities,” which he does do. But it’s another to take on the more complicated, emotionally fueled topic of meat-eating. He is both conflicted and frank:
I did not require tutoring in the shame of "commodity meat," animals raised inhumanely on an industrial scale so that consumers might dine rapaciously and crassly while simultaneously saving a few dollars at home, even more in restaurants. I have nothing but contempt for those who eat this way; unfortunately, I have trouble separating myself from those who do. At least I do not feel self-satisfied and manly when ripping into a blood-rare porterhouse with a carved-stag-bone-handled knife. I give myself credit: I know I am morally wrong whenever I yield to the temptation of commodity meat….
We Americans prefer not knowing that the food we eat had a life. That way we don't have to face the awful truth—that the food we eat had to die.
Alice Waters
Richman does give voice to ethical food movement optimists such as Alice Waters, the first lady of ethical eating, and owner of famed Chez Panisse. She responds to Richman’s doubts about the nation turning its food attitudes around by saying this: “There’s only one way. Go into the schools and teach our children very, very young. Begin in kindergarten, before they develop their addiction to salt, sugar, and fast food.” Hard to argue with this strategy at first blush, though you have to wince when imagining how it would ever be possible in today’s everything-is-political environment. (Translation: We are not a bright people.)

Want to hear more on the subject of ethical eating from Richman himself? Please head to RadioWest for an excellent interview.

Based on Richman’s article and the RadioWest interview, here are a few morsels to chew on:

The ethical food movement has many back-to-the-land elements in it, though this wave of back-to-the-landers, as opposed to those in the 60s and 70s, is smarter and more pragmatic, interested more in thrift and mindful living than anti-establishment rebellion.

An analysis of the ethical food movement shines a rather unflattering light on “organic.” Organic foods (and the Whole Foods chain in particular) come out quite bruised in Richman’s article:
I'm convinced that the majority of organic products sold in chain supermarkets are a waste—their only unequivocal virtue is that workers who pick them are saved from breathing inorganic weed killers….Supermarket organic is not the quick fix, the easy ethical solution, that so many shoppers desire, not when you don't know how the product was grown or how long it's been in transit."
At the heart of ethical eating is an emphasis on eating local, which by extension means eating seasonally, which is essentially what homo sapiens have been doing up until less than a hundred years ago. Simply taking a moment to think about where the food we eat comes from can’t hurt.

To the extent that any of us wrestle with the challenges of ethical eating, it is best to avoid an all-or-nothing attitude and aim for simple progress rather than some culinary utopia, a middle ground that balances what nutritionist Marion Nestle calls “the tension between convenience and ethics.”

Ethical eating takes in a lot more than what ultimately is sitting on your plate. Americans are shocked at produce prices and won’t tolerate “expensive” meat. Okay, so what about the workers (yes, many of them immigrants) in those industrial fields and mega-slaughtering plants (and restaurant kitchens)? What about their wages and health insurance (or lack thereof), for example? Eberhard Muller, owner of Satur Farms (featured prominently in Richman’s article) has this to say: “If we would charge the proper price for food, farming would be a job Americans would do.”

Finally, check out Richman’s lighter take on the topic, his “10 Commandments of Ethical Eating.”

As for me, I’m headed to the kitchen with a head full of thoughts. Hungry yet hopeful.