Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Edible Complex


The cavalcade of holiday reruns continues with a piece that I have a feeling is going to become something of a Thanksgiving tradition around here (along with the "Poor Kiwi" short, which will run tomorrow as usual).

"Feast of Burden" (Originally Published, 11.25.09)

Last month while in Washington D.C., I ate at a place downtown called Founding Farmers. If you live in the D.C. Metro area you're probably, at the very least, familiar with the restaurant and if you'd like I can give you a minute to stop salivating. Yeah, it's that good.

Founding Farmers's claim to fame is that it's a certified "green" restaurant, which means that in addition to closely monitoring its carbon output in an effort to reduce the strain on the environment, the food it buys and serves comes only from family farms, ranches and fisheries. Self-proclaimed foodies will recognize this distinction given that the green-market trend has been all the rage over the past couple of years; a lot of America's most famous chefs have jumped on top of the nearest tables to shout to the masses about their decision to forgo large farms in favor of nothing but locally grown product.

So do all those steps taken to promote sustainability make a difference in the taste of the food at at place like, say, Founding Farmers? Honestly, I have no idea. The meal I had was spectacular and it's always nice to know that while I'm enjoying it I'm also behaving responsibly -- given that I'm probably having a couple of drinks and will almost surely not be behaving responsibly later in the evening. But considering the fact that high-end restaurants almost always seek out the best and freshest ingredients anyway -- whether they're locally farmed or not -- does the extra flair of going green-market really show on the plate? I'm not talking overall quality or various health considerations here -- just taste.

I bring this up because with Thanksgiving being tomorrow, I want to throw a question out there: Do you really care where your food comes from?

Before you answer, know that I don't mean would you just shrug it off if you knew that Upton Sinclair's severed right leg had been hefted into a meat grinder somewhere and then sprinkled over your Campbell's Minestrone. I mean, if you know that the food you buy at the grocery store or order at the local TGI Friday's has passed USDA inspection -- and it tastes good to you -- do you spend a lot of time worrying about the conditions in which it was grown, farmed or raised?

Be honest.

In case you haven't heard, the "publicity sluts" at PETA -- the words of the group's, ahem, "controversial" leader Ingrid Newkirk, not mine -- are once again at war with NBC. You may remember that earlier this year the network refused to air an ad during the Super Bowl that featured girls in lingerie nearly pleasuring themselves with vegetables; the tag line of the thing was "Studies Show Vegetarians Have Better Sex." (For the record, I haven't seen these studies myself.) Now PETA's been shot down again by the NBC suits, this time over an ad the group had hoped to air during -- wait for it -- the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. The commercial opens with a family gathering for Thanksgiving dinner, but when the little girl at the table is asked to say grace, she thanks God for the turkey, which came from a farm "where they pack turkeys into dark little sheds for their whole lives, where they burn their feathers off while they're still alive," and where the turkeys "get kicked around like a football by people who think it's fun to stomp on their little turkey heads." The girl then gives special thanks "for all the chemicals and dirt and poop that's in the turkey we're about to eat."

What a precocious little scamp, that kid. I know somebody who won't mind being sent to her room without supper.

Obviously, NBC standards and practices brought the ax down on the ad like it was the soft flesh of a turkey's neck. Even more obviously, it doesn't matter one bit -- PETA never really intended to get the thing on the air anyway. As far as the group is concerned, the controversy over once again having a commercial banned from network television is as valuable in pushing its message as actually getting it broadcast. Although it admittedly would've been entertaining to watch the fireworks had an unsuspecting America suddenly seen its parade -- and its Thanksgiving preparations -- interrupted by Little Miss Turkey Shop of Horrors.

Was NBC right to shoot down the ad? Yeah, actually -- it was. It's rare that I choose decorum over a little good-natured subversion, but even I'm capable of accepting that there really is a time and a place for everything. You don't beat the viewers of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, many of whom are children, over the head with incendiary political messages -- particularly not ones that deal in turkey feces. First of all, if your supposed goal is to stop people from eating turkey on Thanksgiving then the ad's completely ineffective anyway, given that there isn't a soul out there who's going to throw out his or her entire meal at 10am on Thanksgiving morning -- even if the kids are now crying at the thought of little turkey heads being crushed underfoot. If PETA's intention were really to make a difference on Thanksgiving day, the ad would've been running for weeks now.

Beyond that, though, the ad itself is somewhat disingenuous -- which isn't a surprise if you know anything at all about PETA. It ends with the tagline "Go Vegan," which essentially means that entreaties made to viewers to consider their own health when they sit down for dinner -- you know, all those chemicals and dirt and poop -- are nothing but, pardon the pun, red herrings. Vegans generally don't choose not to eat animal products out of a concern for their own well-being; they do it out of a concern for the animal's. It would've been one thing if PETA had been pushing vegetarianism; an argument can be made there that eating vegetables is, for the most part, less dangerous in the long run than eating red meat, or even chicken or turkey, these days. But the reality is that PETA doesn't really give a crap about you, or your family for that matter -- all it cares about is the animal you want to have for dinner. PETA doesn't want your Thanksgiving turkey to be treated more humanely in the days and months leading up to you eating it -- it doesn't want you eating it at all.

There's been a lot of debate recently over a new book called, pointedly, Eating Animals, by entirely too pretentious best-selling author Jonathan Safran Foer. In it, Foer retreads ground already well-broken-in by guys like Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, and Michael Pollan, who wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma. The main gist of Eating Animals is that the industrial agribusiness system in this country -- the big "factory farm" as we know it -- is slowly poisoning both us and the environment. Foer makes plenty of points worth giving serious consideration to -- admittedly, it's a daunting notion to entirely trust a profit-based leviathan like the American factory farm industry with the food we put into our bodies -- but it should surprise no one that he approached the material with a conclusion already well in mind and is hamstrung by his own sanctimony and desire to push a personal agenda. Still, that's not stopping some of the usual suspects within the always delightful liberal intelligentsia from glomming onto Foer and his findings; after all, if you happen to agree with his agenda, why wouldn't you?

Environmental activist Laurie David, who produced Al Gore's Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, took to the pages of the Huffington Post a few days ago to slam a write-up of Eating Animals (a book she calls a "game-changer") by the New York Times. David was furious that the author of the book review had the temerity to ask a question that rightly gets leveled at PETA and animal rights activists quite a bit -- namely, why when there are people who are starving around the world, people who could ostensibly be fed by large farms, should anyone really worry about the plight of an animal stuck in a cage that's too small? David's evisceration of the writer was based around an argument that really caught my attention. Her point: Caring is not a zero-sum game. According to David, there's room to care for both the humans suffering from hunger -- and other various tragedies and crises for that matter -- and the animals suffering in factory farms.

Except there isn't -- not for everyone.

And here's where I answer my own question from earlier: No, I just don't have the time or the inclination to concern myself with how the animals I eat are treated.

I of course don't want to see animals tortured needlessly, but as heartless as this may sound I think I'm like a lot of Americans when I say that I actually do have only a limited reservoir of empathy and compassion and I've learned to personally prioritize the way in which it's dispensed. The reason for this isn't so much that I honestly just don't give a damn, it's that I understand that if you let every injustice claw at your insides you eventually lose the ability to function. Call this a cop-out or a defense mechanism or what have you, I simply have more pressing issues to concern myself with than whether the bacon I ate for breakfast was comfortable up until its untimely death. Once again this will sound awful, but as long as you're not slaughtering the thing in my front yard, I'm good. I eat meat -- and turkey and chicken and fish and just about anything else -- because I enjoy it. I'm an adventurous eater and always have been. As Anthony Bourdain famously said, "My body isn't a temple, it's an amusement park."

This way of thinking is also very likely the reason that I don't spend too much time dwelling on just what might be in the food that I eat. I actually do eat quite healthy these days, but not healthy to the point where I pick apart every little thing to ensure that it's never been near a chemical or pumped with an occasional preservative. Admittedly, both Jayne and I are much more careful about what we feed Inara, but she still eats animal products and neither of us lets it paralyze us with fear or make us run screaming into the streets at the horror of a cow being bled out.

Why? Because I believe that a person's wants and needs are more important than the well-being of cattle. Call me a savage -- that's just the way it is.

But that's obviously not the way PETA thinks. In the eyes of PETA and Ingrid Newkirk -- who's been called everything from a demagogic militant to a full-on sociopath, with good reason -- the safety of an animal, any animal, is not only as valuable as the wants and needs of a human being; it's just as important as the very life of that human being. Newkirk after all is the same woman who once wrote Yassir Arafat to plead with him to stop using donkeys in suicide bombing attacks (while ignoring the people he was killing); she's the same person who backs the terrorist Animal Liberation Front in its campaign to free research animals that save human lives every single day; the same woman who wants to ban seeing-eye dogs; the person who wrote to Al Gore to lecture him on the fact that he eats meat, which she claims is antithetical to caring for the environment; the one who says fish should be called "sea kittens."

The woman who believes, "The smallest form of life, even an ant or a clam, is equal to a human being."

This is the kind of lunacy Ingrid Newkirk espouses and acts on day after day after day.

But here's the thing: Ingrid Newkirk may be completely off her rocker, but she's by no means stupid. She has to know that her methods, tactics and beliefs will do little more than rally millions to stand not simply against her cause but vehemently against it. Newkirk and PETA don't just antagonize those you would think they're hoping to win over -- they create an army of people who out-and-out hate them. Trying to hit America in the face with turkey torture during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade is not what you'd call a good P.R. strategy. It's a great way to make people despise you and your cause -- which doesn't save one single animal. All it does is feed your gargantuan ego and your need to, literally and figuratively, stir the pot. It seems as if these people aren't activists so much as narcissists -- as if theirs is at times an entirely self-indulgent endeavor.

That's too bad, because you would think that the plight of defenseless animals would be an easy sell -- and, yes, a necessary one.

Although I've already admitted that I have the ability to put that plight out of my mind and just enjoy my meal, which I'm sure is why PETA is hoping to force me and millions of others to confront the realities of the modern American food chain.

The thing is, it still won't change my mind about my Thanksgiving dinner or anything else I choose to eat.

And I doubt I'm the only one who feels that way.

1 comment:

frogman1975 said...

It does matter to me. I'll be having my first vegan Thanksgiving this year. Not because I'm not still an omnivore, but because my girlfriend is a vegan and the last couple of years I've made a turkey and then ended up feeding most of it to the cats or throwing it out.

As I said, my girlfriend is vegan (because she thinks factory farming is cruel and unsustainable), and I try to limit my meat consumption to farmer's market purchases (I like looking into the eye of the person who raised and butchered my meat).

She's never had a problem with me making a turkey (we both agree that unless you could kill and butcher an animal, you shouldn't eat meat; she can't and hasn't, I can, have, and would), but it just seems wasteful this year without our usual cadre of omnivorous guests.

So, yeah, we do care. It does matter to us. But we both agree that PeTA is ridiculous and does more harm than good.