Phoebe from Friends had a great rule about eating: “No food with a face” (with hand-air-swiping-face). I think about this frequently when I consider my eating habits. I would not call myself a vegetarian; I enjoy meat. But I am looking for a way to articulate and act upon my growing conviction that the way we consume meat today is deeply misguided. What I am trying to do is to look my food in the face.
I have tried to be vegetarian in the past, often motivated by a desire to enact my faith more fully in my life (hopefully I’ll follow up soon with a post about food and fasting). In 2007, I fasted meat for 4 weeks. I was thinking about factory-farming and wanted to confront my “need” to eat meat. I was proud of myself for doing it, on the heels of a conference on food justice, but … I got very, very hungry. I do have a nutty metabolism, and I hadn’t figured out how to keep my body happy with just beans and greens. In fact, I am still working on that. So I let the practice slide; perhaps it didn’t yet matter enough to me.
For many years, I ate and bought meat without too much moral hesitation until 2013, when I took a graduate seminar on literature and human-animal relationships. As I thought more carefully about my responsibility to animals, particularly given the value of non-human life, I knew I had to give up meat in some way. The seminar coincided with Lent, and while I observe Lent patchily at best, I committed to a 40 day fast from meat–unless I knew the person who had killed the animal.
That sounds … specific … except that some of my in-laws are hunters. One of the highlights of my father-in-law’s year is going to his favorite spot in the foothills of the Rockies to hunt an elk. Similarly, one of my sisters-in-law and her husband travel rivers as expert fly-fishers, doing what they can to live off the land.
A younger me cringed at the thought of shooting a wild animal–a moving, breathing, free thing–but that same girl consumed cutlets of pork and chicken packaged in styrofoam trays without any misgivings.
Growing up with rather urban/suburban values in Toronto and Hong Kong, I had never encountered people who hunt before spending time with my husband’s family (actually, my young impressions of hunting do look a lot like the average ad in Field & Stream–camo, absurdly large rifles, large booted feet on even larger carcasses). A younger me cringed at the thought of shooting a wild animal–a moving, breathing, free thing–but that same girl consumed cutlets of pork and chicken packaged in styrofoam trays without any misgivings.
So my contradictory perceptions of hunting and factory farming were not rooted in aversion at the thought of killing an animal, though for many this is an essential premise… No, I experienced such inconsistent reactions towards animal-death because of years of living in a food system that copes with the predicament of killing-to-consume by distancing consumers from the process. Thinking about food with a face, with breath and eyes and the ability to see, can make us squirm. Yet rather than come to terms with the discomfort and the responsibility of taking life for food, we distance ourselves from the process with assembly lines and shrink wrap. In effect, we remove the face.
Thinking about food with a face, with breath and eyes and the ability to see, can make us squirm. Yet rather than come to terms with the discomfort and the responsibility of taking life for food, we distance ourselves from the process with assembly lines and shrink wrap.
In effect, we remove the face.
I do not feel adequate in experience or words to advocate for abstaining from meat entirely. And frankly, I have many reasons to continue to eat meat: for enjoyment, for my body, for cultural reasons, and more that I hope to consider in future installments of “Meeting & Meating.” But I do want to advocate for eating meat with the cost in mind. I want to be ready for the actual cost of buying meat from farmers who raise animals with respect, even if it takes a toll on my wallet. And I want to understand the ethical costs of enjoying meat. As I make changes in my habits, I hope and believe that it will not be a burden, but simply a frame of mind that allows me to eat with deeper gratitude.