It’s a good thing I’m not a vegetarian.
Exploring the history of a family of butchers would be tough. I’m planning to look into the background of the Kornmehl family profession, to see how it was regarded in Freud’s Vienna, but my research has also spurred me to contemplate contemporary issues surrounding the ingestion of flesh.
Aiming for moderation
Although I was never a vegetarian, I’ve flirted with going meat-free. Okay, it was more of a polite nod than a flirt: I decided to give up eating red meat for a couple of years. Then I started writing a guidebook to San Antonio and Austin and was invited to try a Ruth’s Chris Steak House. I’d never been to any of the restaurants but had heard great things about them. Yes, I could have ordered fish or chicken, but it seemed wrong to judge a steakhouse on the basis of a dish that wasn’t a specialty. So I went for the petite filet mignon, grilled in butter.
It was delicious. I waited for the repercussions. I was sure that, after two years of red meat abstinence, I would feel sick. I felt energized instead. Every part of my body seemed to be shouting, “WHY HAVE YOU BEEN HOLDING OUT ON US?”
Moderation has been my — theoretical — motto since then. Hey, I’m a food journalist. I need to be open to as many tastes as possible.
This became clear on a press trip to Las Vegas that included a writer for Bon Appetit who was vegetarian but didn’t only review vegetarian restaurants. One member of our group asked him how he could judge restaurants on the basis of a fraction of their offerings. He said the main criterion he used was how well they accommodate vegetarians. That’s really what you want to know when you’re reading a review of a barbecue joint, right?
Maybe I would have been more sympathetic if he hadn’t been such a self-righteous prig, or if hadn’t regaled us all at breakfast with a description of how his urine smelled — in terms he might have used to analyze the nose of a Chardonnay — after eating a particular type of asparagus we’d all enjoyed the night before.
Talk about oversharing.
Ethics of meat eating
I eat meat and I wear leather and yet I consider myself an animal welfare advocate. I wrote a dog blog for years that got very political about issues like rescue and the raising of dogs for meat in China.
It’s hard for me to justify these contradictions — and that’s the topic of a wonderfully thought-provoking book by Hal Herzog, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. Temple Grandin, author of Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals and advocate for humane conditions in slaughterhouses, blurbed it: “Everybody who is interested in the ethics of the relationships between human and animals should read this book.”
I won’t go into a lengthy review here but I will describe the arc of one chapter, “In the Eyes of the Beholder: The Comparative Cruelty of Cockfights and Happy Meals.” Herzog starts out by discussing the preconceived notions he had about cockfighting and its cruelty. As he attends various clandestine cockfights in the southeast U.S. and comes to know the participants, he introduces us to owners who consider the roosters prized pets, hand feed them and provide them with the best medical care. They believe their charges are involved in fair fights.
Ultimately, Herzog does not sanction cockfighting. But he puts the treatment of the gamecocks into perspective, contrasting it with the very short and brutish lives of factory farmed chickens, which he calls “meat machines.”
A broiler chicken’s bones cannot keep up with the explosive growth of its body. Unnaturally large breasts torque a chicken’s legs, causing lameness, ruptured tendsons, and twisted leg syndrome.
The living conditions of the animals destined to become chicken nuggets are Dante-esque. The chicks will never see sun nor sky. Because they are so top-heavy, broiler chickens spend most of their day lying down, often in litter contaminated in excrement.
These are just of a few of the less graphic details.
Which brings me, finally, to foie gras.
A few elite geese
Since foie gras was banned in Chicago and, more recently, in California — this article from the Chicago Tribune goes into the history of both bans in great detail — there has been endless discussion about whether the process of creating it is cruel. For those who are not familiar with this food item which — full disclosure — I like very much, foie gras is the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened through a method called gavage, or force feeding.
Some people argue that geese don’t have a gag reflex like humans; others talk about foie gras farms in France that geese literally flock to because they love to gorge themselves on the yummy, abundant, high-caloric grain.
I tend to think that, for the most part, the practice is cruel. But that’s not the point. Banning a delicacy that few people can afford and most people know little about is a distraction that trivializes the genuine importance of fighting to improve living conditions for a far, far greater number of animals — including the broilers that Herzog describes.
Pick your fights, folks.
Can foie gras be kosher?
One more thing: Although I don’t keep kosher — see filet mignon in butter, enjoyment of, above — this is a blog about a kosher butcher shop, so I wondered whether there was such a thing as kosher foie gras. Surprise: That’s a contentious topic among Jews, too. One influential rabbi ruled that there is no restriction against force-feeding geese, but the author of this article argues that Jewish law prevents cruelty to animals, ergo a food created by a process that is cruel to animals can’t be kosher. I think she makes a good case. Banning foie gras may not make sense in the larger scheme of things, at least not until conditions are vastly improved in factory farms, but religion is supposed to legislate morality, not quibble about degrees of discomfort.