Extremism in defense of tastiness is no vice.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Doing God's Work

Like most of us, you probably know one.

They walk our fair city like Janette Scott, looking like the rest of us, for the most part, frequenting our coffee shops, our markets, and our restaurants. Oh, there are signs, to be sure. The coffee is fair trade, the produce invariably organic, and the time spent perusing the menu just a little too short--and does that slight frame belie an amino acid deficiency? But here in Madison, bastion of social justice and home to myriad subcultures, these telltale warnings often go unnoticed. Like pod people, they lurk unseen beneath the thin veneer of society.

I speak, of course, of the vegetarians.

Vegetarians are a peculiar species, largely alien to most foodies, and they come in several prominent varieties. There are the sad, misguided, "healthy" vegetarians, though experience shows that this is more and more often a weak secondary justification for some other cause. Never mind that anorexia will lower your cholesterol, too; that doesn't mean it's a good idea. Let's be blunt here: animal products are nutritionally the best there are. Yes, eating several pounds of bacon on a daily basis will kill you (and is the way I hope to finally shuffle off), but back in reality, our species survived by adapting to eat the ones that didn't. Vegans in this camp are far worse. Just because it's possible to make it through a day without falling over dead doesn't mean that it's advisable, and raising children this way is a risky proposition at best. Give your kids some damn chicken, people.

And if you're a crazy New Zealand vegan who believes that the rest of us are "literally made up from the bodies of others," then I have nothing but contempt for your asinine thoughts and fundamental misunderstanding of, well, everything. (Their abuse of the word "literally" is an issue for another day.) Whence come the nutrients for their carrots, I wonder?

The only vegetarians really worth considering, I think, are those who do it for moral reasons. It's true that for most of these, their vegetarianism is a college lark, a brief spark of nonconformist morality that permits entry into a patchouli-scented clique before they move to the suburbs and pursue careers in computer programming or banking. That said, there exists in this group an intelligent, conscientious core that cares more about ethical than juvenile posturing. And they're right to pose these questions. Tradition, the fact that we as a species and as a culture have eaten meat for the entirety of our existence, does not absolve us of at least weighing the morality of our actions. Sure, there are various ethical and philosophical arguments, of course, and they fill volumes. What are our responsibilities to other lives, to other species, to our ecosystems? But, when it comes down to it, the question is basic: is it justifiable to kill another living being for pure pleasure?

One could argue that the cultural significance of food outweighs any moral qualms, that the benefits it brings to human society outweigh any harm done to . There is the simple pleasure of preparing the same chicken soup that has been in the family for generations, and the unifying excitement of a foray into the traditional dish of another culture, shared with a friend who has imported a preparation of pig snouts or chicken feet from her home country. These are noble reasons, and they do matter. But ultimately they aren't the truth.

One could argue that cows and chickens exist today in meaningful numbers only because of human agriculture, and if that means a whole lot of them live boring lives and get eaten, then so be it--is a goverment sponsored cow preserve somewhere in Kansas really a preferable alternative? Would the chickens really, really have better lives struggling for food in the wild, eventually dying of disease or being torn apart by a different predator? I don't think so, but that argument isn't the truth, either.

The truth is that I have no qualms about boiling an overgrown water cockroach for something so delicious as homard à l'Américaine, and then serving it to my friends. I feel no guilt tearing a mindless bivalve from its shell and slurping down its sublime, briny perfection, not for anyone else, but out of pure, animal selfishness. The truth is, as animals, I afford us the same luxury that I afford the rest of them. The tiger may not be burdened by morality, but it gets to enjoy its meal all the same. So why deny ourselves that same primal pleasure? Frankly, we're going to appreciate it more. We might even use truffles.

That said, vegetarianism for the right reasons is, I think, worthy of respect, if only for the small, moral core that seeks to elevate humanity above its savage tendencies, and I've often said that this city deserves a decent vegetarian restaurant. We need a Green Zebra, an affirmative destination to wash away the adolescent rebellion we've seen in horrendous entries like Peacemeal, a Frankenstein's monster sewn together by people who clearly cared more about their politics than they did their food . But because I'm a heartless creature, a slave to my appetites and perplexed by those who aren't, I'd be remiss not share a web comic that I read this morning, one that I think will resonate with my fellow carnivorous Madisonians.

Of course, we selfish, predatory humans are not, contrary to popular belief, the only ones with a sense of humor.

This morning, within an hour of reading the above comic, an errant vegetarian friend now living in New York state sent me this photograph. It comes from the Rochester Public Market, a magical place where shoppers can also purchase faux Prada handbags, samurai swords of dubious quality, and incense redolent with the heady aromas of "Pleasures" or "Pussy."

The goat's probably delicious, to be sure, but I think the picture speaks for itself.

Dave, next trip to the Irony Cafe is on me.


Daniel said...

Think about this question of morality: last night I saw a Japanese sushi bar dish that consisted of eating a lobster while it was still alive; the tail cut-off, back cracked open and garnished. You would literally be eating the lobster, off of the lobster. Lobster as both dish and living plate. Fresh is fresh, but even that pushed the limits for me.

Brian said...

This is an interesting question, and if I were there in the moment, can't imagine it wouldn't make me at least a bit squeamish. But, yeah, I'd try it. If nothing else, it would make for a wonderful fishing story, about the time when I narrowly survived a scrape with a living lobster this big.

Clams, scallops, and oysters are often served just-dispatched, but the higher up the food chain you go, the more uncomfortable it's bound to be. I imagine most people, certainly most Americans, at least, would find the process ghoulish at best and morally repugnant at worst. Another question: would most people not eat the lobster because they find it morally objectionable, or simply repugnant?

People who don't eat "gross" food confuse me. They're willfully missing out on the most interesting--and some of the best--foods out there, all the while resigning yourself to boxed macaroni and boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

Moral issues are the only ones that concern me. Can an "overgrown water cockroach" feel pain in a meaningful way? Well, they react to stimuli. Like plants do. On the other hand, they can shed limbs to escape predators if need be, just like humans and other mammals. Wait a minute...

In fact, the University of Maine and, more recently, the Norwegian government, have published studies showing that lobsters probably don't feel anything similar to the sensations of humans or higher animals. This is to say, they don't feel anything that could legitimately be called pain.

Pass the chopsticks. My dinner's tail is getting away.