Live to Eat: Part 1 of 2

December 1, 2009

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A Porterhouse steak on the grill
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This morning, my four-year-old daughter asked me, “Do steaks grow on trees?” (I have since been notified by a friend that this was a “Martha Speaks” reference. If you’re not in the know, “Martha Speaks” is a PBS show about a dog who ate some alphabet soup and now can talk. It’s cute, as far as these things go.)

When I replied that, actually, steaks come from cows, she started laughing and said, “That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard!” Normally, this may not have jumped out at me, but her timing is very interesting (even if it is coincidental, again because of the talking dog) because she hit on a topic that has been very much on my mind lately, and that is my life as a carnivore.

But first, a few words about me and food in general:

I love food.

I love eating food, drinking food, making food, talking about food, and reading about food. I even love tweets and Facebook posts about food — it makes me happy to hear what my friends are eating, and I’ve exchanged some great recipes via Twitter and FB.

For me, the answer to the question, “Do you eat to live, or live to eat?” is so obvious that the question need not be asked. The same goes for many of my close friends, and I don’t think that is a coincidence. For me, any version of the perfect evening would necessarily include a great meal.

I’ve already written about the food-intake changes we’ve gone through over here; between our participation in a CSA (summer and winter shares now), David’s constant bread baking, my new-found love for cooking and baking, and David’s amazing garden we are on a specific path.

I guess what is happening now is a logical next step on that path, albeit a more difficult one. The issue I’m struggling with is this: If I care so much about where my produce, milk, bread, and eggs comes from and what may be sprayed all over it, how could I not care about the meat I eat?

Recent books, such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals,” and recent movies, such as “Food Inc.” have stoked my fire, although, in the nature of full disclosure, I should say that I have not read or seen either work in its entirety. I almost don’t need to — just hearing Foer’s interview on WBUR’s “On Point,” or seeing the NOW interview with filmmaker Robert Kenner was enough to get me on board on a few basic points:

– When we eat “factory farm” meat (99% of all meat eaten in the US, according to Foer), we are eating meat that lived and died inhumanely, and

– we are contributing to the #1 source of global warming, and

-we are eating animals that have most likely been injected with antibiotics, and who walked around in the dark, in their own feces, stepping on other sick or dead animals.

I know: Gross. Sorry. To make it even worse, you’ll see that I’ve presented a trifecta: One ethical issue, one environmental issue, and one health issue.

To his credit, Foer does a great job (in this interview, anyway — I’ve heard him called “self-righteous” and worse in various reviews) of reminding us that there is a whole world between meat-eaters and vegetarians. (Interestingly, actress Natalie Portman read his book and immediately went vegan.)

About two weeks ago, when I decided to start working towards a diet that is free of factory farm meat, I entered this “whole world,” or gray area; I am not a vegetarian and I actually have no plans to become a vegetarian. As it is, I’m sure I eat less meat than most Americans (that’s not saying much), but when I go out I usually have a nice piece of beef or fish. I guess I won’t be doing that anymore. I didn’t even have turkey on Thanksgiving. (Yes, I realize how pathetic that sounds but it just further illustrates how meat has become so important and ubiquitous that wankers like me can skip one portion and act righteous.)

To drive home this point, Foer states, in the “On Point” interview: “”The essential question is not, ‘Is it right or wrong to eat animals?’ That is a distracting question…The important question is, ‘Is it right to do the things we’re doing? Is this farming system something we can stomach? Is it something we want to support with our money and, in effect, with our votes?'”

His real-life examples are great. He talks about how, if you knew that your neighbor had a pregnant pig in their basement, left in total darkness in a cage so small that the pig couldn’t turn even around, and it was never allowed fresh air and had never been outside, you would likely call animal control in your town. It is unlikely that you would give your neighbor some money to support the cause. (My addition: You probably wouldn’t put your name on a list to get some of the bacon, either. Remember, the pig is standing it its own poop and always has been.)

And, in case you’re wondering, the answer is yes, I do see that this is a slippery slope of ethics and opinions and misinformation. Truthfully, I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m guessing that most vegetarians would argue that I’m not doing enough, and most average American carnivores would argue that, well, meat is delicious and I should shut up and keep eating it.

I say I haven’t eaten factory farm meat in two weeks but that’s not really true — I’ve eaten soups that are made with chicken stock. Can I really omit chicken stock? Do I have to? Of course not — I don’t have to do any of this. But now that I’ve really spent some time thinking about that nasty meat in the supermarket, I don’t think I could eat even a juicy burger without wondering what “extras” I was consuming.

Plus, I have way more choices than 99% of the world’s population. My farm stand sells meat from a local farm (you know, a place where animals walk around outside and eat grass and are not injected with drugs), so, for a premium, that is what I’ll be eating when I crave meat. And a new vegetarian take-out just opened in my town; I had a delicious stuffed pepper from there for lunch today. So, you know, I won’t go hungry (I’m sure you were concerned).

But I don’t know what to do about the chicken stock — sorry to obsess, but I use it to cook everything! And while I’m asking questions, have I ruined any restaurant meal for the rest of my life? And what do I do about the whole fish situation? Jeepers.

At this point, what I’m saying is quite simple. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything, because I’m not that person. (And, in turn I hope that no one will try to talk to me about how, if I’m going to eat meat from the local farm , I might as well eat my own dog, because that connection is not there for me.) Who knows, maybe I will give up after two more weeks, but I doubt it; I haven’t eaten at McDonald’s in years, not since I really thought about what I was ingesting when I ate there.

For now, all I’m saying is this: I will pay attention to what I “live to eat.”

(Part 2 of 2 will bring the focus back to my daughter and her eating habits, and the inevitable discussion about chickens and chicken.)

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  • Awesome! When Harry was a baby, I would say, “Eat your chicken,” and he would say, “Bock bock!”

    You've read Michael Pollan, right? He's a lot more middle of the road than Foer. (He says we should just think of meat as the lagniappe, the flavoring, sort of. A very small part of the meal.)

    As for chicken stock, buy your bad self a free-range whole chicken, bake it, eat it, and use the carcass to make stock! (You don't even really need veggies, though if you have them on hand, of course it's better.) Then freeze it in an ice cube tray. Empty the tray into a big baggie, and then you can just dump cubes into a sauce or what have you. Jim and I also freeze bigger chunks for, say, recipes that call for a cup or so.

    We have been trying to only eat grassfed, farm-raised, humanely treated, blah-blah-and-everything meat and eggs for a while here, and it has mostly worked. We fall off the wagon in a pinch, and don't even talk to me about restaurants, but… it makes me feel SLIGHTLY better. Now I'm busy obsessing about BPA in canned tomato sauce. Don't get me started, girlfriend!!

    Oh, and PS, we met a guy who only eats meat at other people's houses! Which I find interesting. As in, he never buys it for himself, but if a gracious host makes him a meaty dish, he happily tucks in. I kind of like that. (Personally, I'd be hitting people up for invites all over town!)

    We also JUST found a person who sells pork chops from her farm. And lamb, turkey, and chicken. Sadly, no bacon, no ham. Soon I will be raising my own fat pig in the backyard and building a smokehouse just because I can't bear to part with my beloved bacon!

  • Wait, I'm such a jerk, we totally eat lunch meat and sausage and bacon. So let's say we're 50% okay? Not to a vegetarian, though! To them we are 150% WRONG!

  • lcarrigg

    Hahaha, that's what I mean – once you start thinking about it you realize how much it's easier said than done, right? It would probably actually be easier to just go veggie! I started out just looking for the free-range grass-fed stuff, too, but the more I read the more it seems like that's all BS and that lable can be slapped on even if they have a tiny door in the corner of a giant room filled with chicken so that, theoretically, they *could* go outside (if they could find that one tiny door in the dark).

    Love the guy who only eats meat at other people's houses.

  • Cathy

    Love this post. I'll be interested in following what you decide to do! We also do a CSA and try to do organic, etc., but we live on chicken. I cannot imagine removing it from our diet, honestly. Good luck!

  • Andrea

    Super interesting! For the health aspect, I assume you read that recent NY TIMES article about the woman paralyzed after eating e-coli tainted ground meat? That really brought home the risks of our food supply.
    I think Fast Food Nation (Eric Schlosser) was also helpful for us carnivores about making a big distinction btwn what is going on in the mass-produced sector vs. the smaller, humane farms.
    And Mark Bittman's new book (Food Matters) about eating more plant-based foods and less animal products was very simple, basic, and gave a bunch of good recipes.
    P.S. We also make our own stock here (due to the food allergies, btw, otherwise I am SO lazy and probably would buy the supermarket stock) and it is super duper easy and we freeze it in 1 cup portions (in ziploc bags) although Clare's ice-cube tray tip is a good one. I just wish we had the room for a second freezer.
    Thanks for another great post.

  • lcarrigg

    Thanks for reading. I've been “good” so far and also realized that there's a restaurant in the area that only uses meat from local farms. It makes me happy to know that I *could* still go out to dinner and order a lamb chop or steak. I am fine if I don't eat meat for 3-4-5 days but after that I definitely get a craving.

    As for the stock, I always make stock after we have a roasted chicken but now my issue is more finding a chicken that fits my parameters. If I'm really going to play by my own rules than those labels like “free range” are pretty meaningless.

    It gets waaaaaayyyyy more complicated when Caralena is thrown into the mix. I will try to work on that post in the next couple of days.

  • Meganne

    Good for you for even attempting to tackle this subject. I had “Eating Animals” on hold for me at the library, but returned it without reading it because, well, I like eating animals. However, for a while now I have refused to eat meat around 90% of that time out at restaurants, and Maxine is rarely allowed to eat meat when we go out. I only buy the “good” meat at the store, but still kind of mistrust it. I ante up the cash for the eggs labeled that the chickens were humanely treated, and since the whole e-coli scare we don't even eat beef. It's a sticky subject, and I can commit to one side or the other.

  • Meganne

    Good for you for even attempting to tackle this subject. I had “Eating Animals” on hold for me at the library, but returned it without reading it because, well, I like eating animals. However, for a while now I have refused to eat meat around 90% of that time out at restaurants, and Maxine is rarely allowed to eat meat when we go out. I only buy the “good” meat at the store, but still kind of mistrust it. I ante up the cash for the eggs labeled that the chickens were humanely treated, and since the whole e-coli scare we don't even eat beef. It's a sticky subject, and I can commit to one side or the other.

  • floreena

    I recently read the review of “Eating Animals” in the New Yorker and I have had “Omnivore's Dilemma” on my mental list to read for years now. I want to do this; I really do! It's just tough.

    One part of the issue is cost & availability. In Queens it ain't so easy to find free range or all-natural meat and if you do, be prepared to shell out about 5x the cost of the other stuff. As a compromise, we at least buy all our meat from the Halal butcher. It's supposedly treated humanely and slaughtered in a “civil” way but don't ask me what it means beyond that! All I know is that quality wise, you can tell it's very fresh and much better tasting.

    Then there's the matter of work. I eat my biggest meal at lunch, so I buy it, and thus don't have much control. There is one place I frequent called “Organique” which makes all the claims & blah blah but I typically shell out about $12 for a salad.

    Anyhoo, I found this post interesting! What a cute quote from your girl.

    PS, I could no longer comment on the “winter blues/SAD” post, but wanted to add two tips that helps me, a fellow sufferer. You're the type who probably already does this stuff but here goes:

    1) CANDLES! I light tons of them every day/evening and put them everywhere. It smells great, helps the room feel cozy, and also puts off a bit of heat into the room. Also, I love lamps and love using winter as an excuse to add one to our home. Just a carefully placed homey little lamp can help a bit.

    2) BAKING! You are on a cooking kick, which is great for SAD! During the summer it's way to hot to do a slow-simmered stew, or to bake a batch of cookies. Winter, though, is a whole other story. Plus 4yo's looooove doing stuff in the kitchen so it's fun to make it a project.

    If all else fails, be glad you don't live in Denmark, which I believe has the highest suicide rate in Western Europe due to the short, cold days in winter! : )

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  • Lise, I've been vegetarian all my life and always bent towards making sure my food was pure, organic, but since my daughter's allergies were diagnosed at 9 months old, I've become more and more involved in understanding where my food comes from, what is used on its production (latest venture was maple syrup, a lot to learn even there and I have a list of questions I've come up with to ask the local manufacturers of that syrup), BPA (someone mentioned it in the comments) etc. I've read some of the books mentioned here and seen Food, Inc. Though I knew about much of it, I hadn't seen the videos of it. So it was quite eye opening and would recommend it to anyone.

    I joined a CSA, grown my own organic veggies and am trying to find a CSA for next year that will meet my vegetarian diet. I am planning to get a freezer so I can freeze veggies in season, etc. Its a long slow process, but doable and I have friends whom I see as inspiration. I also appreciate that some of my meat eating friends have been finding local sources for meat, where they are feed appropriate for their stomachs and humanely. You can do it in the local area. There are several restaurants in the local area who care about this as well.

    This winter, I have found it difficult to realize how bad the produce is at the grocery stores. I am trying to keep things local at this point but its hard being a vegetarian and staying local because of the need for more variety of veggies than storage veggies, but doable.

    There's a lot I've learned through this journey. There are compromises to be made for the location we live in but the goal is to do the best possible. And every year get better about it. My friend says, its a learning year. I agree. Its a process and knowing what's in season for veggies is the thing I learned the most this year.

    You know one idea I have is that we create a coop of like minded people who are interested in understanding where and how the food we eat comes from. I don't have time to research everything I want to. Each person takes something that is of interest to them, researches how its made, comes up with the questions and helps find a local source for the product. Maple Syrup is my current thing as I'm running out of it. Other examples that come to mind right now is raw honey. Raw milk (Are you doing raw milk)? I wonder if people would be interested enough in food to do this with me.

    My daughter is 3, and I want her to know where food comes from and not be ashamed to eat it.

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