I’ve been thinking a lot about vegetarianism recently, since I’m putting the final touches on my new book, which I’m calling The Breakaway Vegetarian Cook: An Umami-Intensive Journey Into Vegetables. I’ve long played with the idea of writing this kind of book, but I was nudged along by some close vegetarian friends of mine and by all the email I’ve received over the years from vegetarians.
I am thrilled with the all dishes in the new book. I guess I’m finding that a vegetable-centric diet, supplemented with occasional meat cameos, is, in the end, extremely satisfying (the book has no meat at all in it, however). I know that I have consumed far less meat in the past few years than I used to. And that meat comes from ranchers that I personally know.
That said, while I applaud veganism and vegetarianism as sound choices for anyone no matter what their reasoning, I find that a welfare-based approach to eating animals is the way to go for me personally. The nightmare that is factory animal farming is shameful and horrifying beyond all description, but the ranchers I know give their animals pretty damn nice lives — open pasture, water everywhere, uncrowded, leisurely conditions … certainly worlds beyond anything these animals would find in the wild. And with quick, painless deaths, it’s hard to imagine better conditions for both living and dying.
I’ve been thinking about something Elizabeth Kolbert wrote, in her New Yorker review of Jonathan Saffron Foer’s gripping, if sickening, book, Eating Animals:
“Vegetarianism,” she writes, “requires the renunciation of real and irreplaceable pleasures.”
And it’s true — the pleasures derived from eating meat are some of life’s finest. There is something primal — primordial, even — and powerful about cooking and eating meat. At times it feels as if our brains are predisposed to consume as much of it as we’re able to; it satiates like nothing else.
The question is: how far are we willing to go in pursuit of our pleasures?
Foer presents many powerful arguments in the book, but I would say the overarching one is: there are more important things in life than maximizing one’s pleasure, and that the moral imperative of treating animals in the most basic of humane ways — that is, not killing and eating them — trumps whatever pleasure you personally derive from their consumption.
Foer rails throughout the book on the horrors and atrocities of factory farming — hours of the some of the most depressing reading you’re likely to come across anywhere — but he’s especially infuriated against the people who call him, and all vegetarians “sentimental,” that his decision to not eat meat is a delusion of innocence:
“Two people are ordering lunch,” he writes. “One says, ‘I’m in the mood for a burger,’ and orders it. The other says, ‘I’m in the mood for a burger,’ but remembers that there are things more important to him than what he is in the mood for at any given moment, and orders something else. Who is the sentimentalist?”
I don’t think that Foer realizes it, but in one way he’s a classic Buddhist. What he’s most concerned about — alleviating suffering (of animals) — lies at the deepest core of Buddhism.
Like Foer, I’m soon going to be in the position of making dietary decisions on my child’s behalf, and the story of meat is one that will have to be told to Daphne sooner or later. If we do eat meat together, we will do so with our eyes wide open, and not be lulled into “forgetting” where it came from. Which is all, in the end, that Foer is asking of us.
Foer’s occasional forays into shrill (but hardly preachy) territory will turn off many thoughtful and sympathetic readers, but don’t let that stop you from picking up the book. There’s a boatload of wisdom in it, much of which centers around his Holocaust-surviving grandmother.
Although Foer’s book looks an awful lot like an argument for vegetarianism and even veganism, it’s actually not: it’s an argument toward informed consent, and taking responsibility for one’s choices. “Cruel and destructive food products should be illegal,” Foer writes, which makes total sense to me.