“Life and Death on the Table,” from our Autumn 2005 issue.
Everyday, we make choices about what we eat. These choices are tinged with emotion—pleasure, guilt, convenience, comfort, righteousness. Often these choices are made conceptually, based on ideas we have about food: “This is good for me, this is bad.” Too often, we effectively eat with our heads as opposed to our bodies.
Sometimes these choices are accompanied by prayer or some form of acknowledgement of our meal and where it’s come from. But for the most part, day-to-day, we don’t relate to food as a means to “wake up.” In terms of mindfulness, the seemingly simple and quotidian question of what we choose to eat is loaded with political, social, economic, environmental and spiritual concepts and consequences.
In fact, it is the very ordinariness of this daily activity that makes eating such a powerful opportunity to celebrate our lives and our world. Food is a personal and universal thing. It’s almost always present. It’s one of the first things we think of when we wake up, the way we mark special and ordinary occasions—and that’s the same all over the world, for everyone.
In America we have a particular challenge: we are disconnected from our food and its sources. We have the luxury and curse of being able to conceptualize our diets. In the abundant aisles of Whole Foods we select eggs from free-range or cage-free hens, organic versus ‘wild’ blueberries, authentic balsamic vinegar from Modena or the Paul Newman stuff whose proceeds go to charity. This can replace real discerning awareness with distraction. But the challenges of choice are a blessing if accompanied by education and that rare blessing: common sense.
To eat meat or not to eat meat is an issue that rides right down the center of the aisle. While this issue is by no means the end of the story, the golden key to eating consciously, it highlights the larger question in the vivid colors of life and death. And because many of those closest to me have made choices regarding their consumption of meat, I have begun to reexamine my own choices. It is an area that I haven’t looked into enough, particularly as someone whose work revolves around food.
As a member of the Slow Food movement, I’ve focused on broadening and educating our way of eating, with taste as the primary guide. Slow Food, an international organization based in Italy, seeks to protect and promote our traditional and sustainable food-ways (for more: slowfood.com, slowfoodusa.org). This is not to say Slow Food does not embrace many of the same ideals that vegetarianism touts, but its goal is the celebration of taste and education as a guide to eating well and responsibly. While Slow Food values conscientious consumption of food products, it also sees tradition and diversity as integral to a healthy food-culture ecosystem. While it does not support mass production, it would defend a small farmer who raises heritage breed turkeys in Pennsylvania or the traditional Salami makers of the Piedmont.
Vegetarianism is not something I’ve given much thought to in the last few years. Like organized religion, there can be something exclusive, solid and moralistic about it. That vegetarianism is “the ethical, right way to eat and if we all did it the world would be a better place,” seems like a too easy answer to a complex question. I eat meat occasionally. And when I do, I strive to treat it as I do other foods: with respect and an appreciation of its origins, character and quality.
I have yet to be convinced that avoiding meat is essential to my integrity. Our unconsciousness about food seems to be the root concern: the horror of the meat industry as it functions today is not to be condoned, and its victims are the casualties of our ignorance. And conscientious production and consumption of all food is a vision that brings us to bigger questions. If we look deeper we may find causes and conditions more worthy of our scrutiny rather than a simple boycotting of fish and meat altogether.
One common argument is that if we are going to eat meat we should be able to kill the animal personally. But what do most of us know of the transition living things make from life to death? Mustn’t we kill in order to survive? How many children today (or adults, for that matter) have pulled a tomato from the plant? Thinned a row of carrots? Collected stray wheat stalks and ground their own flour from the fat golden grains?
To experience the life of a plant is no small thing. Though not the same as that of an animal, we are ending the life of an organism for our own survival, and pleasure. From there, if a child could witness the slaughter of a chicken, goats mating and giving milk; if she could pull a thrashing silver fish from the sea, gut it and cook it on the beach…if only. For to become familiar with all the processes plants and animals go through in order to become our food is invaluable. But this direct connection with our food is not always available in today’s world.
An argument I hear against vegetarianism is that to avoid meat altogether means you are avoiding casting a crucial vote for a conscientious, humane meat industry. In other words, by buying and consuming meat that is raised ethically, we make a statement with every hamburger or chicken breast.
And yes, let us vote with our choices, whether it’s for responsible meat or vegetarianism. But the question remains: what is it to eat mindfully? I know I get tired of asking every deli guy and waitress, “Is this local, free range, raised without antibiotics and hormones..?” and, “Where does this salmon come from? Is it farm raised, with high levels of toxins and ghastly living conditions, or is it wild, which contributes to overfishing?”
This summer, in Vermont, I had the privilege of milking a cow with a group of children. The animal was all warm and ruminating contentedly, the milk hissing into the bucket, the cow’s tail cascading down over her jutting pelvic bones. I could see her ribs and the great veins under her round belly that feed the udder. Laying my head against her side I could hear her heart beating (or perhaps it was the sound of six stomachs doing their work!). Some of the children were open, some distracted, some nervous. But after a little while being there next to this huge creature, two kids on either side of the udder, two more brushing her flank, we all slowed down. The children focused. We marveled, we laughed, we watched and felt. Afterwards we fed the pigs, searched for eggs in the hen coop and pulled beets from the garden.
Did I connect these experiences with milk, steak, scrambled eggs? Not directly. I knew we had geared this cow’s life toward human—my—advantage. And I had an experience of her life, of her giving her milk. In other instances, I experience just the other side of life—dealing with a fresh piece of meat—a leg of lamb, a whole chicken, gutting a fish.
While death is implicit in our survival—it is in our food everyday—it is uncomfortable to get acquainted with it. When the challenge of confronting impermanence arises, it is easier to look away. Appreciating the beauty, taste and sensuousness of food is vital. But just below the surface, closely linked with its quality and taste, is accountability, and the unavoidability of death. We confront death just by walking into a supermarket! Many times everyday we are given an opportunity, a little reminder of death and what that means to us as we live our lives.