16 July 2009

I Am Writing This Post With an Empty Diet Dr Pepper Can On My Desk, But Also a Strong Sense of Regret in My Heart

And when the guy scooped up the white chicken, fluttering and sqwaking, and put it into the metal cone, head-down, my friend cringed. And then the guy took a knife to the now-calm chicken's throat, and my friend gasped and sank lower into his seat. I patted his knee and said, "It's okay. It lived a happy chicken life. And these are the good guys."

To back up a small step, when the film took us to this farm, I sat up and smiled. When the film showed us its owner, chatting easily to the camera while gutting de-feathered chickens, my friend squirmed, but I do believe I sighed. (Michael Pollan had never told me that farmer was such a fox.)

To back up a little more: we were at Food, Inc., the An Invonvenient Truth of the food industry. I've read my Michael Pollan and my Eric Schlosser, so I mostly knew the story. But I'd never seen it, and I'm glad I did. (I'm also glad, in a selfish way, to have gone in knowing what I know, buying my vegetables where I do, happening to be an 11-year vegetarian. Those preconditions meant I left more inspired than disturbed, and that I wasn't afraid to eat when I got home.)

I would like to create a mandatory curriculum for America. It is based on the premise that you should know what is in what you eat, and where it came from and how. Ideally there would be farm trips, gardening practicals, cooking lessons. I would really like a trip to a farm, actually. Not just for hot farmers - I have mad garden envy.

But for starters, I've got a two-books-and-a-movie mini-plan: The Omnivore's Dilemma; Fast Food Nation; Food, Inc.

Nothing in these materials dictates choices or tells you what to do. There may be a few suggestions, but primarily they're informational: This is what's going on. Do with that knowledge what you will.

I read Fast Food Nation a couple of years ago. Even as an accidental 11-year vegetarian I was not entirely exempted from its illumination of the dark corners of the American diet. (Seriously, have you heard about the corn industry? Eesh.) The Omnivore's Dilemma last summer was an even greater eye-opener, tracking food's journey through four paths to the plate - industrial farming; industrial organic; small-scale organic (my beloved Polyface Farms of the aforementioned kind chicken slaughter); hunting and foraging. I'd already been a greenmarket devotee, but the book confirmed my passion and gave me facts and inspiration. And just as much as those books influenced my choices, they were fascinating and informative.

And then, last night, Food, Inc. For my friend, a bleeding-heart commie revolutionary who happened not to have read those books, the information was rather new, and hit him hard. For me, the film offered a visual component previously absent from my food system learnings. I had read about CAFOs, but now I've seen them. (I don't know what that'd've done to me if I weren't a vegetarian. But I am definitely still a vegetarian.) I've read about Monsanto's persecution of corn and soybean farmers, and the absurd and unfightable seed-saving rules and lawsuits, but now I've seen the faces of the farmers whose lives have been ruined.

On the positive side, it was practically magical to get to see Polyface Farms, to hear Joel Salatin (a fox in both crazy and hotness) speak so passionately about what he does, blue eyes blazing behind giant 1973 glasses. Polyface is the idealized small-scale, animal- and planet-friendly farm that is the star of the third part of The Omnivore's Dilemma, an agrarian utopia in the Shenandoa Valley run by this brilliant and charismatic libertarian Christian. I once met someone who'd been there, an even more passionate Pollanite than I, and it was as if... I dunno, as if he'd been on the Space Shuttle, to put it in different nerd terms. ("Is it as amazing as it seems in the book?" "Yes." "Ooh.") And on film it lived up to its promise - happy cows browsing in green fields, pigs snuffling about in the woods while Joel Salatin lounges next to them and gets passionate at the camera. He's hot, sure, but I also think he's right.

But I don't think that I or anyone else should tell people how or what to eat. What I do believe, very strongly, is that our choices about food should be informed, and for the most part are not. We don't know where our food comes from. We don't know how the animals we eat live or die. And we don't want to, most of the time, because it's (thanks, Al Gore), inconvenient. Look, knowing where Doritos come from has, alas, not stopped me from ever eating Doritos. But to say, "I don't wanna know - I like my hamburgers!" means you already know something's not right, and won't face it. So you push that doubt down, push it out of your mind. If you want to eat hamburgers, eat freaking hamburgers. Just don't lie to yourself to be able to do it.

[All photos of Polyface Farms and their animals, from various internet sources, the google search for which makes me feel like everyone's been to Polyface except me, which makes me sad.]


GregM said...

I really liked "Food Inc." and although I had read "Fast Food Nation," the visuals had a striking impact. I've cut way back on beef.

Parabasis said...

Wait... you're 11 years old?

Seriously tho, I recently radically lowered the amount of meat I eat-- I eat it TOPS one meal a day, and often go several days without eating it at all. And I was surprised at how easy it was.

Jaime said...

Word. And for the record, not that I am proselytizing, but in my own philosophy of things, I don't actually think it's wrong to eat meat, even though I happen to choose not to. But I do think that eating meat that's ecologically and humanely raised is a big mitzvah.