Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Waiter? My Steak Just Isn't Burned Enough!

Food phobias have always been strange to me. That's not to say that I don't have them. Despite my relatively open mind toward food, I still lose my appetite when seeing that my hamburger is a little too rare for my tastes. It's not an issue of taste. For my steaks, it's the rarer, the better, baby. It's just all those times I've been told to avoid undercooked poultry and hamburger lurk there in my brain telling me, "YOU'RE GOING TO DIE!!!!!" very quietly, but in all-caps apparently. Sure there is the legitimate chance that I'd get a food-borne disease from undercooked hamburger, but I get the same feeling when eating sushi with raw fish despite enjoying the stuff immensely and knowing that as long as I stick to a respectable sushi joint that the chance of getting sick is lower than that from breathing.

Still, one food phobia I've never understood is the fear of thinking about where your food came from. I'm listening to a poultry-themed This American Life (because I love This American Life, not because I love poultry, although I do) and there have been several bits that have dealt with the modern separation of death from eating. The episode starts off with an urbanite interviewer asking nervously if the country kid at a poultry show if he ever ate any of the chickens he raised. He (or she, the voice was childishly androgynous) answered yes with definite undertones of, "Duh, you silly lady." I really found this part hilarious.

I've always admired vegetarians, even though I'm perfectly happy to butcher my own food. They're intellectually honest (at least in the arena of food). What they believe is harmless to society at worst and they actually act on what they believe. I can't always claim the same for my own beliefs.

Despite that admiration of vegetarians, I don't share their leanings. I do think we overeat meat in the US, and I don't eat as much as many Americans. Still, I've butchered my own chickens, although I haven't in a long while because it's a lot of freaking work. I've killed and eaten deer, dove, quail, and squirrels, but I haven't done that since high school because it's too much work and too boring. I'd like to think that I'm a pretty honest meat eater.

The only people who give me logical trouble are the people who are queasy at knowing where their food came from but have no issues eating meat. It seems as strange to me as my own post-sushi queasiness that someone would feel guilty or queasy at the prospect of their dinner having come from a living animal and yet still eat animals. It seems that if you had a problem with it that you just wouldn't eat it. It's not like you have to eat meat to be healthy (but you better take a more active interest in your diet if you don't to make sure you're replacing the missing protein sources. It's not as easy as just eating a few more beans.)

I think this pretending that meat was always packaged in barely recognizable pieces in Styrofoam and shrink wrap is part of what allows such practices as the modern industrial chicken "farm" to continue. If you choose to ignore that your chicken sandwich was ever that cute little yellow chick on your Easter advertisement, then it's easy to ignore the inhumane conditions the real deal goes through in overcrowded houses where constant antibiotics are necessary to keep the population density from spontaneously generating a plague of economically devastating proportions. Beaks are cut off to nubs to keep the broilers from pecking each other to death (something that only happens in conditions of overcrowding). The birds are bred to such massive size that as adults they can't even carry their own weight and end up looking bent and Quasimodo-like if not chosen to make a trip to the processing plant early on. Maybe it'd be nice if we as a culture would admit that some of our favorite foods came via the extinguishing of some creatures life, eat less of it, and allow more humane and sustainable animal husbandry practices to become mainstream instead of a remaining a niche market for those buying organic.

Of course I'm not judging if you are one of those people who cringe when someone points out the obvious fact that the cute little brown calf in the pasture beside the road is going to be hamburgers one day. (Maybe a little, but I'm sure it's a two-way street). I laugh at my own queasiness at sashimi and organ meat. I just find it a little hard to understand. Of course I've admitted my own disconnect with my beliefs and actions in the past, so feel free to fire back, although I warn you that if you choose to do so, I may choose to allow my feelings to get hurt and lash out at you like a scorned 14-year-old.


sid said...

You've eaten squirrels?
I work at Kirstenbosch, a national botanical gardens. We have this display up here with various pictures. And one of them shows two men slaughtering a cow. The men are smoking in front of the cow and there is blood all over the place. Very gruesome. The accompanying words states that for 20 years the British government has been telling the public that it is impossible to get Mad Cow disease from eating meat. For 20 years they have been lying to the people.

Mickey said...

I have this conversation all the time, or at least as far as Courtney will let me while we're eating dinner. I always get a kick out of people who don't like when I point out that what they are identifying as gristle or fat or (my favorite) "gnarlies" or some other non-descript or incorrect term is actually tendon or something anatomical. People are okay with pretending meat grows on trees and isn't in fact hacked with a knife from the body of a once-living animal.

I'd actually like to kill something that I consume to be sure that, in light of my big talk, I can square with the reality of it.

Again, you absolutely must read "The Omnivore's Dilemma."

Chris said...

Yeah, I've known a number of people (often girls, if I may be so stereotypical) who would pretty much only eat battered chicken fingers or some such processed meat product that no longer resembles the animal.

I actually had a cousin who still, at the age of 15, asked her mother to pick the meat off the bones for her, otherwise she would not eat the fried chicken served at a family dinner. (But that was the least of her problems.)

Admittedly, a lot of meat-eaters would get squeamish at the site of blood and slaughter, but I agree we should at least be able to own up to the notion of eating animals.

Cleaning and cooking freshly caught fish is the closest I've come to the do-it-yourself approach.

Courtney said...

I admit I'm a complete hypocrite when it comes to food. I eat meat but do not want to see it slaughtered or even think about the fact it was once a cute little animal. I understand where it comes from, but that doesn't mean I want to see it.

I've thought a lot about going vegetarian in the past few years. It wouldn't be that big a stretch for me since I don't eat much meat anyway, but every so often I really want a chicken sandwich.

We've all but given up red meat, which is at least a step in the right direction.

Jacob said...

Sid: Yep. I used to open my bedroom window, rest my great-grandfather's single-shot .22 rifle on the headboard of my bed and take potshots at the squirrels in the backyard. As long as I cleaned them, my mom would cook them for me. The gray squirrel is an evil, alien pest that's nearly driven the fox squirrel to extinction. Bastards, but tasty.

Mickey: Hunter gatherer tribes are fully aware of the fact their meat comes from death since they have to kill it themselves, and they tend to be very respectful of the animals and avoid unnecessary cruelty.

Chris: I'm not exactly saying that you should have to slit the cow's throat yourself and grill up a steak while the carcass still hangs feet away, but if you have to pretend it was never Daisy the cow or that cute little chicken, you should probably just stop eating meat. I prefer not to process my own meat. It's a messy, labor-intensive job.

Courtney: Maybe you should think about cannibalism.