7.28.2015

Food Issues Book Club - The Pleasures of Eating from Bringing It to the Table

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Bringing It to the Table: The Pleasures of Eating, 1989

Summary:

Berry has frequently told audiences to "eat responsibly" and that "eating is an agricultural act," but knows that these bot mots don't constitute clear direction.  Most shoppers know little of how the food they buy was produced, processed, or transported, or how these and other factors have affected the foods' cost.
"The specialization of production induces specialization of consumption. ...  Patrons of the food industry ... have tended more and more to be mere consumers - passive, uncritical, and dependent.  Indeed, this sort of consumption may be said to be one of the chief goals of industrial production.  The food industrialists have by now persuaded millions of consumers to prefer food that is already prepared.  They will grow, deliver, and cook your food for you and (just like your mother) beg you to eat it.  That they do not yet offer to insert it, prechewed, into your mouth is only because they have found no profitable way to do so.  We may rest assured that they would be glad to find such a way.  The ideal industrial food consumer would be strapped to a table with a tube running from the food factory directly into his or her stomach."
HA!

He continues by expanding upon the importance of shoppers' ignorance of industrial food practices:
"And this peculiar specialization of the act of eating is, again, of obvious benefit to the food industry, which has good reasons to obscure the connection between food and farming. It would not do for the consumer to know that the hamburger she is eating came from a steer who spent much of his life standing deep in his own excrement in a feedlot, helping to pollute the local streams, or that the calf that yielded the veal cutlet on her plate spent its life in a box in which it did not have room to turn around. And, though her sympathy for the slaw might be less tender, she should not be encouraged to meditate on the hygienic and biological implications of mile-square fields of cabbage, for vegetables grown in huge monocultures are dependent on toxic chemicals — just as animals in close confinements are dependent on antibiotics and other drugs."
This essay, as should be obvious by now, is a brilliant excoriation of the problems of industrial food (absent, noticeably, a mention of labor abuse, but otherwise well-rounded).  I strongly suggest you read it in its entirety.  And you can!  By clicking here!  Enjoy.

...In case you're not in a reading-the-whole-essay-right-now mood, here's a summary of Berry's suggestions on becoming a conscious eater (please add "to the extent that you are able" to each):
  1. grow your own food
  2. prepare your own food
  3. learn the origins of your food and eat locally
  4. buy from producers (farmers), not resalers
  5. learn about industrial food
  6. learn about good farming
  7. learn how current food plants and animals were bred, and why
Good suggestions, all.

Thoughts:

Berry's outline of how to eat consciously (and, I would argue, ethically) is very much what I have strived to do for the past 10 to 15 years.  I will say, though, that I have fallen terribly short on growing and preparing my own food.  Even I, as a privileged (white college educated with a salaried office job) person struggle with the time and energy necessary to grow or even regularly cook food.  This is why the "to the extent that you are able" qualifier is so important.  That's not to say, though, that various types of disadvantage (economic, health, etc.) are excuses not to do the best we can.

In a fascinating turn, Berry states near the end of this essay that he dislikes "the thought that some animal has been made miserable in order to feed me.  If I am going to eat meat, I want it to be from an animal that has lived a pleasant, uncrowded life outdoors, on bountiful pasture, with good water nearby and trees for shade."  He conveniently ignores that there is no slaughtering process in existence in which the animal being killed does not suffer terror and pain before death.  It's not hard to agree that a little terror and pain right at the end is better than lifelong terror and pain.  Berry, I suppose, is a "welfarist."  Which, I suppose, is still a good bit better than being an industrialist. 

In true form, he continues with: "The thought of the good pasture and of the calf contentedly grazing flavors the steak.  Some, I know, will think it bloodthirsty or worse to eat a fellow creature you have known all its life.  On the contrary, I think it means that you eat with understanding and with gratitude."  OK.  Sure.  I'll call that well-reasoned rationalization.  If you've ever wondered how meat eaters justify their actions, even when they fully understand the sentience of animals, look no further than Wendell Berry. At least he acknowledges the issue?  "Eating with the fullest pleasure - pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance - is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world."  In that, Mr. Berry, I agree - even when it is evident that you are engaging in some willful ignorance yourself.

I wonder if Berry has ever read Singer and Mason?  He should like them well enough - after all, they're both white men!

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