Do you eat meat? All meat, or just kosher? Halal? If just kosher or halal, are you strict about slaughtering, or do you just avoid certain species? Do you avoid red meat? Non-organic meat? Sad meat, from animals that were factory farmed? If you don’t eat meat, what about fish? Would that be all fish, or just wild-caught? What about bottom feeders? If you don’t eat meat or fish, what about eggs and dairy? Honey? What’s your position on wheat? Tree nuts? Peanuts? MSG?
Are your food taboos based on religion? If so, which flavor? Is it ethics you care about? Meaning cruelty? The environment? Labor policy? Localism? Is it your health? And if so, are you worried about weight? Allergies? Something else? Or are your dietary decisions more of a gut thing? Maybe you just don’t like peas.
It’s complicated, this business of eating. And even after you’ve gotten your food rules worked out, new information or questions might force you to rethink your rubric. (Pigs aren’t as smart as you think. Sea bass are endangered. If road kill is fresh and healthy, isn’t it wrong not to eat it?)
My own food outlook has been evolving. When dinner hosts ask my husband David and me what we eat, our standard answer is “everything.” But that’s not really true anymore. Because we’re concerned about cruelty, we try to eat meat only from animals that have been raised humanely. We eat fish (fin- and shell-) because we figure they’re equally happy whether they live in the wild or in fish farms, but we avoid over-fished species, out of environmental concerns. For health reasons, I try to go light on the fat, and favor whole grains over white. I also generally steer clear of ice cream and other dairy products, for reasons I won’t go into.
That’s how we eat at home and in restaurants. When people have us over, however, we just say we eat “everything,” because we don’t want to be a bother to our hosts. But I’m beginning to think it might be time to change our public eating status.
The question came up last week, when we were at a philosophy conference in the Lofoten Islands, in Norway’s far north. The conference was held at a “base camp” of cottages with an associated restaurant, where most attendees ate three meals a day.
Breakfast was available for several hours, and served buffet-style – the default arrangement at Scandinavian hotels, where the morning meal is standardly included in the price of the room. The basic menu includes breads, cheese, cold meats, fish and vegetables, as well as fruit, nuts, cereal and yogurt, boiled eggs, some sort of sweet pastry, and maybe, for the tourists, scrambled eggs and sausages on a steam table. Cushier lodgings mean classier rations. At the conference hotel, the cheeses were scrumptious, the smoked salmon luxe, and tiny croissants dusted with lightly caramelized sugar to die for. The range of options, and the help-yourself set-up, was ideal for people who want stay in charge of what they consume.
Lunches and dinners were a different matter. The thirty or so philosophers and their guests all sat down at the same time, at two long tables. When everyone was settled, the server called us to attention with the tap of a spoon on a glass, and announced the menu. “For dinner tonight you will have stockfish in pastry, followed by halibut with leek puree and roasted potatoes, and for dessert you will have panna cotta with blueberry coulis.”
Fish dominated the menus, which was just fine with me. And substitute dishes were available for those philosophers who had registered their dietary desiderata in advance. Several ate fish, but not meat. Others were pure vegetarians. At least two others were vegans; at the chef’s request, they had sent ahead links to websites with appropriate recipes. One philosopher ate meat, but not fish or wheat. In the parlance of our English-speaking Norwegian servers, fish-eaters were “vegetarians,” and anyone on a more restricted diet “vegan.” The simplified terminology worked well enough until the second night.
The server stood before us and tapped a glass with a spoon. “I will announce tonight’s menu,” she told us, quite happily. “You will start with a whale carpaccio served with cream cheese, watercress and beet puree.”
Cue the gasps and murmurs. (“Hang on a sec. Did she say whale?”)
“But what if we don’t want to eat whale?” someone asked.
“Those who do not want whale will have salmon,” the server smartly replied.
More murmurs. “I won’t eat whale,” someone called out. “Me neither,” said someone else, amid the general clamor. The server – a slight woman, about the age of the undergraduates the philosophers taught back home, managed to get our attention.
“Who will not eat whale?” she asked. Hands shot up all over the room. “We have seven servings of salmon,” she added.
“But what if more than seven people want the salmon?”
“The salmon is only for the vegetarians.”
“Pescaterians,” someone corrected her.
“If you are a vegetarian you want salmon,” the server said firmly. “If you are not a vegetarian or a vegan, you want whale.”
Clearly, we were having a communication problem. But what was getting lost in translation wasn’t the nuances of vegetarianism and veganism, but the meaning of want.
As the servers went off to fetch our plates, we did some quick calculations. Whale are way smarter than fish, but it’s hard to imagine another animal with a more free-range existence. Aren’t they endangered, though? I thought of the great sperm whale, hunted nearly to extinction. Whales’ majestic size. The awesome distances they travel. The grace with which they propel their huge bodies through the water. The romance of their songs – of singing through water. The sweetness of their calves. Rafi, “Baby Baluga,” and the days when our children were babies. It was like asking us to eat Barney, the big purple dinosaur.
I stacked all of that up against the fact that the whale had already been purchased, prepared and plated. It seemed unlikely that refusing it would make much of an impact. And weren’t we always saying it was important to be good guests?
We were visitors in someone else’s home – a country where intelligent, ethical people eat not only whale, but reindeer. Also sheep’s head, boiled whole and served with mashed rutabagas. For Christmas. If we were in Korea, the dish du jour could be dog. And where is it, Indonesia? Where they eat the brains of live monkeys? A friend of ours who once traveled to somewhere in Africa representing a nonprofit claimed to have been honored at a feast where she was served live insects. “I could feel their legs wiggling as they went down my throat,” she said. What are the limits of accepting hospitality?
“The whales that are eaten here are not endangered,” the one Norwegian philosopher at our table assured us. “There are strict rules about how they’re caught and killed. Policemen go out on the boats to make sure everything is done right. The way they are killed is much less cruel than the way factory farmed pigs, for example, are slaughtered. And I have seen no convincing studies proving that they are more intelligent than other species, such as pigs.”
Our plates arrived. And reader, we ate it. The meat was deep red and delicious — dense, clean and meaty like grass-fed beef, but richer on the tongue, and when you sank you teeth into it, a soft, silky texture.
If you’re going to challenge your dietary principles, it might as well taste good.