Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

The Other Red Meat

June 3, 2012

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.

More murmurs.

“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.

Why be good?

October 14, 2011

My October column for the Voice & Herald.

I once worked as the librarian at a Catholic girls’ high school. Before I took the job, I worried that my background would be a barrier. But the nuns loved having a Jewish librarian. They saw me as a direct line to their religious roots, and I began playing up my Judaism in order to please them. Everything was fine until Sister Mary Emilie invited me to address her Religion 9 class in a sort of Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Judaism session.

The students submitted questions in advance. Lots of them were easy. What is a bar mitzvah? Why do men wear those little beanies? Why don’t Jews celebrate Christmas? Other questions were trickier. Do Jews like Jesus? What about hell?

A few days later, I stood before a room full of fourteen-year-olds in matching yellow blouses and checked skirts. Flipping through my index cards, I talked about coming-of-age rituals and covering the head as a sign of respect. I told the girls that Jews consider Jesus a great teacher, but don’t believe anyone can be the son of God. As for hell, I said, it’s part of Jewish folklore, but not doctrine. “Nobody tells Jewish kids that if they sin they’ll go to hell,” I added.

Hands shot up all over the room.

“Then why be good?” A girl in the front row asked.

Because it’s good to be good? I wanted to say. A good person isn’t just out for number one – even in the very long term. Jews don’t need threats to do the right thing, I thought, trying not to look smug.

“Because being good makes the world better,” I said.

Sister Mary Emilie smiled at me from the back of the room. The girls seemed less convinced. But I was at a loss as to what else to say. I was a school librarian and Jewish. That hardly made me an expert.

Three decades later, I’m still thinking about that girl’s question.

It comes up when I’m reading Torah. Sure, we don’t read about guys in red Spandex suits brandishing pitchforks, but a parasha rarely passes when God doesn’t threaten to subject sinners to some living hell. Crops fail, armies invade and the nation is scattered, all becauseIsraeldoesn’t act right. One particularly pretty passage pictures evil doers eating their own babies. Do stories like these teach us right from wrong, or just bully us into submission?

The question comes up a lot during the high holidays, when divine judgment gets personal. We have committed all sorts of sins, the story goes, and God really ought to smack us. But if we pound our chests hard enough and say we’re sorry sincerely enough, maybe we can avert the harsh decree. If we’re more concerned about being judged than about what we did, what kind of morality is that?

For folks like me, who don’t believe famines and foreclosures are divine judgment, the Machzor suggests picturing God as a parent. The image is a lot easier to identify with than that of a king, or a judge with a ledger. And the idea of an internalized parental voice describes pretty well how it often feels to make moral decisions.

But how does the Be Good For Mommy model stack up morally? That depends. Suppose the voice in your head is warning you to be good or else. Even if you’re just trying not to feel guilty, if that’s the only thing keeping you from cheating your customers or punching your sister, you’re still basically acting out of self-interest. It’s good that your sister’s arm doesn’t hurt and your customers aren’t ripped off. But it doesn’t make you all that good.

What if the voice in your head wants to kvell? Do it for me, you hear your mother saying, as you write that check for tzedakah. Make me proud. Wanting to make someone else happy, or to shed a good light on them, is morally better than doing it for yourself. But best of all is if the voice of your parent – or teacher, or tradition – is there to remind you about the underlying principles that let you distinguish right from wrong on your own.

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Maimonides. “A man should not do the mitzvot and learn Torah so that he will receive the blessings promised or obtain the hereafter… only the ignorant and the children are trained to worship God from fear, so that they will develop and worship God out of love.”

Not interested in worshipping God? Maimonides also articulates behavioral goals that should motivate any moral person. “The purpose of the laws of the Torah…is to bring mercy, loving-kindness and peace upon the world.”

If only I had said some of that to Sister Mary Emilie’s students. Instead, I turned to my next index card. “Someone wanted to know about Christmas?” I asked.