Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Cooking Eating and Suffering

Bob del Grosso

I became a vegetarian in 1974 at the age of 19 and continued to eat mostly foods derived from plants, and occasionally eggs and cheese, for seven years. What prompted me to stop eating meat was the result of years of deliberation over the possible causes of several "problems" I was experiencing, but in the final equation of my spiritual calculus seemed to be derived from a common cause: how and what I ate and cooked.

Between my first realization that I loved to eat and the moment that I chose to eat only plants, I ate everything , and I ate a lot. I was the antithesis of a picky eater. I was a voracious omnivore who, like some lower-middle-class-suburban Pantagruel, was never satisfied. The partial and practical result of this was that by 1974 I was 260 lbs and couldn't walk up a flight of stairs without losing my breath.

At about the same time I was becoming aware that my insatiable appetite for food was causing me to suffer, I became acutely aware of the existence and intractable nature of suffering in the world. My father was dying from a long illness, my family was in turmoil, the war in Viet Nam was still raging and by then several close friends had died from drug overdoses and suicide.

Also by this time I'd had about 4 years of part-time experience cooking in commercial kitchens and had become sensitized to the issue of where the big boxes of meat and eggs in the walk-in were actually coming from. I had read "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair and I'd seen my uncle catch and kill his chickens. I also had a neighbor who raised rabbits for food and seen them killed too. I could see these animals were not happy to die -it was obvious.

In short, suffering was on my table all day, everyday.

Now I knew that no matter what I ate or cooked my father was not going to survive, the war was going to continue to mangle lives, and my dead friends were not going to reappear having forgotten the despair that had driven them into oblivion. But I reasoned that if I stopped cooking and eating animals I'd remove myself from the chain of events that led them to the slaughterhouse floor and maybe, lose some weight, feel healthier and just maybe, some of the misery I was feeling would go away.

So how did it work out?

Well, after about six months I realized that simply eating plants was not going to help me lose weight. To bring down the weight I was also going to have to eat less and exercise more. So I started walking everywhere and soon found myself running 80 miles a week. And when I wasn't running I was biking or swimming (I don't bike or run anymore but I still swim 1 mile 4-5 times a week). But yeah, I did feel a whole lot better over not being a cause of animal suffering.

In fact I felt so much better that I began to wonder if there wasn't some systematic way of thinking about suffering and the relationships between living things that led to suffering. So I took up the study of ecology and became a voracious reader on the subject of phylogentetics (A branch of biology that seeks to describe the physical and genetic relationships between living things.) I also started studying Buddhism because I knew that problem of all suffering was THE major focus of Gotama Buddha.

Now I cannot go into all the reasons why I suddenly gave up vegetarianism and begin to eat meat again. But the skinny is that I realized seven years into the process, that even if I never cooked or ate meat again, animals were still going to suffer as a consequence of my eating. I had come to understand that anything that was not a plant, bacterium or virus was in fact an animal and potential sentient being. So for example, if I wanted to make sure that the bowl of salad I was going to eat did not result in the death of any animals I was going to have to make sure the farmer who grew it didn't kill anything to produce it, inspect it for animal life before I ate it and so on and on. In other words, If I couldn't have it all (zero suffering through eating) I wasn't going to bother.

I've decided to bother you with all of this by way of saying that I think the brouhaha over the way that animals are raised , while by no means irrelevant, is a bit of a dog and pony show designed make people feel better about something they choose not to think about. And I think that no matter how much farm animals are pampered they will suffer once they reach the killing floor -and shouldn't that be what we should be concerned about? Why don't we hear anything about that part of the food cycle coming from Mr. Celebrity Chef and the other proponents of humane treatment of animals raised for meat?

And since there is no absolution for the death and suffering of innocent life for even the most committed vegan or animal rights activist, how is it that they appear to have the higher moral ground?

Please don't misread me, I'm not suggesting that we should not all be advocates for the humane treatment of the animals whose flesh we cook and eat. Nothing could be further from the truth. Why, I drive 14 miles just to buy eggs from a farmer who keeps true free-range chickens. Of course I could buy the free-range factory versions in the supermarket, but these taste much, much better.


Mar Calpena said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mar Calpena said...

Bob, I couldn't agree more with what you are saying. I love eating meat and fish, but I can't ignore the fact it's an ex living being I eat. Having said that, I have made a similar deal with my conscience: I don't want my meat eating to a banal occurrence. And a certain kind of animal lover drives me nuts: the one who may scorn me for being omnivorous and then treat their fellow humans a lot worse than they would a poodle. Your post made me feel less alone in my ethos.

(Edited for typos and rambling grammar)

Miss Tenacity said...

Great post. I have never been a proponent of the suffering of animals, but neither have I been a apologist for the fact that we as humans kill and eat other animals.

If we can do so in a manner that is less cruel to the animal in life and in death, that is an ideal to strive for.