Monday, December 1, 2008

Alt Omnivore

I suppose I should begin a post that is intended to begin an argument for an Alt (alternative) way of thinking about how to follow the omnivorous habit with an exhaustive review of the record of established ways of approaching the act of consuming organisms from all of the five kingdoms of living things. But I will not.

I've got kids to take care of, a house to run, and a job to hold down. I don't have the time to do the hard work of reviewing all of the literature on the subject, describe the staus quo and show how my idea is different enough to be considered unique. So, I'm going to blow-off characterizing how others have suggested modern omnivores think about how we approach the act of eating and offer what may or may not be a unique approach to eating everything.

But first I've got to clear the table before I bring out the main course by explaining a fraction of what I believe is true about the role that biology plays in the determination of what and how we eat

  • The partial result of millennia of natural selection on primates has resulted in an order of animals that is largely, if not entirely, capable of omnivorism.
  • Humans are primates and capable of omnivorism.
  • But simply because humans are capable of eating and assimilating nutrients from organisms from all five kingdoms, it does not follow that we must eat this way.
  • Humans have the ability to make choices. And when we exist in a context that permits us to act on our choices, with the exception of organisms that slip imperceived into our digestive tracts, we choose what we eat.
I categorically reject all arguments that suggest that people who are not physically or psychologically or economically constrained, such that they are not able to exercise their biologically determined (or if you prefer, G-d given) ability to make choices and act on them, have no choice but to be omnivorous -or vegetarian for that matter.

In other words, for most 1st world humans what, how, how much, when and how often we eat is the result of the exercise of free will in response to the call of hunger. Omnivorousness is an aptation, the omnivorous habit is an exercise of free will and an expression of choice.

The Omnivore's Dilemma Reimagined



The Black Box and Denial

With apologies to those who see the main problem confronting 1st world omnivores as primarily economic, ethical or technological in nature, I see a philosophical problem that needs to be addressed by dealing directly with the way we think about food.

  • Too often we do not know what we are choosing to eat because the true identity of the food is hidden. When the true identity of the food is unknown, it becomes easy to ignore what it was before it became our food and how it got that way.

The bulk of what most of us ingest goes through a process of obfuscation before we get it. The natural, obvious identity of the food becomes obscured as it is broken down into subunits, and perhaps combined with other ingredients before it is wrapped and obscured beneath layers of packaging and distracting graphics and verbiage. Even the vegetables that line the shelves in the produce department are excerpts of their natural selves. As a fillet of salmon stick is not a salmon, a head of lettuce is not a lettuce plant. Most, if not all of the foods in the supermarket are excerpts of living things and rarely the whole living organism. Not even Whole Foods sells apples still attached to an apple tree.

I think it very useful to think of most of the food we eat as having passed through a gigantic black box where it's original identity is "disguised" before we get it. Of course the black box is just a metaphor for sum total of what we do not usually know about the original identity of the food we eat and how it becomes food.

  • We hide the identity of the food from ourselves by denying or ignoring or refusing to imagine what it really is. We are complicit in the work of the black box.
After years and years and eating excerpted and wrapped food, it becomes very easy to slip into the habit of not thinking about what that food was before it was processed into the form in which we receive it. How often have you looked at a slab of tuna in the fish market and imagined a mighty fish struggling against the fisherman's line? Seen a peach tree in a peach or a field of wheat in a package of crackers? I wonder. If you are at all like me, you have to work at remembering what all this stuff in the market was before it went through the black box and it's hard work, so mostly we don't.

  • There is probably no food consumed by omnivores whose true identity is more obscured by the black box and our own refusal to imagine the truth of how it comes to be food , than meat (from all animals).
This is in large part because animals go to a special place in the black box called the slaughterhouse. (Which here is understood to refer to all of the places animals are killed out of the sight of consumers.) The slaughterhouse is specifically designed to add another layer of obfuscation of the true identity of our food and is the twinned product of our own refusal to know everything about the nature of our food and the black box's "desire" to provide us with the opportunity to not know.


Here is the heart of the biggest philosophical problem faced by the omnivore. We choose to eat everything, but we cannot really know what we are doing until we confront the fact that we mostly do not know what we are eating.

Finally, I imagine that we are not alone and that many of those who choose to not exploit their omnivorous aptation and instead, eat only plants, suffer from a similar condition of not knowing. But I think that given the fact that we have chosen to pursue a habit of eating that results in the sometimes violent death of animals, we have a special burden or perhaps obligation to ourselves to bypass the black box, reject the habit of denial, take the bull by the horns and see what's actually going on.

So I'm proposing that we summon our courage and become Alt Omnivores or, if you prefer, stoic omnivores who, with eyes wide open see things as they are and not how we and the black box would like us to see.


My apologies to those of you who are already doing what I am suggesting. I'm not trying to preach to the choir, but simply trying to lay down what I think. -Bob dG

15 comments:

Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

I am right there with you Bob.
I am owning my omnivorness every chance I get.

celticwander said...

Thanks for this, Bob. I agree and am trying to find my way out of the black box.

Not only trying to being aware of where and how my food comes to my plate I am learning where in the animal my meat comes from. Learning where the loin is, or the shank or rib-eye, is helpful. I can see the animal and know where I am taking from. That is why I am appreciating your butchery photos so much.

Thanks for all you are doing.
justin

nhallfreelance said...

Bob,

I wonder if you have any specific suggestions for how to go about doing this? Clearly, the vast majority of people are largely ignorant of the origin and true nature of food, or of how food comes to be food. My concern regards whether or not that ignorance is truly vincible. As someone, I believe it was Mr. Anonymous, commented in one of your recent posts, it may well be truly impossible to understand the full implication of what our eating does to what we eat. From the standpoint of someone who thinks a lot about what I feed myself and my family, and who tries hard to remain cognizant of the fact that I am taking life in order to sustain my own, I'm still not entirely certain that I really "get it" on any kind of visceral level. I can think through the process, from field to abbatoir to market to table, and come to an intellectual understanding, but I'm not sure that really cuts through all of the layers of misdirection and misunderstanding. This evening, I took my young children to a local community event that featured a petting zoo with goats, sheep, a calf, piglets, rabbits, and a rooster. I tried to make myself think about what it means for their lives, or lives of similar animals, to be more or less solely directed toward my plate. I'm pretty certain that I could go the distance, and put my omnivorous nature more than just where my mouth is, but it's still just intellectual exercise. Is that enough? Does a mere thought process constitute full and conscientious ownership of my food choices?

--Nick

Bob del Grosso said...

Nick
Thanks for this thought provoking comment, it is very helpful.

Your words are in quotes

"...Mr. Anonymous, commented in one of your recent posts, it may well be truly impossible to understand the full implication of what our eating does to what we eat."

I know and accept that I can never understand everything. But this does not stop me from wanting and trying to directly experience as much as I can.

I also know it is true that it is impossible to how it feels to a be a non-human that is being raised to be eaten. Well, for that matter I don't know what it feels like to fully be something other than myself (everyone who knows me will verify this!)and neither, I suspect, does anyone know what it is to be something other than what they are.

Here's a quote from a long loved book by Joseph Conrad (Victory) that sums the situation up brilliantly

"We live as we dream, alone."


"I'm still not entirely certain that I really "get it" on any kind of visceral level."

If your only experience of sex was watching porn, you would be in about the same place as most eaters are today: with an intellectual understand of what occurs, but no gut/visceral knowledge.

Try gardening, fishing or, if you are feeling brave, hunting with a bow or rifle. Then try stepping up to putting a gun to the head of a pig and pulling the trigger. That might do the trick. It's all horrible and miserably sad. But you won't get any closer to taking ownership of your appetite than to kill your own food.

I think that my message is easily misdirected (thanks for that concept!) because of it's mild emphasis on the experience of animal suffering. The core of what I'm trying to put out there now is not that 1st World omnivores need to try to empathize with our prey (we do, but that's not my main point) but that we must try, at least once, to directly, through personal experience, confront the truth about what occurs when we decide to eat something. Reading about it or watching it on video or talking about it does not work.

In other words, I am primarily concerned at this moment about the condition of the "self" not the people and other organisms that are outside of the self.
I think that this concern about the state of the "self" (or oneself, if you prefer) is shared by everyone who is deeply involved in trying to make sense of how we raise, cook and serve food. If I differ in my approach at all from the Michaels Pollan & Ruhlman, the Dan Barbers of this world is that I'm choosing to emphasize the way we "think" about our food over the way we treat it.


"Does a mere thought process constitute full and conscientious ownership of my food choices?"

No.

Walt said...

Bob,

I'm with you 100%. I think you make an important distinction in your summation to Nick that really hits the nail on the head.

"...I'm choosing to emphasize the way we "think" about our food over the way we treat it."

For most of us, this "think" is all we have because I'm sure most of us are not in a position to provide any manner of treatment at all for our "living food."

Without this "think" none of us are in a position to even consider making the choices you discuss in the original post. Sadly, if we don't use this ability to think, these choices are made for us. The powers that be can simply put anything they want into the "black box."

Nick, thank-you for the insightful comments.

Bob, thanks for an important post. We here in the choir should be singing this message out to the masses.

Kevin said...

Bob,
Very thoughtful. Thanks.

Jennie/Tikka said...

I don't even know where to start.

Many may consider me weak for saying this, but I personally couldn't deal with it all without looking at it through the lense of my religion.

Animal sacrifice was always seen as a religious act. It was always intended to make you see your true nature - and make you grateful for the sacrifice the animal made to help you. As an act it was supposed to remind you to be grateful for those who sacrificed to help others in general, but specifically that God also made sacrifices to help us. It was necessary as a spiritual cleansing and this is what gave the animal it's particular nobility. It was supposed to be done with the upmost respect and reverence for the animal.

Its the metaphor for the act of sacrificing one to save another. Jesus always referred to himself as "The (sacrificial) lamb of God."

Of course, as with religion so with this - it can be done without reverence or respect and then it becomes an act of blasphemy.

To be more careful about the lives and conditions my food was in before it got to me is something I see more as something I do out of respect for God. Since God compares himself to animals killed for food - I need to respect them.

Being an omnivore is either an act of nobility (when done correctly), or it is one of life's most heinous wrongs (when done incorrectly).

Bob del Grosso said...

jennie

"Animal sacrifice was always seen as a religious act. It was always intended to make you see your true nature - and make you grateful for the sacrifice the animal made to help you."

Well, maybe not always but certainly an important point. And I think you are striking at the heart of what I've been saying when you suggest that the act is in part designed to make you confront what you are.

inlindaskitchen said...

I agree with you. And with "The Omnivore's Dilemma." And although I haven't been able to actually kill the animal I want to eat, I have become more and more acquainted with the actual butchering. I know the beef, pork and lamb I eat, from baby to local FDA butcher, and I am fully appreciative. I admire what you're doing and writing.

maurarose said...

Even the vegetables that line the shelves in the produce department are excerpts of their natural selves. As a fillet of salmon stick is not a salmon, a head of lettuce is not a lettuce plant. Most, if not all of the foods in the supermarket are excerpts of living things and rarely the whole living organism.

Does it matter, though, that a head of lettuce is not a lettuce plant? Unless you're considering how it went from being part of the plant to being just a head of lettuce (where it was grown, the workers who picked it, the people who drive the trucks to distribution centers, etc.), how important is it? Has it lost all that much of its essence? (The salmon is a different thing, in my view.)

Not even Whole Foods sells apples still attached to an apple tree.

They're most likely very far away from the apple tree on which they grew.

I'm pretty much were Nick is on the issue. Just watching the videos you've been posting, Bob, has been a huge step for me. At one point, I wouldn't have even tried to look at them (and other, much more graphic ones), assuming I couldn't stomach it. I guess I have a stronger stomach than I thought. I'm not sure what my next step will be.

Thank you, Bob, for making me think about this, and making me want to do more.

(I noticed my screen name has changed. Formerly just Maura, now Maurarose.)

Bob del Grosso said...

Maura

"Does it matter, though, that a head of lettuce is not a lettuce plant...Has it lost all that much of its essence?"

Great question!

The principal point I was trying to make is that the net result of years of buying things that are not in their original (living) forms is that we mostly don't know much about what we are buying (and cooking and eating).

Borrowing from your question, if the only thing you know about a head of iceberg lettuce is a bunch of data about iceberg lettuce and the smell, price and heft of the stuff that is wrapped in plastic on the grocer's shelf then can you really say that you know enough about that head of lettuce to say that you know what it is?

nhallfreelance said...

This whole thing brings back to mind the Aristotelean/Platonic notion(s) of "itness" (pardon all of the parenthetical and quotational qualifications) that you've spent some time discussing. Is a hunk of beef a cow?

Clearly, it is not fully dissociated from "cowness", but it seems to me that a head of lettuce is one thing, and a lettuce plant another, despite the fact that they are intrinsically linked. It's kind of like the way in which a square is always a rectangle, but a rectangle is not necessarily a square.

Things are finite, and to some extent definable. As such, a cote de boeuf is both from a cow, and some(slightly other) thing at the same time. I think that, while it is clearly derived from a cow, it takes on a set of qualities of its own, that are not necessarily contained within the concept of "cow." Clearly, this all smacks of sophistry, but I can't help but think that this is a subject at least worth addressing in this line. Is it just the "black box" of industry and our own intentional ignorance, or is there a substantial enough difference between a cow and a given cut as to render them effectively separated as concrete objects as well as ideologically?

What is the "itness" of a cow? What is the "itness" of a steak?

If they are not the same, then what are the ramifications of their differences, in terms of how closely one must come in understanding of substance and origin?

OK, now that I've played pseudo-devil's advocate, let me say , Bob, that I was already convinced that you were going to say that, and I don't disagree. In fact, I think I'd have to take it a step further, especially after some consderation of the above. It must be that it is not enough merely to be a party (or cause) of the death of one's food. If any true understanding of the origin and nature of what we actually eat is to be gained, then it must be true that all gaps must be filled. Clearly, Bob, you have left none, in your personal quest to own your omnivorous nature. You have followed the path from living beast, to dead beast, to slab of flesh, to pieces of meat, to finished meal. If the goal is to understand the totality of what it means to be an omnivore, then the call is to kill, butcher, fabricate, cook, and eat. Any gap in that chain makes any understanding imperfect.

For example, killing an animal can be accomplished with such an alarming degree of impersonality that it renders the act effectively meaningless. Waiting in a blind by an automatic feeder and shooting at the first buck to wander by does not enmesh one in the realities of death and slaughter, nor does taking that buck to the local processor, to be greeted with butcher paper-shrouded steaks and sausage at the other end. In order to gain true understanding, it seems that it must be necessary to go through every conceivable step, from living animal, to dinner.

Sorry for thinking out loud on your blog; you have the semi-unfortunate habit of inspiration.

--Nick

Bob del Grosso said...

Nick

you wrote

"If the goal is to understand the totality of what it means to be an omnivore, then the call is to kill, butcher, fabricate, cook, and eat."


That is certainly NOT sophistry and identifies the core of what I'm trying to say. I should add that following the step of eating ought to follow all of the groovy stuff we associate with that act. Think of the writing of MFK Fisher and all of the hot, cool, boring, tragic and intellectual sh-t that can happen around dining. That all has to be part of understanding the consequences of our appetites too.

I've been choosing to focus on the killing, butchering, fabrication and cooking end of the spectrum lately because after years of focusing on fabrication, cooking and eating and their aftermath, I realized that I was avoiding the truth of how food comes to be food.


And yeah, you are right. A leaf of lettuce is not lettuce, and head of lettuce without roots in the ground is not a lettuce plant. Lettuce DNA is none of those things but is the code to make a lettuce plant if te context for the expression of a plant is right

That is not sophistry either. it's just common sense.


I should add that some consider that chefs who aspire to art should try to treat parts of organism and whole organism in a manner that evokes in the eater the idea that they are experiencing the eating of the reality of a complete organsim. So when one serves lettuce leaves the chef should try to treat it such that the eater experiences eating a lettuce plant in it's natural environment. A cooked lobester should feel like a live lobster in the sea and so on.

It's a platonic ideal, and a great one.

Valerie said...

I think this is very well said. The ways in which the means of production mask the origins of food have helped lead to the problem with food plagues our nation is all kinds of ways. The implications are incredibly far reaching. And I think the point about this applying to all kinds of of foods, not just meat, is especially well taken. As a vegetarian, I have made a choice not to b complicit in the slaughterhouse black box, but I forget about the other black boxes that may be just as bad.