Who Cares if You Ate the Whole Pig?: Food with Intellectual Integrity
April 4, 2012 7 Comments
Jamie Oliver, environmentalist?
I’m intrigued, and not a little disturbed, with the common tendency to hide the ethics of killing behind the veil of environmentalism. What I mean is this: it’s both curious and tiresome to hear hunters or backyard animal farmers explain that slaughtering a sentient being is justifiable so long as every part of the carcass is used. This non-justification justification seems to win friends, influence people, and raise menu prices, but it wouldn’t stand a chance in court, much less an introduction to ethics class. Plus, it debases the otherwise sound environmental advice that we should, when we can, avoid waste.
The weakness of this justification to kill hasn’t caused the food movement an ounce of shame, much less self-reflection. It certainly doesn’t keep consumers from lauding a restaurant as “sustainable” if—as I noticed last week on the menu of a Harvard Square tavern—the chef serves up scrappy off-brand meals such as “hickory-smoked lamb’s belly toast,” “beef and tongue meatballs,” “oxtail pierogi,” “crispy pig’s head cake,” and “beef heart ravioli.” Have foodies been so easily hoodwinked, so impressed by exotica, that they truly believe eating the head of a pig, or the tongue of cow, or the stomach of a lamb invests their act with qualities worth celebrating? How can Jamie Oliver, pictured above, claim to care as he does about food justice and smile with his cute face a foot away from the head of an animal smarter than his dog? (For the record, I’ve no idea if Oliver has a dog; I kind of hope not.)
We talk of “food with integrity” (well, okay, Chipotle does), but what about “food with intellectual integrity”? What about food with ethical integrity? What about food with common sense integrity? No matter what section of an animal you consume, no matter how weirdly you render it, creativity in the kitchen with body parts does not absolve the act of killing an animal that–get this– feels no respect for you because you’re eating its brains and composting its skull.
It’s intellectually dishonest to claim, as the author of Girl Hunter does, that “I used every part of the animal” and, as a result, treated “[it] with integrity from the field to the plate.” Just because you turned a suckling pig into everything from cracklings to ice cream, as a chef at Salt Café in Montpelier, Vermont recently did, does not mean that your high-minded claim that “no part of the animal went to waste” negates the misery perpetuated by your selfish butchery. To think otherwise is to indulge in convenient denial while stoking the inner barbarian.
Perhaps the greatest irony of couching gluttony in environmental virtue is that the founding fathers of environmental thought argued eloquently against the practice of hunting down animals in the first place. For them, environmentalism was leaving wild animals in their natural place rather than cutting them down in their prime, dragging them home, and eating every ounce of their bodies. The explorer and naturalist John Muir deplored that “murder business” known as hunting, claiming that it turned “the decent gentleman” into “a howling, bloodthirsty, demented savage.” Thoreau himself explained that “no humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature, which holds its life by the same tenure that he does.”
Muir and Thoreau were men, real men. They knew, far better than our culinary-enviros do today, that using every part of an animal is a task easily avoided if you respect the animal enough not to needlessly kill it. This opinion, moreover, doesn’t require tortured and illogical rationalizations. It just asks for a little intellectual integrity, decency, self-confidence, and common sense.