Many years ago I gave the moral arguments for vegetarianism consideration and chose to reject them. I believe there’s nothing wrong with eating meat. It’s hard for me to get incensed about vegetarianism, because I favor eating more vegetables than meat and I love the taste of vegetables properly cooked. Ironically, vegetarians are known not for their expertise in vegetable cookery but for being against meat-eating, while meat-eaters don’t follow an ism called “carnivorism.”
The vegetarians I know have made a personal choice, don’t proselytize and do not ask for special meals as guests. Other vegetarians are vocal about believing that eating animals is so heinous it demands intervention.
There have been vegetarians throughout history, the Jains in India, and notables as wide ranging as Leonardo da Vinci and Adolf Hitler, but vegetarians have always represented about 7 percent of the population according to a Harris poll. Today, we contend with extremist vegetarians who are not only vociferous in their opposition to meat-eating but are equally critical of gastronomy itself, the art of good eating and study of culinary customs, declaring it a euphemism for gluttony. Unlike these extremists, I believe cooking and dining is a part of material culture and can be enjoyed and talked about in the same way one enjoys fine art or music. Modern vegetarianism strikes me as an eating disorder resulting from the angst and confusion of a post-modern bourgeois mentality removed from its food production sources.
One vegetarian in particular has drawn my attention, animal rights activist B.R. Myers. In the September 2007 issue of The Atlantic he wrote an article titled “Hard to Swallow,” an impassioned review of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. In the magazine’s March 2011 issue, Myers followed up with “The Moral Crusade Against Foodies.” His central argument is that gourmets (foodies) fail to think in moral terms and are nothing but gluttons.
In defense of foie gras
The idolatry of food, as Myers calls it, can be seen in the public’s tolerance of cruelty in meat production. I don’t think so. The public is not in favor of cruelty to animals in order to eat them. The public either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to know how the steak got on their plate. Myers’ implication is that cruelty itself underlies our carnivorousness. I disagree, it’s not cruelty as much as ignorance, lack of curiosity or lack of interest, not to mention tens of thousands of years of humans eating animals.
As examples, Myers argues that force-feeding ducks and boiling live lobsters is not humane. I have fed ducks for the making of foie gras. Ducks are fed with a lubricated funnel, tube and pneumatic pump. It takes three seconds to feed them and avoids injury to the esophagus. Ducks don’t have a gag reflex and they show as much annoyance to force-feeding as they do when you shoo them away. It’s true that the force-fed ducks sit a lot because walking is unwieldy. They are soon killed for the making of the foie gras. Many animals are fattened before slaughter because they taste better.
Do lobsters feel pain?
As for lobsters, the question of whether invertebrates feel pain has long been of interest to those involved in animal welfare. The most recent research suggests that invertebrate brains are so undeveloped and their nervous systems so primitive that they do not experience pain as we humans think of it. Lobsters thrash when boiled because they react to different stimuli and the reactions are escape mechanisms, not a conscious response or indication of pain. In any case, even if the lobster feels pain, its neurological architecture is such that it is dead in seconds and all you are witnessing are muscle spasms.
Myers cherry-picks some comments and facts that many would find abhorrent, such as a food writer saying a beast deserved to be killed or that it once was claimed that pain enhanced taste. Whether these are accurate or out of context doesn’t matter because Myers is just plain against killing animals.
Myers believes that we need not respect the cultural heritage of others if it involves killing animals. We’ve met this kind of self-righteous Western attitude before, and it was part of the foundation of imperialism.
Myers criticizes the foodies’ affectation of piety as they proceed to eat “obscenely priced meals” and dine on endangered animals. I happen to agree with that.
Morality and meat
The philosopher Immanuel Kant spoke of the “moral law within us” as the guide to right and wrong. For all normal people, killing people is wrong and for a small percentage of the population killing animals for food is wrong. Is the vegetarian a better person because they do not eat meat? The world is filled with humans killed in wars, through disease or starvation. Shouldn’t a moral person be concerned with this first? For me, to be a good person means caring about other people before everything. The flip side is not cruelty to animals, which a moral person finds abhorrent, that’s why many omnivores desire their meat-based food to be slaughtered humanely. We don’t believe that’s an oxymoron.
Caring about the “morality” of boiling a live lobster strikes me as a bourgeois indulgence of the morally misguided far removed from their food sources. Now, maybe eating one is a bourgeois indulgence too, but at least we omnivores admit it.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.Photo: Clifford A. Wright. Credit: Michelle van Vliet