My supremely cool fan Josh O’Connor, who interacts often on my blog posts, got to thinking about the issues of food waste, and the treatment of reality TV contestants with dietary restrictions, after one of my recent MasterChef recaps where many dozens of eggs were thrown in the trash, as well as shattering the plates they were on.
Josh churned out a most thought-provoking blog about whether or not TV shows have an obligation to maintain any kind of ethical standard when it comes to food and the people who are on the shows. And I wanted to share it with my audience, because you wonderful people are ALL about these kinds of subjects.
One of my guilty pleasures in life is cooking shows… particularly highly dramatic, reality TV-style cooking competitions. I’m talking shows like Chopped, Hell’s Kitchen, and Masterchef. While I don’t have the luxury of cable, I must admit that Food network is a family favorite on vacations. In watching these programs, one of the elements that seems to be remiss is the ethics of food (although I’ll let Chopped off the hook on this point for their very well-done “Lunch Lady” episode). The question that these shows generate for me revolves around the entire concept of food morality and food ethics and the responsibility of high profile chefs to make people more food-aware. Here are some examples that highlight my concerns.
Bri this season of Masterchef’s token vegetarian is the subject of a slew of vegetarian-related epithets throughout the individual interviews. Moreover, the show’s “judges” question her ability to cook (and at times seem to question her ability to function as a human being) based on her dietary choices. Perhaps most importantly, Bri is not given the opportunity to showcase her talents without having to engage the show’s many meat-based dishes. Although Anthony Bourdain would certainly disagree, vegetarianism has become a pretty mainstream dietary concept for a variety of ethical positions (from environmentalism to animal rights). Dealing with Bri’s choices in such a lackadaisical (and often cruel) manner sends the message that informed and conscious consumption of food is somehow inferior to eating anything that’s placed in front of you. How would the format handle a contestant observing a Halal diet? Would the producers feel as comfortable flagrantly mocking a contestant with food allergies or a health restricted diet?
This great debate about meat just keeps on coming, and I couldn’t be more pleased. I received a remarkable email from a fan who has been vegetarian since age 10, and I’d like to share a portion of it:
“The ethics of meat eating have been on my mind since I spent five weeks in rural Ecuador working with a water NGO at the beginning of the summer. I was staying with a host family and eager to experience the culture and help out around the home, which, one Sunday after the weekly meant helping pick out, slaughter, and pluck a rooster for dinner. (You can see my host brother with the rooster in the picture.) I then had the honor of burning off the tougher parts of the skin which was a little bit of a harrowing experience at times when bits of it caught on fire. I confess – I found the whole thing pretty unsettling. The rooster didn’t seem terribly happy about the whole process, and if anything, the experience strengthened my resolve to be a vegetarian. I know people refer to it as the animal “sacrificing itself” but the animal didn’t really have any choice or agency in the process.
So here’s my question: It’s so rare to hear from someone like you who actually kills their own livestock and I would love your perspective on why you think it’s ethical to eat meat. You seem to have thought so much about the issue, and I really think you could add richness to my (and many other people’s) understanding of the other side of the debate. In your last blog post, you mentioned that people have eaten meat for thousands of years. But people have done lots of things for much of history — some good (agriculture, moral taboos against murder) and some bad (lack of women’s rights, lack of gay rights, lack of all kinds of minority rights, slavery), so time alone doesn’t make it ethical. You also said that some animals would have gone extinct if we didn’t breed them, but just breeding or creating something doesn’t mean we have a right to kill it and eat it (as by that logic alone, parental cannibalism would be justified :P). So can you talk more about the deeper issues of animal consciousness and rights and whatever else you think helps define the moral issues for you? I know it would help broaden my worldview and I think it would help many other people too.”
Alyssa, thanks so much for sharing this story. And, alas, I wish I could tell you that I’m as eloquent a philosopher as I am a writer. But any debate on “ethics” or “morals” always ends up in a battle over what “ethics” or “morals” means in the first place. And, to be honest, I don’t really know if there’s any possible way to define ethics or morals across any group of humans, much less the entire span of the human race. Ethics and morals can truly only be embraced and embodied in a single individual. Religions may claim to unite their followers under a single body of morals and ethics, but they never do. Plenty of people in the religion I was raised in still believe it’s not right for a woman to speak in church, or for her to ever contradict her husband, but the majority have more progressive views. Ethics and morals can only be defined by an individual, for an individual. And that’s the outer-most boundary of any moral or ethic. Laws can claim to spring from “universal morals” but I still don’t believe there is such a thing. I think, under certain circumstances, it is moral to end the life of a human (ie euthanasia). So the most popular “universal moral” of it being immoral to kill, isn’t, in fact, a moral that is universally applicable.
There are many ways to look at the meat eating issue. One way is to say that, in nature, the food chain exists, and animals eat what their instincts drive them to. Lions eat meat. Cattle eat grass. Dogs eat whatever they come across, like bears, but will kill live food if they are hungry and can’t find sustenance in berries or plants. Our ancestors were hunter/gatherers. They hunted meat, and they gathered edible plants from the wild. It is in our nature to eat both meat and plants. The dawn of civilization occurred when humans discovered they could cultivate BOTH animals and plants. Had such rich animal protein sources not been available, the human race might have fallen extinct like our evolutionary ancestors did. So, at least historically speaking, humans have eaten meat throughout the entire duration of our existence and evolutionary development. Some vegetarians like to suggest that the biology of the human body is actually not “designed” to eat meat, because we don’t have pointed teeth like most carnivores, etc.. For every legitimate argument they present, there is a legitimate counter argument on the opposite side. There is no conclusive scientific evidence that humans are biologically programmed to eat meat or not. Regardless, for the entire duration of our existence, we have eaten meat. And as a result of this, we have sheep, pigs, goats, cows, chickens, and a handful of other animals which had a genetic predisposition toward being domesticated.
That phrase alone is enough for me to justify eating meat for myself. The vast majority of animal species on earth are not fit for domestication. It would never be POSSIBLE to domesticate them. But for a handful of animals, domestication happened almost spontaneously. And whether you take a scientific outlook or intelligent-design outlook on our origin, both routes seem to point quite clearly at the fact that these creatures were meant to be domesticated as meat animals, either through the hands of a creator, or through the probability and adaptability that governs the theory of evolution. A sheep may be able to provide wool for fabric, but at the end of its natural life, it has a rich source of life-giving protein that would be disrespectfully wasted if it was buried or cremated. Of course, the carcass could be left for scavengers, but then we’ve upset the “natural balance” of things by providing unnatural excess for scavenging species, which will overtake local populations.
These domesticable species came into existence because we needed them for food and other purposes. (And let’s not forget that ALL meat animals are utilized in many ways other than meat…chickens give eggs and feathers, cows give leather and their bones are used for fertilizer, etc.) Should we have domesticated them in the first place? Had we not, we may not, in fact, be here today. Should we continue to domesticate them now that we have “evolved” and can make a moral choice to not eat meat? What responsibility do we then bear for these species which would have no place in the wild without human husbandry? Do we allow their entire species to die out from natural deaths?
This brings up another argument that vegans often tout… We have progressed as a species to the point where we no longer NEED animal products to sustain the human race. There are arguments on both sides of this fence from far wiser people than me. While it’s true that it requires many, many pounds of vegetable calories to raise a pound of meat…and that many humans could be sustained (though perhaps not richly sustained) on that same amount of vegetable matter, rather than utilizing it for meat production to feed a far fewer number of humans…meat is a source of nutrients that is unmatched by anything outside the egg, which technically is also meat. Some like to tout quinoa and hemp seed as the miracle foods that can provide the same complex amino acid base that gives meat its complete protein, and can therefore be a nutritional substitute for meat. However, I cook extensively with both quinoa and hemp seed, and can vehemently say that to take my entire protein content from quinoa, hemp, and various beans does not result in a rich quality of life…TO ME.
Which is leading to my final point. Yes, humans have progressed and advanced in many ways. We are sentient and can make decisions governed by things which can be called morals and ethics. We can also experience a higher level of pleasure and satisfaction than can our animal counterparts. We love in a more complex way. We take pleasure in things like art, literature, and food. And for us to fulfill our own maximum potential as a species, I believe it is our duty to further these things to their own maximum potentials. We must continue to write. We must continue to create art and music and dance and theatre and film. And we must continue to further the culinary arts. It is our duty to, because we have the capacity to, as no other species on earth does.
A chicken’s potential, as a species, is not to be a companion, like a cat or a dog. It can’t be potty trained. It is insufferably and adorably stupid. But it has the maximum potential to live as a chicken naturally lives: free of a cage, eating what it can scavenge, mating, laying eggs, roosting in trees at night, and providing a food source for coyotes and raptors and humans. And as a provider of crude protein with both its meat and its eggs, and well as being a facilitator of the development and advancement of the culinary arts, the chicken’s maximum potential is to sustain life on a larger scale and a higher order. A tiger’s maximum potential is to live unmolested in the forest, hunt for its food, and continue to balance the natural ecosystem. In comparison, a chicken has a far greater potential in this universe than a tiger. And not to help the chicken achieve that potential is, in my opinion, immoral.
No, I do not believe animals are “equal” to humans. If given the choice, I will preserve the life of a human child over a young animal any day. Animals are a lesser order of life on this planet. Yet we have the ability as humans to help them fulfill a far greater destiny and contribution to the universe than just existing and dying, un-utilized by us. We have the power to cram them into cages, torture them, kill them and eat them. But this is an evil and irresponsible choice. We have the power to give them a natural life that allows them to fulfill their natural potential, and then die…in order to fulfill a potential far greater than their own existence in the first place. And this is the moral choice. To ignore them as a species and their potential to be utilized to advance and enrich human life on earth is, in fact, immoral to me.
The death of an animal sustains life on a higher order.
To me, the world could not be any more beautiful and perfect, simply because of that. It does not sadden me that meat animals are killed to sustain our life. That is, in fact, their purpose. Were it not, a chicken would be like a sparrow or a leopard…incapable of domestication. The chicken’s evolutionary path merged with the human’s because that was both our destinies. And we have sustained and enriched the chicken species far beyond what it ever could have in nature, had it not offered us a domesticable, rich source of food to sustain life for us. Were it not for the chicken, our species might never have survived. Were it not for the chicken, our species would definitely have never THRIVED.
I see no moral drawbacks to the eating of meat, provided the animal it came from lived a life that allowed it to fulfill its nature. And its penultimate nature is to take its place on the food chain and sustain a higher form of life. To me, this is, in fact, living in harmony with our planet.
I would absolutely love to hear what you all have to say on this matter, please comment below. And for further reading, the New York Times hosted an essay contest on the ethics of meat eating, and the essays can be read at this link.
I also highly recommend the works of Michael Pollan, a food journalist, and Joel Salatin, a farmer. (Both can be ruminated upon in Polan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, where he spends a good deal of time at Salatin’s farm.)
As you all know, I run an underground restaurant here in Dallas with the stunning Jennie Kelley. We met on the set of MasterChef and have become incredibly close friends. FRANK is a celebration of fresh, local, sustainable food. And for our upcoming French-themed Bastille day dinners, our main course is coq au vin, a classic French dish which traditionally consists of an older rooster (which tends to be tough and stringy but BURSTING with old-fashioned chicken flavor that you never get these days), stewed long and slow in red wine, which makes the meat tender and juicy.
Rather than tromp to the grocery store and purchase a hermetically sealed styrofoam package with mass-produced chicken, we located a farm in nearby McKinney, Texas, where Farmer William had an overabundance of organic, free range roosters. (Roosters don’t lay eggs, and basically just fight with each other and terrorize the hens, so roosters are often used for meat on the farm. Most of the chicken breast you get at the grocery store is actually from a castrated rooster called a capon…more on grocery store chicken in a moment.) So this morning I got up and drove out to McKinney to hand-pick a dozen roosters for our table at FRANK this weekend. Shortly after arriving on the farm, I posted this on Facebook:
Immediately I was accosted by furious posts. (I knew I would be, but not to this extent.) Here are some examples of what was written:
Not all the comments were so hasty. I appreciated this one from my fan Nicole:
I am, however, supremely confused as to how this photo conveys “Ha ha guess who’s dinner tonight?” As you all well know, I’m a very verbose person, and if I typed in my Facebook post what you’re about to read in this blog, no one would even start to read it because it would be 4 pages long. However, I thought it quite obvious that I’m showing supreme respect for the ingredients I cook with by traveling an hour to an organic chicken farm to select happy, healthy chickens, give them an honorable and quick death, and serve them to people I care about.
Before I wax poetic on my philosophy about eating meat, I’ll let some of my fans do the work for me:
A bit abrupt, and not too philosophic, but most definitely true. Chickens aren’t very self-aware creatures, as any farmer knows. But the chicken wouldn’t even exist today outside the forests of Asia had humans not domesticated them and selectively bred them over centuries. These types of chickens only exist because humans eat them.
This is my fan Tim Brooks who is a talented chef in Chicago. He, too, has an interesting perspective on meat, as he works in a meat store. On his blog, Mulligan Soup, he describes a visit to a lamb slaughterhouse, which you may find insightful. I love that line “Showing a completed dish is never the whole story.” This could be a bulletin board. And I’ll get on that subject in a moment.
Carefully saving all parts of the chicken so they can be put to good use
Of course I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful to the animal in any way. Yes, there’s a great big smile on my face. Do you honestly think it’s because I’m DELIGHTED that I’m about to take a life? If you do, you don’t know me at all. It’s not fun slaughtering any animal. It’s tough. I take a moment of silence to thank the animal for sacrificing its life so that we can have sustenance and live. It gives its life to further life. That smile on my face is because I am thrilled to be participating OUTSIDE the mass-meat-production chain. Mass produced chickens live horrible, miserable lives of torture and are electrocuted to death and butchered by machines before you buy them without thinking twice for $1.99 a pound on sale. I am supporting the livelihood of a local farmer who is raising his chickens with care and respect, giving them an honorable and respectful death YEARS after they would die in a meat factory, and recycling EVERY bit of that chicken. (The heads and feet are simmering to make stock on my stove right now, and the feathers are in my compost pile to nourish my garden next year.)
You all know Tony Scruggs from MasterChef season 2. He was one of my favorite people on the show. I’ve been to his farm in Illinois where he raises turkeys and chickens for meat and has an incredible garden. In fact, while I was there I demonstrated my method for hynpotizing poultry, which relaxes them. I usually do this before slaughter so that they are calm and peaceful.
And, like Tony said, I’m not sure you nay-sayers understand exactly HOW MUCH I LOVE CHICKENS. I adore them. I kiss them on the mouth, for Heaven’s sake. I would never glorify in their death for the purpose of making people laugh. But I WILL REVEL in sharing with you all photos of what a happy, healthy, free range chicken looks like, so that you understand exactly how important it is for chickens to live that kind of life, rather than a factory life of terror and misery.
My girl, Crystal. I’m willing to bet my house that most of the nay-sayer posts were from meat eaters. Because virtually all of the vegans, vegetarians, and pescetarians I know are very tolerant, educated people. Here we’ve got someone who DOESN’T eat chicken, but who really gets everything that was meant behind my post. I adore you, Crystal.
Ever seen fat this yellow on a storebought chicken? Of course not. That's because this free range farm chicken eats grass and bugs and seeds, which is what a chicken is SUPPOSED to eat.
Indeed. The chicken you buy in the grocery store is mass produced. Roosters are castrated (caponized) which causes their breasts to grow abnormally large. Then they are force-fed antibiotics which causes dramatic meat production. They live their entire life in small cages, crammed in with 3 other roosters. (Do you know what roosters do when caged with each other? They fight.) So they spent their entire lives cramped, panicked, fighting for their lives. Often they are fed antidepressants to calm them down and reduce fighting. They are slaughtered for meat anywhere from 1 month to 6 months of age. Have you seen the size of boneless skinless breasts in the grocery store? A normal free range farm chicken can live 5 years and never have breasts HALF the size of what you see in the store. Storebought chicken meat is abnormal and comes from tortured animals. Free range, small farm chickens are allowed to live their lives naturally. You are exercising SUPREME respect for meat when you get your chickens from a small producer right on the farm.
Thanks, Jamie. And that is exactly what I’m trying to do with my posts about meat animals. To show you that your steak or chicken breast or pork chop once had a head…probably a fairly cute one. So don’t treat meat with callous disrespect by buying it just anywhere, or by throwing away leftovers that you didn’t eat. A living, breathing, probably-adorable animal GAVE ITS LIFE for you to eat that fried chicken finger. So let’s understand that, because it makes us think twice about where it comes from and what kind of life it led.
Susan knows! It’s not pleasant being exposed to revolting information about something as common as the meat you eat every day of your life, but it’s the truth, and it’s time for our country to realize that our industrial meat production system, which we’ve had since World War II, is making us unhealthy, and is colossally cruel to animals. Most other first-world countries (and virtually ALL developing countries) still raise animals on a small scale with diets that emulate their diets in nature.
That’s Kris, and if you can’t tell, he’s a character. He was almost cast on MasterChef this season, and you’ll be seeing him on TV some day soon. He’s a great chef with a big personality, and he speaks the truth…in his own special, sarcastic way.
Folks…I understand that this is an uncomfortable situation. The fact is, MOST people who live in urban surroundings are honestly not comfortable with the fact that they eat meat. Which is sad to me, for starters, but downright dangerous. Deliberately not wanting to face the fact that animals die for you to eat meat leads to a complete ignorance of the industry that produces meat. So they can just go on without criticism, because people don’t REALLY want to know what goes on behind those factory doors.
The food chain exists in nature. Whether you subscribe to a religion that defines your food chain for you, or whether you subscribe to no religion and simply choose to observe the life on this amazing planet…the food chain exists. Humans are, by nature, omnivores, and have been since the dawn of our race. Meat is part of our life. Our ancestors hunted. Then they learned that some animals could be domesticated and actually improved, and that’s where we get chickens, sheep, cows, goats, and pigs. These animals would have been long extinct had we not taken them into our farms and given them a purpose in life.
I do not believe it is a crime to eat meat. (Some will argue with me, and I completely respect their decision to not eat meat.) But I grew up on a farm where we ate the animals we raise…and no, it was not easy for a 6 year old to lose his favorite pet lamb, and later be told that the lamb chops he was eating came from his pet. But I learned from an early age that THIS IS THE WAY IT IS. So it’s our responsibility as humans to give these animals the best life they can live, slaughter them respectfully and quickly, and use every bit of their body possible to help sustain and improve life for ourselves and our families.
Please think before you make a rash comment about meat. If you’re uncomfortable seeing a living animal that you know is going to later be eaten, you need to take a close look at what you really believe, and if it’s even appropriate for you to be eating meat in the first place.
For me, I will NOT STOP spreading the message that meat comes from living, breathing creatures who must die for us to eat. And I will continue to make my choices in such a way that local farmers can make a living raising meat animals with respect and care, and so that industrial meat producers realize that there IS an alternate option for virtually everyone in this country.
If you’d like to find a local source for meat, you can often find it at your Farmer’s Market. Also, surf over to http://craigslist.org and type in “chicken” or “beef.” I guarantee, in the farm section, you’ll find a local farmer that’s selling meat from his farm. It may not be legal (which is a TRUE crime), but it will taste better, and probably be CHEAPER than the regular industrial meat you buy on sale at the grocery store. These farmers often have weekend sales where you can buy a dozen cleaned and packaged chickens, bring them home and toss them in your freezer, and you’ve got incredible chicken for a month. Yes, it’s out of your way. But I can’t tell you how much you’ll be glad you did it. And your food will taste infinitely better, too. All that…and you can go to bed with a conscience that knows you made the RIGHT CHOICE for yourself, your family, your farmer, and his animals.
(If you would like to delver further into this matter, I highly recommend the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. It is incredible.)