Surprise! Another quest for “ethical eating” ends in an omnivorous diet  »

GQ's food writer, Alan Richman, has an eight-page article in the July issue on his recent “ethical eating” odyssey, and is it ever illuminating and not at all like The Omnivore’s Dilemma rehashed!

Sorry, that was a lie. In reality, his conclusions are not very far from Michael Pollan’s, except Richman’s a lot snider getting to them. Underneath his Big Quest persona, he seems kind of angry:

"Today our true believers fervently pursue such principles as ecologically sound, socially just, humane, halal, kosher, nitrite-free, gluten-free, free-range, certified organic, or raw, whatever their cause demands. Yet not even vegans, our ultimate culinary ideologues, can match the commitment of those who dedicate themselves to the land. Farmers are, literally, America’s unwashed nobility."

This sets the tone for the entire article: Richman loves and idealizes farmers, and dismisses vegans and vegetarians out of hand. Here’s a typical zinger: “I don’t romanticize vegetables. I don’t believe in their nobility, nor have I been convinced by those who claim plants have feelings and scream silently when tossed into a hot pan. (I wouldn’t mind if that were true, since it would require vegans to starve themselves to death.)”

Poor Alan Richman wants it both ways: to be able to eat ethically without taking into account the fact that killing animals is unethical. Raising animals to kill them for your meal is unethical.

Check it: “‘We Americans prefer not knowing that the food we eat had a life. That way we don’t have to face the awful truth—that the food we eat had to die. We push away fish that arrives whole, with its glazed eyes, distressed not by the fate of the animal but by our own discomfiture, a dinner date ruined. Most of us would prefer that our livestock were treated indifferently, even inhumanely. If we consider animals inconsequential, a meaningless food source, we won’t be ill at ease when they emerge from the kitchen nicely cooked.”

Wrong, Richman. Vegans don’t eat animals because we know they have lives, and we aren’t so selfish as to presume we have the right to take away their lives for our meals. We’re the ones going undercover in slaughterhouses to expose the horrific conditions for the workers and the animals, and the ones protesting those conditions. We do not consider any animals inconsequential, because we don’t make an arbitrary distinction between “food” and “pet.”

Eric Ripert, however, does make incomprehensible distinctions: he’s a practicing Buddhist, and “says that if he were to operate his restaurant under those religious teachings, the decision of what to feed customers would be simple: vegetables, nothing else.” And I’d play the Goldberg Variations, but I don’t own a piano, so I can’t. You are a practicing Buddhist, but you own several seafood restaurants, and as a judge on Top Chef you eat all kinds of animal products without blinking. So what’s the point of mentioning this, exactly? It’s not endearing—it sounds crazy. Of course not all Buddhists are vegetarians, but saying you would serve vegetables, except you already serve fish, so you can’t—that is fucking stupid.

Equally stupid is Dan Barber’s assertion that “Where we are, the environment is telling you to eat meat.” Did he ask the soil himself, Richman? Did you put your digital recorder down to the soil? It’s one thing to need a few animals to help with the ecosystem; it’s quite another to house “an animal-breeding facility.” That’s using them, which is gross and disrespectful. But Alan Richman loves farmers! So Dan Barber can have sockeye salmon flown to upstate New York from Alaska because he believes they have the best fisheries, and it must be acceptable because he’s a farmer and a chef. Don’t question him, he’s supreme master meat-farmer.

Then of course Richman gets to bring up Mollie Katzen’s later-in-life switch to an omnivorous diet: “‘For decades I ate brown rice, broccoli, and tofu…. And I felt tired, depressed, and irritable. As I’ve aged, I’ve felt a need for animal protein.’” Omnivores love it when vegans and vegetarians start eating animal products again, like it’s a giant game of red rover and they’re winning. Mollie Katzen is a grown-up and entitled to her own decisions, though maybe if she’d been able to eat more delicious vegan cheeses, tasty protein sources, or even just more non-animal-based fats (olive oil! avocados!), maybe she wouldn’t have felt this “need.” Who can say? None of us here eats exclusively brown rice and vegetables, though.

Ultimately, it seems like Alan Richman’s problem is that even if he could find food that met his nebulous standards, he wouldn’t know what to do with it, and further, he has no faith in “we” “Americans.” Again, if he stopped ignoring the non-animal-eating community, he might stop despairing so much. We know how to cook at home, because the majority of restaurants in the majority of the country do not cater to us. Instead of using the whole animal, we use the whole vegetable—cook the leafy greens, and use their hard ribs for stock. Our diets are richer, cheaper, healthier, more varied, and (arguably) more delicious than an omnivorous diet.

Richman moans that “We no longer regard food as a gift, the way so many foreign cultures and religious families do. Instead of giving thanks and expressing gratitude on holidays, we gorge ourselves with meat.” Has the idea of a Thanksgiving without meat ever occurred to him? It’s fantastic. What about potlucks, or brunches? Within the vegan community, we cater to each other while we work and wait for the greater community to cater to us. Group meals are exciting and fun, each dish a present to friends. We get a lot of joy out of cooking and eating, part of which comes from knowing that animals didn’t suffer and die for our meals. How exactly is that "ethical eating run amok"?

Richman’s narrow-mindedness does him a serious disservice. If he really wanted to discove how to eat ethically, he should have researched vegans and/or vegetarians. Otherwise, he frames his article disingenuously: this is “talking to independent farmers and a couple of restaurateurs about how I can feel less guilty about eating the same way I do now.” And that is a bunch of bullshit. At least Michael Pollan made an effort. Alan Richman used his budget to travel around eating a lot, get his relatives to write about their own hard work living consciously, and type up the same stuff everyone else has been saying about eating meat and vegetables and Alice Waters and Dan Barber since the publication of The Omnivore’s goddamn Dilemma. What a waste of time.

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