It’s a wonderful life

(by Michael Ruhlman, guest blogger)

This continual talk about the ethics of eating creatures that were once living is starting to get on my nerves. It’s not enough that those knuckleheads in Chicago and those sensitivos in California want to waste their time on the foie issue and the Whole Foods people figured out a cool marketing tool in playing to our arrogant anthropomorphist inclinations—giving lobsters spa treatment so we feel better about driving a knife through their skull? Brilliant.

What’s next, no oysters? No sir—they’re alive! No more salmon roe—think of all those unborn salmon you’re smearing on your toast and dotting on your blini! All the good salmon deeds that will remain undone! All that emotional life of the unborn chickens! Gone! Delicately poached and nestled on frissée! Clarence the Angel where are you?

What is going on here? Lobsters are insects! Ducks are not harmed by gavage! The real victims are the agribusiness chickens, cows and hogs, but the animal rights activists can’t touch the culprits responsible, true goliaths. So instead The People try to save the little animals. But I say such people are either motivated by self-interest or ignorance.

Beyond the fact that our current hand-wringing foreshadows an America that increasingly regulates how we live our lives (with a government attempting, via warfare, to regulate how other countries run their lives), which is scary enough, the more insidious danger to me is that we think clams and ducks and lobsters are people too. They’re not. But the flip side to this is that, in a way, we’re not all that far off when we believe such things. This is the height of human arrogance, to think that we’re somehow above the animal kingdom. We have one trait beyond our handy opposable thumb: we know we’re conscious. Ducks are conscious, yes but do they know it? No. Perhaps some very advanced French duck is right now fitting a Gauloise into its cork-tipped filter and adjusting its existentialist beret, but not in America. They’re animals.

And so are we, but in our self-consciousness have become hubristic, and therefore harmful. Make no mistake: we are animals. I am no different from a salmon. Why else would I return to Cleveland!? Cleveland! I had to return. I returned by smell. I returned to spawn. I’m not kidding. There is no other logical justification for the apparently ludicrous decision to live in Cleveland when I don’t have to. I think if we acknowledged our place in the animal kingdom—happily at the top of the food chain—and stopped thinking we were so damned superior to animals, it would be a better earth all around. We are animals who eat other animals. There is nothing wrong with this. Has this country gone insane? Even the restaurant critic for the New York Times, former Italy bureau chief, a thoughtful and reasonable man with a powerful pen, he’s having a moral dilemma over his shrimp! This is crazy!

Where is Bourdain? Tony, you’re an evil motherfucker, but I know you’re with me on this one. Help me. Where are you? Iran? Turkey? Put down that opium pipe and get your skinny ass back to your own country and do your show here, before we lose it. We need a full and clear view of how far off the track we’ve gone with our most common and basic pursuit, to nourish ourselves and our families. We need smart voices to get us out of these woods. Where is Steingarten? Jeffrey, you scaly curmudgeon, speak up! We can’t lay it all on Pollan—he did his part. What about someone with real power to sway the American masses. Rachael Ray! How about it? She affects the cutesy Suzie next door but I know for a fact she’s got a pair of brass knuckles in the pocket of those fat pants of hers. Emeril! Millions listen nightly to you! Put down that tube of Crest and teach people about the food we eat! Wake up! It’s not about the ducks and the lobsters. It’s about the corn and the oil. About big business and powerful lobbying in DC. They want your money and that’s all they want. They want your money and you can give it to them or withhold it. Make good choices about what you buy and what you eat and what you feed your kids.

All right, I’m done, I haven’t even started my work this morning and I’ve gone and shot 700 words on a rant. I’m going to go eat a hot dog, that’s always a good morning restorative…


64 thoughts on “It’s a wonderful life

  1. Parrow: For crying out loud, I’m not advocating torture, nor is anyone, and I’m with you on the agribusiness issues, the awfulness of clipping pigss tails precisely to cause pain and other agribusiness practices are not defensible on any grounds.
    Yet you’re bent out of shape about Foie Gras? Because force feeding an animal to the point of liver failure is such a sweet and kind thing to do. Hey, but you’re only supporting the torture of a small number of animals rather than a large number, so that makes it ok.

  2. S. Parrow, i’d go further than that. i think the few farmers raising ducks for foie gras should be raised up, applauded and be used as genuine examples of humane farming. they’re treating ducks like ducks, not like units. i have not been to a foie farm. everything i’ve read and every journalist i’ve spoken with who has visited a foie farm has seen and sensed no unnatural stress, fear or pain on the part of the duck. and, yes, 400,000 ducks vs billions of units of chicken, cow and pig, that agribusiness raises at great environmental and helath care costs, is substantial in my mind.

  3. I used to be a vegetarian. I eat meat now. I accept that I’m on the top of the food chain, and I have no issue with eating meat. I do have an issue with how meat is generally raised in this country. I buy my meat in bulk directly from farmers who use sustainable methods and actually raise their animals on pasture. Here’s the thing: in the eyars since I’ve been doing this, I’ve spent a lot of time talking to farmers. Truly sustainable farming depends on animals – to clear land through foraging while enhacning the richness of the soil through manure, to use land that would otherwise be impossible to farm and to provide manure in the process. I know many, many vegetarians who eat tofu made from soy products that are grown in vast monoculture fields sprayed heavily with “organic” poisons to make up for the failure of the largest agribusiness “farmers” to rotate crops or otherwise feed the soil. Or soy products shipped from halfway around the world. Personally, I would rather support a small, local farmer growing sustainable and giving good lives to animals who do not suffer. Yes, they do ultimately die for my meals, but that is the way of nature.

  4. Using the logic that the foie gras is a drop in the bucket is no excuse…a very lame arguement. Otherwise, we could use that excuse for everything as global warming, overpopulation, war, famine, etc. are bigger problems.
    On happendstance, I have seen a farms where they raise ducks for foie gras and it saddened me far more than I could have imagined. A steel rod stuffing food down a ducks throat. Maybe some do not have much sensitivity for these things, but, although I found foie gras yummy, I could not rationally eat it due to what I saw.
    I can only assume folks who feel foie gras is okay to eat would support having horsemeat or dogmeat available at Safeway.

  5. Justin S, I was just about to swallow your argument about lobsters and foie gras being merely “entertainment” and not crucial to the survival of mankind. But then I realized that the same applies for any single food item. I can easily survive without tuna or even lamb chops (although i like both).
    It may well be that lobster and duck liver is mainly consumed by foodies and the rich but it’s not like those people first eat a pot full of porridge and then go to have some lobster, because it’s good entertainment. A half a lobster with butter has a nutritional value, so it is just food. Or would you say my dinner was less “recreational” if instead of lobster I’d have cod? This all winds back to whether killing a living creature for food is okay or not. And if we are not to eat lobsters or duck (yeah, it’s not like the rest of the duck is thrown away after they pull out the liver, or is it?), does it mean that shrimp and chicken production should go up by the lobster/duck share? Is that going to increase of decrease animal suffering and bad karma?
    And Pablo, why shouldn’t horse or dog meat be available in stores? Just because you don’t eat something doesn’t mean that somebody else wouldn’t be glad to. What makes a horse so much more special than a pig that it can’t be made into a sausage?

  6. it’s not like the rest of the duck is thrown away after they pull out the liver, or is it?
    No, it is not. The rest of its meat is used as well. That’s why good treatment of the animal is so important during its life.

  7. Kalle –
    I’m just glad you thought about it at all. Everyone has to make choices in life, we’re not all going to agree on them. My point was simply this, while I don’t agree that one needs meat to be healthy, I understand that eating meat is pretty ingrained into most human culture. And the fact is it’s not necessarily bad for you. But the fact is a living thing was killed for your food. Again – it could be argued that this is natural, animals eat other animals. What makes something like fois gras hard for me to take is that its not nutrition, fois gras is not good for you. In fact it’s quite bad for you. Its entertainment food. Don’t get me wrong I’m all about eating for fun. One thing I learned when I became vegetarian is that vegetarian does not mean healthy. I’m a goddamn pig. The thing for me was that I wasn’t willing to rob another living thing of its right to live a natural life so that I could have a good time. In the same way I couldn’t raise a pit bull to fight it.

  8. “I don’t have a problem with vegetarianism; if they want to deprive themselves of extraordinary pleasure and efficient nutrition, that’s their business.”
    Oh please. If you really didn’t have a problem with it, you wouldn’t be ranting about it in the first place. And on the internet, no less! People who REALLY don’t care don’t bother to make such needling remarks.
    What I really find funny is the people who want to defend their right to eat whatever the hell they want, but can’t afford the same opportunity to vegetarians. Are people more angry with the politics that they assume go with a veg lifestyle? What does that accomplish?

  9. Amusing rant. The whole thing is just an example of fundamentalism taking over the country. Whole Foods is the Jerry Falwell with PETA as Focus on Family. If you don’t eat foie gras or lobster why should it bother you if I do? I’m all for treating animals humanely before death. If you’re not gay and don’t want to marry a same sex partner why should it matter if I do? Everyone needs to go back to the New England idea of if it doesn’t directly interfere with my life and doesn’t hurt anyone (well except for the tasty critters) then it’s none of my business.

  10. Note to Michael, not responsive to the PETA debate:
    I am now on your most recent book (“Reach of a Chef” for those not up to date), and just yesterday finished Bourdain’s recent compilation of “Nasty Bits”; you both have gone where no one has gone before. When I read the first book each of you published I thought: “No one has ever written anything like this!” and despite Tony’s conviction that he’s derivative, you and I know he’s not. And what other chef, or person who has worked the line, has ever written about the craft? I am a teacher, and a writer about teaching, and not many of us write about what we do either. Mostly, reporters cover what we do, as teachers or chefs. I am an ardent admirer of both you and Tony—and particularly like that you fully appreciate one another. Keep writing from the trenches! No one else is doing it….

  11. Oh, Ruhlman, Ruhlman – just when I was missing a good Bourdain rant (selfish f_____ is busy trying to get evacuated from Beirut – some excuse!), you step up to the plate! No more of the measured, balanced reportorial tones of any of your “Chef” books . . . no more the sane straight man to Bourdain’s Prince of Darkness – no, no, mon ami! You have unequivocally stepped out of your white bread Midwestern preppy father closet and up to the plate into the gritty, unblinking light of no holds barred food fighting – YES, my man! YES!
    I was hoping chefs across the nation would come out swinging about the stupid f____ foie ban and that Tony would apply his trademark vitriol to the issue, but he seemed . . . well . . . pessimistic. Defeated. Resigned about the issue. Maybe it was turning 50. Maybe his new girlfriend has worn him out. He just hasn’t seemed himself since the birthday party you engineered for him.
    Anyway, now that the Chicago City Council has banned foie AND is thinking of banning the use of all trans-fats in restaurants, we definitely need fullblown, fill-time ranters about these and other culinary stupidities. So please rant away, before this stupidity spreads to New York. I can’t speak for the NY chef contingent, but let those mutants try implementing such a ban here, and the first thing I will be turning into pate de foie gras will be every PETA member I can get my hands on. Do you know how much g______n paint I had to duck back in the 80s and 90s, when they were out flinging it on socialities in fur coats? And I don’t even wear fur!
    So . . . roast the bones of PETA and other food Nazis first, right? Then the liquid, then anything else I care to add, then simmer – and be careful not to left the raft break, right? Or should I just slow roast a few and call it even? Dilemma . . . dilemma . . .maybe . . . Charcuterie?

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