Friday, June 6, 2008

Are Locavores Sadists?

Chicken farmer and San Francisco Bay Guardian columnist L.E. Leone has written a truly excellent piece for Slate about the reality of killing chickens titled “There Will Be Chicken Blood.”  (Why can’t I have a crew of witty copy editors writing my post titles?  I’d be much better off.  Let me know if you’re interested in the job.)

Leone examines a pseudo-trend that has tagged along with locavores’ worship of Michael Pollan:  “hip, young, smart, liberal-arts-college graduates” raising and butchering their own chickens.  She also describes, with elegance and humor, her own experience caring for and then beheading her chickens:

When I do what I do with a hatchet and a chicken, I feel like crap, and I feel like God. I feel alive and in love and closer than ever to death. So I guess that is, for me, mixed feelings, yes. And the mix itself is welcome and intensely gratifying. In fact, it's almost too much. Too swirly, too soupy. I can tell you that the part of this swirl which seems "good," as opposed to "evil," has absolutely nothing to do with foiling the chicken industry or saving the environment or taking personal responsibility for my role in the food chain. It has to do with getting a little bit bloody and gross, like the complicated, hungry animal that I am.

And this is where, despite the beautiful writing, Leone loses me.  I simply cannot imagine feeling gratification from killing an animal.

After I wrote about foie gras, I emailed back and forth a bit with a journalist I know who’d spent time on a foie gras farm in the south of France.  He told me that the farmers there treated their geese with great care and almost loved them—but that they force-fed, slaughtered and ate the birds without reservations.  I had the same reaction then as I do now to Leone:  Isn’t that just a little sadistic?

Hypothetically, I have great admiration for farmers who kill their own animals for meat.  It goes without saying that chickens like Leone’s, who are serenaded by their owner every evening, are far better off than the birds in battery cages from which Americans obtain most of our chicken meat and eggs.   And it goes without saying that it takes great fortitude to face the unpleasant underbelly of meat—the fact that it necessitates the death of an animal—in a day and age when a person can eat hundreds of hamburgers without ever having seen a cow in real life.   In theory, I think more omnivores should be killing chickens and cows and pigs.

But feeling pleasure, power, from slaughtering an animal?  I imagine that the feeling that Leone describes so deftly, which seems to be on a par with Pollan’s feelings after killing a boar in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is a psychological necessity:  the ego’s way of processing the magnitude of causing the death of another being. 

But it’s not a feeling I want to feel, which is why I think I’ll be perfectly happy returning to vegetarianism once this trial period of omnivorousness is over. If I have an inner sadist, I’d rather not know about her. 


beartoe said...

Laura, your great-grandmother Edith was a locavore on her farm in Illinois. I saw her decapitate chickens with a hatchet and pluck them (which is a task that she considered more of a PITA than the killing). She had a substantial garden also. I can say with certainty that she took no pleasure from the killing, but that it was necessary to put dinner on the table.

Laura said...

I take your point there was, fairly recently, an age in which killing animals was a true necessity and in which nearly everybody killed their own animals. But how can you be so certain of your grandmother's inner thoughts and feelings? Look, I'm not passing moral judgment on those who slaughter animals. My point is that killing animals opens a psychological can of worms that seems (to me) undesirable, and that vegetarianism handily allows one to avoid said psychological can of worms.

Ann said...

Apparently I am related to an aspiring locavore. Scroll down to the bridesmaids.