Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Slope

Back when I thought I'd never not be a vegetarian, people used to ask me, "Well, why don't you eat only organic, free-range, ethically raised meat?" My answer was that to do so would be to start down a slippery slope. If I justified eating certain kinds of meat, it would then be very easy to start justifying eating other kinds of meat, and finally to start eating meat indiscriminately.

I've tried to avoid this fate since I had my first escargot in May. I've tried to be thoughtful when choosing the animals I eat. I've tried to steer clear of conventional meat. I swore to myself I wouldn't go to McDonald's, and I've kept that promise.

Still, in recent weeks, I've felt myself, well, slipping: some kosher-but-not-organic chicken here, some conventional supermarket bacon there, lots of farmed-salmon sushi in lots of places.

I didn't really realize how far I'd fallen until one day last week, when I made a lunchtime trip to the prepared food section of the Galeries Lafayette, home to a seemingly endless number of enticing culinary displays. I wandered past the couscous stand, the soup bar, the caviar kiosk. My stomach growling and my senses overwhelmed, I eventually chose the dim sum stand and took one of every kind of meat-filled dumpling I saw. Well, why not? I asked myself. I'd never had non-vegetarian dim sum before, and these looked delicious.

Reader, they weren't. The rice flour dough was gluey and gummy, the fillings greasy and rubbery. For the first time in my life, I truly appreciated what people mean when they talk about bad Chinese food. Furthermore, I truly appreciated what people mean when they talk about bad meat. The chicken was indistinguishable from the pork, which was indistinguishable from the beef. Each dumpling contained a bit of a carcass from a different factory-farmed animal, and each bit of carcass took flavorlessness to new heights.

In short, the whole meal was a terrible, terrible mistake. And while I know that everyone makes mistakes, I'm having trouble getting past this one.

When I was a vegetarian, the worst that happened when I made a mistake was a stomachache, or a hangover, or a burning feeling of embarrassment that would start to fade after a few days. As a meat-eater, I still make the kind of mistakes that lead to these consequences. But now I also make the kind of mistake that, in one go, contributes to the systematic torture and slaughter of several sentient beings.

I feel as though I'm always reading about conscientious omnivores, locavores who personally ensure that every morsel of meat that crosses their lips comes from a beast that was raised ethically and sustainably. But these people—if their existence isn't just an urban myth—have far more moral strength than I do.

The world of meat is tempting and deceitful, and I am far too clumsy, too flawed, to navigate it without occasionally stumbling. And, because the moral price is so high when I do stumble, I think I'll breathe easier when I back away from the slope and return to even ground.


Sophie said...

Hi Laura,
I'm sorry to hear about your recent episode with the dim sum soup. I think you have hit the nail on the head. Once we start to ignore our conscience and knowingly take actions that cause harm to others, we are on a slippery slope. It is like we are desensitizing ourselves. This not only causes harm to others, but ultimately is damaging to ourselves as well, as you have found. Time to call an end to your experiment?

Andrea said...

I think that what a "no meat, ever" rule does is remove the discomfort of moral ambiguity. And I can see how that would be very comforting.

I think it can be just as easy to only consume flesh foods wherein you know the source and quality of the meat.

I think what you are struggling with here is your own personal comfort with ambiguity. Once you clarify your standards for yourself, you will be more comfortable, and you will know what to do and whether or not you have crossed a boundary.

Life is full of ambiguity my friend. You kid yourself if you think you can make it all go away by simply not eating meat.

Rather than torture yourself over this, why not ask what other actions you can take toward the aolishment of the indistrial methods of animal farming? That's our real enemy, not whether or not you should feel bad about eating a dumpling. Maybe you don't trust yourself, but I think you can if you ask the right questions and answer honestly.

I loved your piece in Bitten, and that is how I found your wonderful blog. I look forward to reading more.

Andrea said...

Um, I meant to write "abolishment of industrial methods of animal farming" in that comment...


Laura said...

Sophie, I agree that eating meat requires a certain amount of desensitization, but I wouldn't say that I'm ignoring my conscience, only exploring its limits. I'm not ending my experiment prematurely (though it'll be over soon, since I'm leaving Paris in just a week), but I will certainly be more vigilant in my meat choices.

Andrea, you make excellent points about moral ambiguity and about industrial farming - thanks for bringing us back to the big picture.

Anonymous said...

You have to stop buying your food at food courts. Learn how to cook, seriously! That is another honorable French tradition.

Matthew K. said...

hi, I found your blog through the NY Times. I read your first entry and your latest one (not enough time to read everything in between at the moment). I recently wrote a mean article on why I'm against veganism on my food blog, but it was refreshing to see your point of view regarding the treatment of animals and how that's influenced your decision to be a vegetarian. Anyways, I'll be keeping up with your blog in the coming months.