Thursday, August 28, 2008

On Animal Liberation

If I have been quieter than usual over the past couple of weeks, I can blame it only partially on the fact that I’ve been traveling.  The other part is that now that I have returned to vegetarianism, the issues surrounding meat seem more complicated than ever.

In my search for clarity, I have finally gotten around to reading Animal Liberation, Peter Singer’s seminal philosophical treatise on the moral indefensibility of humans’ treatment of animals.

I am hardly the first reader to peruse Singer’s arguments—the book has been reissued twice since its original publication in 1975—and many authors and thinkers have responded to the claims in Animal Liberation with more skill and insight than I can hope to achieve. 

I can do little more than echo what many have surely thought after reading Animal Liberation:  this book is moving and troubling.  Its philosophical reasoning is airtight, and its descriptions of factory farms and scientific laboratories are horrifying.  I finished the book wanting everyone I know (and everyone I don’t know) to read it—not because I want to indoctrinate them to be “vegangelists” (as some have cleverly and accurately put it), but because the book raises issues that aren’t often talked about yet that every conscientious person ought to consider.

The trouble is that Animal Liberation is not high on most people’s literary to-do list, and that, taken out of context, Singer’s claims sound laughable or offensive. People do not like to be accused of “speciesism,” to use Singer’s neologism, just as they don’t like to be accused of racism or sexism. People do not like to think of themselves as tyrannical human overlords cruelly exploiting hens for their eggs.  People particularly do not like hearing comparisons between modern-day treatment of animals and Nazi treatment of Jews and minorities during the Holocaust.

When faced with these claims and accusations out of the context of a coolly logical argument, the average omnivore understandably feels estrangement from and anger towards his or her vegetarian accuser.  (I speak from personal experience.  It’s not fun to be harangued for one’s dietary choices.)

So what can be done to bridge the gap between those Singerite vegetarians who wholeheartedly wish to reduce animal suffering and those who choose to eat meat?

Obviously, there are many potential ways to answer this question, but one important move that shouldn’t be underestimated is for animal rights activists to lay off their moral absolutism, self-righteousness and judgment of meat-eaters.  Animal Liberation is far more levelheaded and unemotional than the average anti-meat propaganda, but even Singer is prone to asking readers to

recognize the moral necessity of refusing to buy or eat the flesh or other products of animals who have been reared in modern factory farm conditions.  This is the clearest case of all, the absolute minimum that anyone with the capacity to look beyond considerations of narrow self-interest should be able to accept.

I beg to differ.  Many thoughtful and compassionate people choose to eat meat for a variety of reasons, not all of which are trivial.  I think that anyone can make small dietary changes, short of forsaking all meat—and even short of forsaking all factory farm meat—to reduce animal suffering.  The simplistic view that anyone who eats meat is necessarily selfish accomplishes nothing but division and resentment.

Utilitarianism, the philosophical school to which Singer subscribes, holds that the consequences of an action determine its moral value.  The consequences of educating people about where their food comes from and in listening compassionately and respectfully to their reasons for eating meat cannot be anything but good.

Judging, lecturing and accusing meat-eaters of selfishness, on the other hand, will lead only to more alienation and reluctance to change.  What’s utilitarian about that?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Other Omnivores' Recommendations

Alas, due to constraints of time, budget and metabolism, I was not able to try as many kinds of meat in Paris as I wanted to.  But for the sake of others looking to increase their intake of dietary cholesterol in the City of Lights, I’d like to share some of the restaurants and dishes that were recommended to me but that I wasn’t able to experience firsthand.

Dan, author of the charming and ebullient Kitchen Geeking, lived in Paris in the early ‘00s and recommends meat curries at “a fantastic Indian place just behind Metro Courcelles.”  If my Internet research isn’t faulty, this restaurant just might be Villa Punjab at 15, Rue Léon Jost.  (And while you’re up in the 17th arrondissement, why not take a stroll through the lovely, underrated Parc Monceau?)

Andrew, a friend whose knowledge of Paris’s restaurant scene outstrips that of everyone else I’ve met, recommends Chez l’Ami Jean, whose Basque-tinged cuisine is, he claims, “pretty meat/fish-centric, very rich, and very tasty.” 

My discriminating friend Katherine, who spent this past spring in Paris, recommends ordering risotto St. Jacques (champagne risotto with scallops) whenever the opportunity presents itself.  Never having tried scallops is the one meat-related regret that still gnaws at me, so I urge all Paris inhabitants and visitors to avoid my sorry fate and take Katherine’s advice.

Do you have any other suggestions for un repas carné in Paris that really shouldn’t be missed?  By all means, leave a comment.

Image © James Camp |

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A Note to Readers

My days as a temporary omnivore in Paris are a thing of the past, but I’m not quite finished with this blog.  I'm eating vegetarian now but am planning to have one last meat-containing meal with Tristan when I get back to New York in September, and, until then, I’ll keep posting here (with a little less frequency than usual).  How does America’s food system look up close to someone who’s been eating in France for a year?  What are the symptoms of meat withdrawal?  How difficult will it be to say no to barbecue-proffering family members I haven’t seen in more than a year?  Stay tuned to find out.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Le Bistrologue Revisited

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”  –Ernest Hemingway

Something seemed right about going back to Le Bistrologue for lunch on my last day in Paris.  It was a sunny day; a cool breeze combed through the leaves of the tall trees that line Boulevard Diderot—a reminder that fall was coming, and that I would not be there to see it.  My cousin Nora and I took a table on the sidewalk, consulted the chalkboard menu, talked about our regrets about living in France.  I couldn’t come up with too many. 

I was in a fuck-all sort of a mood.  Leaving France will do that to you.

I ordered a glass of Sancerre.

I ordered foie gras, which came in three trapezoidal taupe tiles speckled disquietingly with yellows and purples that were undetectable on the tongue.  I spread it on toasted baguette, sometimes adding a little fig jam from the side of my plate; I cut off small squares of the pâté with my fork and put them in my mouth and felt them melt away.  “Rich” is a word I throw around a lot when describing food, but Le Bistrologue’s foie gras made me feel like the boy who cried wolf. 

I ordered confit de canard, which had been speared with a sprig of rosemary and a bay leaf that looked like flags claiming a virgin continent.  Fat had seeped into the duck leg, reducing its flesh to soft brown flinders that separated from the bone with the merest prodding of a fork.  The skin was crisp in places, soft and quivering in others; the dark meat evoked Thanksgiving turkey to my still unskilled palate.  The confit was served with a heap of caramel-colored fried potato cubes and a sorry-looking green salad.  I saw no need to touch the salad; I couldn’t get enough of the potatoes.

I ordered fondant au chocolat, two moussy slices in a pool of crème anglaise, then I swapped with Nora for her crème brulée:  shiny, deep yellow custard under a sheet of burnt sugar that stuck in my teeth.  

It was a fine French meal. 

I had spent much of my time in Paris complaining:  about the coldness of the locals, about the red tape around every corner, about the soullessness of a city whose heyday is long past.  But when I boarded my plane at Charles de Gaulle the day after my meal at Le Bistrologue, I could already feel the sepia tones trickling across my memories of Paris.  And at the top of the list of memories to be romanticized was this poultry-fat-laden, impeccably Gallic lunch at Le Bistrologue, this meal that I have no intention of trying to recreate but that I will likely take with me for the rest of my life.