My New Year’s Resolution

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals…. They are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

- Henry Beston, The Outermost House, 1928

It can be easy to forget that food comes from somewhere. Those of us who eat animals tend to like it that way. For that reason, for most of my life, I’ve done my hunting in the deli case, training my shopping cart on plastic-wrapped livestock at rest in a Styrofoam pasture.

On a few occasions, though, I’ve seen my dinner alive before I’ve eaten it. On a road trip after college, my friend Ian and I snuck behind a poultry warehouse in Ohio, where culled chickens had been smashed against the pavement. We ate our egg sandwiches reluctantly. Another time, a confinement hog farmer in Indiana invited us in for pork chops, while our noses still burned from the stench of manure sloshing in the pit below the animals.

I’ve had good experiences, too––fresh milk drawn under Amish lantern-light, grass-ranging lamb roasted whole at sheepdog trials, the deer we hunted one fall in Iowa. Even when I didn’t like what I saw, there was something cathartic about those moments when I knew what I was eating. Connecting the dots between muscle and meat made me feel, in a way I hadn’t before, honest.

So this spring, when a friend called with an offer to join in a buffalo slaughter, I accepted, and left the house early on an April Saturday to meet him. We drove through urban Portland and the suburbs, just to the edge of the countryside. On the hill ahead of us was a freshly hatched clutch of McMansions, but in the foreground there was pasture––and buffalo. The animals, weighing more than a thousand pounds apiece, grazed placidly, majestically, almost prehistorically. Raised on good pasture, they spend their lives free from confinement, stress or pain, until––one at a time and in comfortable environs––they are harvested.

We clamored onto fence posts in time to see the rancher single out a mature animal and shoot. I felt the ache of witnessing death, then realized I wasn’t alone in my sadness. As the rancher knelt over the buffalo and hoisted it by chains with the bucket of a loader, the rest of the herd drew in close and lowered their heads. The loader lumbered across the field, and the herd lined up in a single-file procession to usher its dead to the pasture’s edge. The sight of animals mourning––in whatever way those silent creatures did––humbled me to my carnivorous core.

So this year I’ve decided to make one resolution, and it’s one I intend to keep for life. Having seen animals like that buffalo live and die with dignity, and having seen and (as a consumer) supported the opposite, I will not eat confinement-raised meat again.

It’s a commitment that I expect will be easy to keep at home: I already do as much shopping as I can at the farmer’s market. There, I get a handshake promise from the animal’s caretaker that the creature I’m eating touched grass, felt the sun, ate a diet free of hormones and additives, and was slaughtered with dignity.

Supermarket shopping is a little harder: chicken labeled “Free Range” may never have been outside, and beef termed “Organic” may have been fed a diet heavy in corn it wasn’t meant to digest. Doing the detective work to find out where my meat, eggs, and milk are coming from will be a challenge, but a fun one. I’ve got a cell phone, and every carton in the store has a toll-free number so I can ask what kind of farm my food is coming from.

Eating out promises to be harder, especially on the road. In college towns and fancy restaurants, food is given extra value when it can be traced to a family farm and advertised as such. But in most places, pork is pork, regardless of how the pig––an animal with clean habits and intelligence on par with a dog––lived and died. I don’t want to be elitist, but I don’t think asking for fundamental respect for the animals I’m eating is pretentious––it seems merely humane. So if I’m in a restaurant that’s making an effort––advertising its “natural” meat and “cage-free” eggs, I’ll have some (and probably order seconds if they’re from an extra good source). If the menu doesn’t advertise where the meat is coming from, I’ll ask. And if quality protein isn’t on offer, I’ll have the oatmeal, and leave a little business card behind:

compassionatecarnivore1

For good and bad, farmers, slaughterhouses, restaurants, and supermarkets make many of their decisions about animal livelihood based on what the market demands. If we, the consumer market, decide that 2009 is going to be another year of eating whatever’s cheap, abundant and easy, the outlook for the animals caught in our industrial net is sad. There is another option, but we have to decide that compassionate and carnivorous can go together.

8 thoughts on “My New Year’s Resolution

  1. I’ve taken up asking wherever I go about the origins of the food being served, and get a lot of funny looks (Even here in NYC, where unfortunately 99% of restaurants do not serve organic or pasture raised food). I agree that it isn’t elitist to care about these things. Its due diligence, food justice. These are responsible questions – we are collectively taking responsibility for our future. And the more we ask, the more we change the status quo.

  2. I’m attempting to start up a meat co-op in Denver, CO and I must admit getting it off the ground so it doesn’t suck up too much of my personal time and money is hard. Would love suggestions from anyone who has tried this elsewhere.

  3. Pingback: King Corn filmmaker changes diet « Later On

  4. Pingback: WorldWideWaterCooler » Blog Archive » Cooking Resolutions

  5. While I respect and admire your resolution to boycott the “products” of factory farming (quite possibly the most evil concept ever devised), I am disappointed by your dishonest euphemisms.

    You say “Connecting the dots between muscle and meat made me feel, in a way I hadn’t before, honest.”

    How honest is it to say that animals are “harvested”? They aren’t crops. They are sentient animals who feel pain, just like human animals do. If you want to be honest then say they are killed.

    You say that animals who are shot “die with dignity.”

    Is the same true for human gunshot victims? Is being held captive (albeit with more room than a pig in a gestation crate) and then shot and eaten really dignified?

    You say that you go “hunting in the deli case.”

    If the animals you eat are already dead, and you didn’t kill them, then it isn’t hunting. It’s scavenging.

    You say that you felt “sadness” when the buffalo was killed and that the other buffalo “mourned” the buffalo’s death and that this “humbled me to my carnivorous core.”

    Do you really think that true carnivores feel sadness when they kill and eat animals?

    Again, I respect your decision. I think everyone should boycott factory farming. But by saying that needlessly slaughtering animals is “humane” I think you are being as dishonest as those who would cram 100,000 chickens inside a windowless shed and call them “free-range.”

  6. I never know where to draw the line in blogs with regard to self promotion but in this instance, it seems relevant to the core of the subject matter. For those of you looking for restaurant dining with a conscious, go to our website http://www.ecofriendly.com and you’ll see a list of restaurant that we serve in the DC Metro area and Manhattan. We only supply humanely raised, pastured fed, chemical and medication free meats and poultry. These meats are from small family farms that follow the PolyFace (Joel Salatin) model of sustainable agriculture. Since every restaurant does not order from us every week, just call ahead and ask what EcoFriendly meat will be on the menu that week. And speaking of PolyFace, I believe they also have a list of restaurants served on their website (www.polyfacefarms.com), so go check them out too. Even if our products are not on the menu, these restaurants are the ones that we’ve found to be concerned about the quality of the products they’re serving and I’m sure will give you an honest response to your queries about what items on their menu meet your expectations. Bon Appetit!

  7. Pingback: That old chestnut: elitism

  8. Pingback: meat.pro is meat you can’t beat » King Corn Filmmaker Resolves to Give up Meat From Factory Farms