Archive | January, 2012

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”

31 Jan

In keeping with my tradition of discussing books years after they’ve been published, I bring you “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. There’s a few things I want to get out of the way before I tell you how much Pollan annoyed me with his attitude toward animals and how it reached a point where I couldn’t believe the things this jackass was saying and doing. The things I want to get out of the way are: this is a great book, he is a great writer, and if you haven’t read it you should and almost must.

There. I feel better. Now on with the dissection.

Pollan’s book is divided into three parts. He visits a corn farmer in Iowa who grows for big ag, he visits a small farmer in Virginia whose farm is self-sustaining and designed to follow the natural order of animal and plant life, and then in the last part of the book he hunts and gathers.

Along the way he gives a pretty detailed description of the factory farm system, the big ag system, and the big organic system. And he eats a lot of meat.

He eats at McDonald’s, he kills and cooks a chicken from the small farm, and he hunts down a wild pig which, with the help of a friend, he butchers and then cooks and eats.

He leaves no doubt that he’s horrified by the treatment of animals in the factory farming system, and he throws off information I’d never heard before despite reading a lot on this topic. (He says that McDonald’s tolerates a five percent error rate when it comes to cows still being conscious as they’re cut apart on the assembly line. Almost 70 head of cattle move down one of these assembly lines PER MINUTE, and according to Pollan, McDonald’s permits 1 in 20 of them – we’re talking THREE PER MINUTE – to still be conscious when the chain saws start their work.)

In a chapter entitled “The Ethics of Eating Animals” he speaks to Temple Grandin, famous for designing the ramps and other parts of the slaughtering process, who tells him that when it comes to slaughtering cattle “there is the pre-McDonald’s era and the post-McDonald’s era – it’s night and day.” Pollan then says, “We can only imagine what night must have been like.”

And yet despite this information, Pollan says, “In the end each of us has to decide for himself whether eating animals that have died in this manner is okay. For my part, I can’t be sure, because I haven’t been able to see for myself.” HUH? You just heard about the process from the woman who designed it – do you think conditions might actually be BETTER than what she’s telling you? If not, what difference does it make if you see it for yourself or not, except for the obvious difference which is that you don’t have the image of live cows being chain-sawed to make you think twice before cutting into your next steak at The Palm.

He then goes on to compare the industrial slaughterhouse to the small family farm where he personally slit the throats of some chickens, and says it makes him realize why the small farm’s accessible-to-customers slaughtering area “is such a morally powerful idea.” And this reveals perhaps Pollan’s greatest weakness. Whenever he does something that I imagine most vegans would believe is immoral, he brings up the issue of morality to justify his actions.

How is being able to watch your chicken-provider slaughter your chicken a morally powerful idea? What he really means every time he says “moral” is “guilt-assuaging.” But his powers of denial don’t let him see it that way. To him, being able to see HOW the chicken is killed also provides the reason WHY it’s okay to kill it. But there’s really two separate things going on here. One is the issue of humane slaughter. To the extent that the chicken-farmer’s method is relatively quick and complete, then yes, it’s better than a method that leads to a drawn-out, excruciatingly painful life and death. But a painless death doesn’t equal a morally acceptable death. (And I’m not willing to concede that these deaths are painless or even near-painless.) Without explicitly saying so – since it’s probably hard for him to let his thoughts and conscience focus on this too clearly – he conveys that it’s acceptable to take this life because it’ll taste good when he eats it. The animal’s right to be free from such a killing doesn’t enter into it, yet alone a human’s right to kill another animal for this purpose. The deeper, more difficult and vexing questions aren’t even considered here.

Peter Singer and other living thing.

Not that the rights of animals are never discussed. Far from it. He conducts his argument against veganism by attacking the animal rights thinkers, particularly Peter Singer. He accuses Singer and others of  “argument from marginal cases.” But what’s so striking is that he’s plainly guilty of doing that very same thing.

He says that the creatures on the small farm he stayed at for a week are clearly happy, while admitting that this is “but a speck on the monolith of modern agriculture.” Yet he goes on to use this small farm as evidence that “animal rightists betray a deep ignorance about the workings of nature.”  Who’s arguing from the marginal case now?

He goes on to say, “The surest way to achieve the extinction of the species would be to grant chickens a right to life.” Again, he is arguing from the margins. Let’s get to the point where the factory farms and their billions of tortured chickens are gone and every chicken is raised the way they are on the bucolic farm he visited and then we can have this conversation.

He adds that, “Predation is deeply woven into the fabric of nature, and that fabric would quickly unravel if it somehow ended, if humans somehow managed to ‘do something about it.’”  But is factory-farming part of the fabric of nature? Is it natural predation that maintains a healthy eco-system? It is the opposite. And let’s not cite bison hunting as an excuse to eat meat when if I’m not mistaken that’s not how most meat is currently obtained.

I suppose you could say that I too am guilty of arguing from marginal cases, by constantly returning to the factory farm, and wanting to continue to use that as the basis by which meat-eating is judged, and I guess that’s true, if 99 percent of something is considered the margin.

He refuses to allow that the animal rights movement has developed and grown specifically IN RESPONSE to the factory farm. Thus it is intellectual fraud to keep returning to ancient predation and tiny pastoral farms to find examples to refute the “animal rightists.” His romantic notion of food is a relic, and it’s built upon a sea of horror, which while he acknowledges, he refuses to connect to his foodieism and his defensiveness of his continued consumption of animal products.

He insists on seeing animal rights as absolutist, because of course it’s easier to argue from there. But take Freedom of Speech, which the Bill of Rights says, “shall not be abridged.” But of course the Supreme Court has carved out numerous exceptions to these unabridgeable rights because society needs to be able to function without — to use a trite example — screams of fire in a movie house.

If a pitbull grabs your toddler in its jaws, Pollan would practically have you believe that animal rights advocates would insist you simply shrug and start preparing funeral arrangements.  Or that you couldn’t swat that mosquito before it took your blood and left you a souvenir welt. I know I’m repeating myself but it’s flat-out stunning how he mocks arguing from marginal cases and then proceeds to do it for the entire chapter without even a hint of self-awareness. “Animal rights’ exclusive concern with the individual might make sense given its roots in a culture of liberal individualism, but how much sense does it make in nature?” By now, even though he would deny it as a complete bastardization of his thinking, one can only draw one conclusion, which is that he regards factory farming as “nature” and intends to defend his continued consumption of animal products on that basis.

He says that animal rights “could only thrive in a world where people have lost contact with the natural world.” Well, people HAVE lost touch with the natural world and that’s why animal rights IS thriving. There was no Underground Railroad without slavery!

It seems to me that until we are in a situation where the small-farm meat that Pollan saw and produced himself when he personally slit chicken’s throats is widely available we don’t need to have this argument. A conversation in 1943 about whether the statement “Jews are good at business” is a compliment to Jews or an example of anti-Semitism would certainly not have been an excuse to let the Holocaust rage on. Pollan recognizes factory farm conditions for the nadir of humanity that they are, yet he still eats at McDonald’s in the book. And while I’m sure that’s not his usual favorite dining spot, how often does he know the providence of the eggs used in the gourmet items I’m sure he consumes at fine restaurants on a regular basis. Same for the items he makes or consumes when he’s home.

I’ve no doubt someone like him, a foodie, especially one with an open eye to factory farm conditions, goes out of his way when he can to buy from small farms where he thinks and hopes the conditions didn’t veer into evil. But what’s the percentage of his eggs, dairy and meat that’s produced that way?

If he’s made a total commitment to ONLY eat eggs, meat and dairy whose sourcing he’s certain of, then I don’t have nearly as big of a problem with what he’s doing. At that point, he’s doing much more than most people alive today will ever do. But I find it hard to believe that’s the case.

The final part of the book is about “hunting and gathering.” He gathers mushrooms and he hunts a wild pig, which I found confusing given his earlier statement about the potential extinction of chickens.

He bases his whole justification for eating meat on the domestication of the animals and the fact that the chickens on the bucolic farm wouldn’t have gotten the chance to live what he believes to be a good life if not for their being raised for food, and then he goes out and shoots a wild pig. And he says the pigs seem to roam in a group of six, with maybe three such groups in the forest. So thinning the herd can’t be a justification.

So then what’s the justification for killing one of these pigs, which he’s already described as more intelligent than dogs? What’s the justification for the sorrow that might come to the mother or baby of the pig he killed? The justifications he offered for eating meat aren’t even recalled and then tossed aside – they’re long forgotten.

He stretches to justify his hunting of pigs by saying, “They rip up great swaths of land with their rooting, exposing it to erosion and invasive weeds.” This is exactly the kind of natural process he glorifies earlier in the book, but now, needing to feel better about shooting an intelligent animal in the face, he grasps for pejoratives like “erosion” and “invasive.”

Later, while butchering and eating the pig with his friend, he says, “Eating it at Angelo’s kitchen table, even amid the raw cuts of meat arrayed on the counters around us, I suddenly felt perfectly okay about my pig—indeed, abut the whole transaction between me and this animal that I’d killed two weeks earlier.” Well I’m glad you felt okay about “your” pig — and what exactly was this transaction between you and “your” animal? That you get to eat it and in exchange it gets to be killed?

He adds, “Now it was all a matter of doing well by the animal, which meant making the best use of its meat by preparing it thoughtfully and feeding it to people who would appreciate it.” How does this do well by the animal? Once the animal is dead, it doesn’t give a shit if it gets eaten or tossed into a Dumpster or thrown into the sea. What you really mean is that it was a matter of doing right by you, or more specifically, you’re conscience, by not feeling that you wasted its life since you were the one to take that life away from it.

This whole chapter is a serious of ridiculous statements. He goes to such great lengths to justify and rationalize his consumption of meat and other animal products that you feel like you’re his shrink sitting there while he prattles on and on in a manner that you can’t imagine even he finds convincing.

–  “Another thing cooking is, or can be, is a way to honor the things we’re eating.” Please, don’t anyone ever honor me this way, okay?

–  “But cooking doesn’t only distance us from our destructiveness, turning the pile of blood and guts into a savory salami, it also symbolically redeems it, making good our karmic debts: Look what good, what beauty can come of this!” So killing someone would be okay if we made a beautiful painting with their blood?

– “…it was cheering to realize just how little this preindustrial and mostly preagricultural meal had diminished the world. My pig’s place would soon be taken by another pig.”  This is pig as commodity, as widget. Otherwise you can say the same about human life. I killed this baby, but another baby will be along soon enough.

– “Under the pressure of the hunt, anthropologists tell us, the human brain grew in size and complexity.” How is this an argument for meat-eating? Certainly nowadays it’s much harder to hunt down a vegan meal than to find a meat one, no?

WHAT HE NEVER COMES OUT AND EXPLICITLY SAYS IS: I KNOW IT’S WRONG AND I DO IT ANYWAY.

Instead it’s page after page of convoluted rationalizations not worthy of the intelligent person who wrote the rest of this book.  But hey, that’s easy for me to say, I don’t eat animals anymore. And it’s also “easy for me to say” in the sarcastic way because I did the exact same thing he did, for almost half a hundred years.

I think Pollan’s problem, which goes completely unacknowledged by him, is that as a foodie he wants to hang with a certain crowd. He’s a celebrity in that crowd, and he enjoys that status, I’m sure. He’s not about to invite the disdain and wrath of that crowd and risk exclusion by turning down much of what they offer, or eating side dishes when joining them at “fine” restaurants, or, god forbid, pointing out to them as they raise the fois gras to their lips that they really shouldn’t be doing that. That it’s MORALLY WRONG to be doing that. And that they all need to think twice about making any dish that requires cracking a few thoughtlessly acquired eggs.

Which raises the question of whether Pollan, someone whose eyes are no longer averted, someone aware of the full horrors of how, in his own words, all but a speck of current food is produced by a system that regularly, intrinsically inflicts brutal torture on the animal lives used to produce it, is worse than someone who either doesn’t know or more likely sort of knows or has a pretty good sense of it, but shuts themselves off from further consideration of the matter.

Eat your meat and shut up.

13 Jan

Can you look me in the eye and say that?

Whether it’s on big blogs like elephantjournal or sites like YouTube, I keep seeing a ton of things with titles like, “Why I’m eating meat again in 2012!”  Each one features an incredibly defensive former vegan offering a million reasons why they’re sick of vegans and how it’s impossible to satisfy the extremist rules of the vegan police and how for health reasons it’s become crystal clear they need to resume their meat consumption.

Maybe there are some people who have started eating sheep again sheepishly, but what I’ve seen have been big loud boasts. I don’t get it.

I mean, I get it that people might want to start eating meat again. There’s sacrifice involved in being vegan. For some people, it’s the taste of meggairy (meat, eggs and dairy) that they miss. For others it’s the social cost. Or maybe it’s the nuisance factor, or the feeling of being constrained by rules.

I’m not bothered by any of those but the social, which I’ve written about already. But what strikes me about these people who are returning to meggairy is that most of them use the language of people who would never go vegan and who revel in heaping disdain upon us.

Self-righteous assholes is one of the ways we’re described. Hey, I can be a self-righteous asshole, both before I was vegan and now, but where is the anger coming from? They also attack us for our rigidity and go to great lengths to let us know that veganism simply isn’t the right choice for everybody.

My guess is that these are personalities that need to try something new every few years. That need to change. That enjoy the feeling of doing something different. Because how hard is it to really go vegan in the first place? It wasn’t all that hard for me – someone who ate meat for almost half a hundred years, someone who didn’t really like vegetables all that much, someone who will oddly refer to themselves in the third person all of a sudden.

But here’s what I really don’t get: If you were vegan, or even vegetarian, for a long time, as many of these reverts seem to have been, then I can’t imagine you aren’t aware of the horrors of industrial animal production. Yet what’s missing from the rants that I’ve seen is any kind of acknowledgment along the lines of, “But I will only eat animals I feel were raised as cruelty-free as possible,” or “I will never eat fast food or any other meat whose origins I can’t ascertain,” or “I still will only eat animal products occasionally.”

It’s quite the opposite. It’s not only an explanation of why it’s no longer something they want to do, but rather it’s an indictment of anyone who continues to do it. We’re all just a bunch of hypocrites. Being vegan doesn’t work. We should worry about ourselves and stop judging others.

I imagine there’s a number of reasons why people go vegan in the first place, and a number of reasons why they go back, I just thought the reverts would go back to animals with their tails between their legs, not with their claws out and teeth bared.

But while I recognize that people go vegan for a number of reasons, I feel that people stay vegan for one reason: what they’ve learned about the lives of these animals makes them feel they simply can’t go back. And I wonder if the people who go back to meat ever watched any of the movies like “Earthlings” or read any of the books like “Eating Animals” or if instead being vegan was just another fad to them – a way to lose some weight or boost their heart health. Hey, that was me once, but then I read the books. Until I did I didn’t know if I could keep it up but after I did I knew I could never go back.

Eating animal products is far from illegal in this country, in fact it usually feels like it’s the opposite: it’s what our country wants us to do, not what it doesn’t want us to do. What I’m getting at is that these reverts can do what they want. If they learned enough about animal treatment to avoid animals that are victims of the industry’s worst horrors, then in a way they have returned to the carny world as better people.

Maybe it’s a good sign that they feel the need to lash out as they exit. Maybe it means they realize the enormity of what they’ve chosen to once again do. And that’s still a realization that almost everyone you know doesn’t realize.

So go ahead, reverts. Unleash your diatribes about how your body needs meat to function well. How it’s not a matter of eating wisely or supplementation but rather how there’s an optimal level of wellness for your body that simply can’t be achieved without meat. I’m not a doctor; maybe you’re right. Only you know how hard you tried to make it work for you.

Do what you want and eat what you want. But please, for just a minute, try to remember how you felt when you were on the receiving end of these attacks. Think about how disturbed it is for you to now be launching the same vicious criticisms that once made you question what you were doing or made what you were trying to do more difficult.. Try to remember how when you heard these criticisms, they rang like a bell of defensiveness and ignorance and self-righteous cruelty. Because that’s exactly what you’re doing now.

800 Degrees got 99 Problems (but the food ain’t one)

9 Jan

800 Degrees Pizza
10889 Lindbrook Drive
Los Angeles CA 90024
424.239.5010
Open 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.!

The L.A. vegan webiverse has been buzzing about a new pizzeria in Westwood Village called 800 Degrees and the fact that they offer Daiya. So how could I not try it?

Do you want the good news (the food) or the bad news (everything else) first?

I think I’ll give you the good news first in order to cut them some slack, since they’ve only been open a week: the pizza is very good. And well-priced. And it’s ready super-fast.

Pizza Marinara plus arugula, pine nuts and mushrooms.

I got two pies. One was the Pizza Marinara, a cheeseless pie with crushed tomato, garlic, oregano and olive oil. To it I added arugula, pine nuts and mushrooms. It was good. The toppings were super fresh. The only problem was… okay, I’ll save the problem for later. While the cheeseless pie was good, the Daiya pie was better. This was their Pizza Margherita, which comes with crushed tomato, olive oil and basil, and I subbed Daiya for the mozzarella and “parmigiano reggiano.”

The Daiya pie looked so much like a real cheese pie that when the guy at the counter where you pick it up slid it over to me, I thought he’d made a mistake. He double-checked and said it was definitely the Daiya one. And when I looked at the real cheese pizzas which other people were getting, which looked nothing like what I had, I realized he must be right.

Pizza Margherita with Daiya.

I’ve had plenty of Daiya pizza in my 16 vegan months but none looked like this. The cheese was so… melted. I know Daiya melts, but usually you can see its shreddiness, or at least the fact that it was once shredded, but not here. Maybe that’s a testament to how much Daiya they give you for what I think was a $2 substitution charge  (receipts are vague) or maybe it’s a testament to the heat of their oven (though my buddy with a pizza oven says his is 800 also) but this thing not only looked like a regular cheese pizza, and had the consistency of regular cheese, I swear it tasted more like regular cheese than any other vegan pizza I’ve had. That feeling of when your teeth cut into the cheese on the first bite is one that I never thought I’d experience again, which is a treat in and of itself, and then the fact that the taste is there too really makes you (or at least me) feel like I’m eating “real” pizza again.

The Daiya was also nice and warm all the way through, in contrast to an early complaint I’d seen online about the Daiya pie being warm on the edges but cold in the middle. But that does bring up one thing I should mention, which is that, perhaps due to the thinness of the crust (which I really liked) the pies do cool down faster than a typical pizza. Maybe I’d have been better off getting one pizza, having some, and then going back up for another, but there seems to be no way to get any kind of pass to cut the line for second-timers (but I’ll get to the issues with the line later).

Next Big Coke

I also want to tell you about beverages because, to my surprise and delight, they have one of the space-age Coca-Cola Freestyle machines! Okay, the Space Age was 50 years ago, we don’t even have Space Shuttles anymore, so I guess I should say they have one of the Pinterest-age Coca-Cola Freestyle machines! I’m not a big soda drinker, but I first read about these from one of my favorite food bloggers a couple of years ago and I’ve really wanted to try one since since I like me new things. New music, new restaurants, new news, I’m always hoping to find the next big thing. And there it was. And drinks comes with refills so you can try a bunch of the different flavors this thing can create. Turns out most of them were meh, and the Fanta Raspberry was so grossly medicinal I’d rate it a feh, but I did find one winning combo: Raspberry Coke.

If there’s a problem with the machine (besides Fanta Pukeberry) it’s that people haven’t seen one before and don’t know how to use it. And while by the second or third time I had the hang of it, at first it’s a big “What do I do?” which means that after waiting in a long line for pizza you now have to stand there behind a machine that turns even gadget-savvy hipsters into grandmas using checks at the supermarket. And yes, the guy in front of me did have a fedora.

But a slow soda line is the least of the bad news. And although the good news about the bad news is that it’s early and hopefully these are kinks that will be ironed out (I haven’t ironed any kinks since the Space Age, have you?) it still put a damper on this being a great experience.

Bad News Thing number one: There is nobody busing tables. The way this place works is you order, it’s ready as soon as you’re done paying, and you sit down. There’s no waiters on the floor. THERE’S NO NO ONE ON THE FLOOR. When I got there, the place had a line going already, and was pretty crowded, with three or four unoccupied tables. But all the tables still had the previous eaters’ dirty plates, cups and napkins all over them. After ten minutes of waiting in line, paying, and getting my food, still nobody had come out to clean these tables. Seriously. It was disgusting. Finally, after this was pointed out to the man in chef’s whites, he went and told someone who came out.

An unbussed table here, and there, and over there...

But did that person go to the customer the chef pointed to as having asked? Nope, he went and cleaned the table closest to him instead. *sigh* And not to pick on the guy who busses tables, the bigger problem is that to the extent there’s any of the supposedly professional owners of this place around — and you’d think they’d be around during their first weekend in business — they didn’t seem to notice or care that their dining room was a pig sty. In fact, it was so crazy I decided to take some photos of it, because by the time I finished eating there were six, seriously, six tables sitting uncleaned in the dining room. I don’t think anyone had come out to clean tables the entire time I was eating. And they use real plates, which is nice, but since they’re not set up for you to bus your own table, they need to have someone out there full time.

And while I’m on the subject of plates, that reminds me about the forks. The first two forks I took from the bin next to the cash register had food on them, as in the food of the previous person who used that fork. That is bad, bad, bad. (Or gross, gross, gross — you can decide.)

But I’m still not at the worst kink in need of an iron. You see, the way this place works is via the assembly line system. In fact, this place is more defined by lines than the Diary of a Wimpy Kid empire. In fact, I had tried to have dinner here the previous day, but the line was so far out the door and down the street that I gave up. This time I was luckier and although there was a line, it wasn’t yet out the door.

“So that’s the worst part, I.V.? The line?” Nope. The worst part is the employees working the line. Now look, I don’t want to be too harsh. And so far I’ve been generous given the number of bugs that need to be kinked out. Or ironed out. Or worked out. Whatever. And I can be very forgiving of the first guy in the line that you talk to, the one who takes your order, the one who, when I asked, “Can you get a topping on just half your pie?” said, “Uh, I don’t know, I’m usually working in the back.” After all, he was being honest, which I appreciated, and he was friendly, which goes a long way with me. He said I should ask the guy further down the line.

So I moved down the line — which is basically cafeteria-style except you don’t have a tray and they’re the ones moving your food along on the other side of the counter — and when I got to the next stop on the local, which was Toppings, the guy looked at me and was like, “Where’s your pizza? What did you order?” And not friendly either. Hostile. Very hostile. Bizarrely hostile. So I said, “I couldn’t order one because the first guy couldn’t answer my question and he told me to ask you,” and Mr. Hostile Black T-shirt gave me a look like, “Are you expletive kidding me you lying sack of expletive?” And then he looked over at the first guy behind the counter who said, “Yeah, I told him to ask you because I didn’t know.” This should have been as much of an explanation as Mr. Black Shirt needed, and I thought we’d start from scratch at this point, but nope. The hostility did not abate. And keep in mind, I hadn’t even mentioned the words “vegan” “Daiya” “fake” or “I don’t eat X” yet.

I think the problem was that their system allows for zero margin of error. Zero. So by inexplicably having the first guy who starts their process not know what he was doing, it turned the 800 Degree pizza line into the Lucy candy factory line. And whatever Mr. Black Shirt’s MBTI profile was, it was clearly the least-suited one for standing behind a counter and interacting with a long line of people. So after answering my question (yes, you can get a topping on half the pie but you still pay the full topping price) I began to order my toppings. Now I’m not a dawdling type. I knew what I wanted and I ordered it quickly. But apparently not quickly enough to satisfy this guy who maybe is like this at home too or maybe was overtaxed by the sight of the line which was almost to the door at this point.

The good part of this was that the Daiya substitution request was met with no additional disdain and no look of puzzlement (as opposed to other experiences in the restaurant’s first few days that I’d read about online). He quickly reached down and pulled out a tub of shredded Daiya and put a good amount on my pie and then sent me on my way. The bright side? The cashier I dealt with at the end of the line couldn’t have been friendlier. And just so you don’t think this guy was only like that to me, which is exactly what I thought, I actually watched him while I was eating, and he was hostile and curt with everyone!

So there. That’s my 800 degree barn burner. (Wow, that’s an even worse sentence than my hacky Lucy candy reference.) I would say go there for the food, which is already good, and hope that everything else will work itself out shortly and rise above its current level of sucks.  Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that the prices are very good for what this is. Five bucks for the cheeseless marinara pie (or fi dolla if you’re from Bayonne) and six bucks for the margherita pizza plus whatever toppings you want, which are all a buck apiece except for some of the carcass selections. And it’s open till 2 a.m.!

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