Thursday, April 29, 2010

Food Fun

I was thinking today about food. In our popular culture, increasingly food is being regarded as a form of entertainment, and this strikes me as odd. Food is sustenance, it is fuel; why it is now being seen as a source of fun is a bit puzzling to me. I do not cook, but I understand the enjoyment of mastering a certain cuisine or just in making a good meal, and I certainly admire truly talented chefs, even if it is only because I admire just about anyone who does well something I cannot do at all. I also understand the social value of food, both in its preparation and in its consumption. But the current fascination with food and its preparation as a form of entertainment is undoubtedly having a deleterious effect on our culture.

Obesity, of course, is a very grave problem in America today. That this should be so is a serious indictment of the state of our education and self-respect. That people should eat to such excess in such numbers speaks of a character deficiency in our population, and a woeful lack of education on the subject of health, nutrition, and exercise. Also, the nature of our diet as a people is nothing short of disgraceful. From an early age we become addicted to fats and sugars, and to the easy practice of consuming junk food. Our children are taught virtually nothing about nutrition, with the result that their health and the quality of their lives are put in jeopardy. Ignorance about what we put into our bodies is nearly as debilitating as ignorance about what we put into our minds and souls.

But I suppose what bothers me the most about this cultural fascination with food is what it says about our attitude toward that which we eat. The other night I had steak for the first time in years, and, frankly, though it was filet mignon, I found it disgusting. The very idea of eating the seared muscle and flesh of a dead animal is off-putting, and, not having tasted it in so long, I found the flavor horrible. Yet in our current fascination with food as fun, the rendering, cooking, and consuming of animals is being raised almost to the level of a cult.

This cult of animal eating cannot help but have a dehumanizing effect on our culture. I have never been a vegetarian, though I have tried to avoid any form of red or pink meat for both dietary and ethical reasons, but it cannot be denied that a meat-free diet, at least for adults, is a healthful thing. Nature provides us with more than enough vegetable and fruit products to maintain a nutritious diet, yet we continue not only to raise animals for slaughter, but now, increasingly, to treat their flesh and organs as sources of entertainment. Someone said that you can judge a society by how it treats its animals. If that is so then we stand convicted, since our attitude toward animals increasingly is that their deaths are a source of fun.

I have read that other countries will not import chickens from us because of the inhumane way in which we slaughter them (as if slaughter could assume a humane form). And I am as familiar as everyone else who cares to learn with the harmful effects of hormones and diseases associated with animal food products. Thus, I think that the combination of ethical and dietary arguments against at least an excessive use of animals as food are compelling. I am not suggesting that we all become vegans (in fact, I find such extremists tedious), but I do side with the argument that we ought to rely less on animal products and more on vegetables and fruit.

I have sometimes been asked whether I think that animals have rights. I can think of no right that an animal might possess except the right not to be abused. If it were possible to use animals as sources of food without abusing them, then I suppose the ethical argument against animal eating would be weakened or disappear altogether. I do not object to the use of animal products such as milk and eggs, for example, but I draw the line at slaughter, and the consumption of muscles, flesh, and organs. This, I think, is taking us in the direction of inhumanity. And humanity, even in the best of societies, is in chronically short supply.