Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Food Ethics or We Are All Diseased

I teach a unit in Passages 2 (the highest level book before students decide to do full-time study of either IETLS or TOEFL) about animal ethics, which has a very different meaning in China than it does in America. One of the conversations that I bring up centers around food and why, as a species, humans have a generally agreed upon set of meats that we agree are good and meats that we agree are bad, but there is a large spectrum of grey area of meats that are considered okay by some but not by others.

An open-air market in China
China is filled with open-air markets, and what I’m now referring to as “back alley butchers.” On our way to work, up what we call “Smelly Fish Street” for apt reasons, people hawk live (and often dead) fish, crabs, mollusks, and various other forms of seafood, which occasionally break free only to be squashed by a bicyclists. This predominantly centers around an alley whose main purpose is to serve up various meats, fish, spices, fruits, and vegetables. Many western/developed countries have a huge disconnect between their food and where their food comes from, to the point that when I ask a lot of my American students the origin of their food they tell me, “The store.” As if the grocery store was actually a giant farm that produced the food they consume. It’s hard to feel disconnected from your food when you can literally by the whole animal, as is often the case here.

A pretty typical meat stand. Now imagine 50
of them in a row with more variety.
When I ask my Chinese students why certain meat is off limits, many suggest religious reasons. Very true. Many people think cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, and ducks are fair game, but cows are off limits to Hindus and pigs to Jews. I then ask for any other reasons they can think of and they normally suggest that endangered species don’t get eaten. I normally say, “Right, we’re not going to eat a panda.” This normally elicits a laugh, because the idea of eating a panda is so bizarre.

This is when I channel my inner Andrew Zimmern (host of Bizarre Foods and creator of the tagline, “If it looks good, eat it”) and start throwing out different things and test the students' response, all the while playing the Switzerland of meat appropriation and pretending not to have an opinion.  I had an interesting conversation with one of my students about one of my least favorite animals:

Me: “Alright, so what about rats?”
Diana: (yells) “That’s disgusting.”
Me: “Why?” (Mind you, my stomach is churning at the very idea of eating a rat.)
Diana: “They’re so ugly!”
Me: “Does your food need to be attractive?”
Diana: “They eat trash.”
Me: “Okay, that’s fair. They eat trash, so you would, in turn, be eating trash. But we’re thinking about city rats. The big, ugly black ones that live in your trash can. What about rats that live out in a swamp and eat only the grass?”
Diana: “That’s still disgusting.”

I then explained to her about the episode of Bizarre Foods I saw in which Andrew Zimmern travelled to Uganda where swamp rat is a staple because they’re 1) clean, 2) plentiful, 3) cheap, 4) good protein. She wasn’t convinced. I’m not either.

Here are some other things that come up:

Horse and donkey: Most westerns would scoff at these on their plates. Horse is a riding animal, almost close to a pet, and in general doesn’t belong in western dishes. It’s a pretty common food source in China.

Bug kebabs. 
Bugs: Another western taboo. These are a pretty common food source, particularly in Southeast Asia for the same reason as rats are popular in Uganda. Bugs were pretty much the epicenter of every Task 2 Fear Factor challenge, in which terrified Americans competing for half a million dollars would need to eat a cockroach. News flash: Fear is relative.

Turtle: I brought this up to the same student with whom I had brought up rats and she, again, looked shocked and awed because she loves turtles so much. (I honestly didn’t know that before suggesting it.) Anyway, about a week later, I saw five dead turtles for sale on Smelly Fish Street.

Rabbit: This is a sore subject for some because rabbits are pets. But rabbits are also food for a lot of people all over the world.

Sheep and goat: These animals are not necessarily considered by most as “taboo” but I’ve met a fair amount of people who just think eating sheep or goat is gross for one reason for another. As with many opinions regarding meat, it’s sometimes hard to find an articulate explanation.

All the other parts of the animals: Feet, brains, eyes, tail, privy bits, tongue, whatever. Even though I’m not into piling myself a helping, I admire that civilizations, including China, actually use the majority of the animal they’ve slaughtered.

Dog: This is a polarizing meat, and I tend to save it for the end of the conversation. Many of my students shudder and think it’s disgusting – which is the way I feel because, to me, dogs are loyal friends and companions – but I’ve had a handful who think, or used to think in the case of one, dog is a scrumptious chow (so to speak). And it certainly is sold and consumed here. There are restaurants that specialize in it, and fully intact, shaved dead dogs are sold down the aforementioned alley, a.k.a. Dead Dog Alley.

Much of the western consensus regarding meat has to do with the procurement. But again, this tends to only apply to “non-standard” meat sources. For instance, shark fin, which is appropriated in an exceedingly cruel way, wherein the fishermen drag the shark into their boats, cut off its fins, then throw it back in the water to drown. Our stomachs and bleeding hearts wrench at this, while we wolf down our Big Macs and KFC and Value Time chicken/pork/steak without an iota of thought about where that meat came from. (If you want a non-PETA take on McDonald’s egg procurement, check out this link

Factory-farmed chicken, which is pretty much every
chicken sold in fast food places and supermarkets
that doesn't specifically tell you it was locally grown
on a cage-free farm.
We get our proverbial panties in a twist because other countries eat different meats that we do, and
somehow we think that, because our diet consists of pork, beef, and poultry, we are somehow superior. But we can't be bothered to delve into the elemental nature of our own food and we continue to propagate fast food chains, have some pretty absurd ideas about what "free range" means, and allow ourselves to buy "value" (read: cheap) meat, like the stuff available at Super Wal-Marts.

So, why is it that some meat is okay and other is shocking? I don’t have an answer, but I think the whole thing is very interesting, particularly as someone who eats very little meat to begin with. For me, my stomach churns every time we walk down Dead Dog Alley (unfortunately the quickest route between our school and King Street, a place we frequent for groceries and restaurants), and not just because of the dog carcasses. The pig’s heads, the huge slabs of ribs, probably from a horse or cow, the full chickens, dangling from the walls by their feet, and the myriad other meats dripping blood along the suppliers’ tables creates a stench that curls my spine. But the reality is still that that is what meat is. It’s not prettily packaged patties that grow in a store. It’s not breaded nuggets we buy at a fast food place. It’s not steak stripped of bones and hair. It’s an animal.

I’m not telling anyone what they should and should not do in the case of meat. I, myself, do partake – I love turkey (D’Angelos, I’m coming for you when I get home), I love squid, I love tuna – and I’m not prepared to give those things up. But, particularly in western countries – America, I’m looking at you – we are in absolute denial about what our meat really is. Part of that, I imagine, is blissful ignorance, but I think it is one of the catalysts for America’s very skewed and – dare I say? – diseased relationship with food. It is exceedingly important, I think, to know the origins of your food, if even for the pretentious reason that knowledge is power and ignoring your foods’ origins is a weird form of self-censorship. And, for the record, no, children, your food doesn’t come from the store.

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