Friday, August 31, 2007

To eat or not to eat...

So, I've had a few people comment on/ask about my eating habits recently. Eating is one of those strange rituals we have as humans. It's an act that is necessary to our survival, yet we seem to take it to another level- it's social, it's a statement, and sometimes, it's even art. As Remy the rat (above) says in "Ratatouille," humans "don't just survive, they discover, they create...I mean, just look at what they do with food!"*

The first food question I get asked quite a bit is "you're vegetarian?" I'm often taken aback by how this surprises or bothers some people, but first, I shall italicize the inflections, because this can actually be three different questions:

"You're a vegetarian?" The "v" word. To many people, this is a bad thing. As if I am putting my life at risk by not eating the corpse of a rotting animal three times a day. Indeed, I am probably putting the lives of others at risk and keeping the entire American economy teetering because beef is not what's for dinner. Furthermore, I'm probably vocally political and annoying. Most likely, I will lecture you about the evils of Nike, scold you for having a goldfish bowl, or make you feel bad for liking "Transformers," rather than delighting in an obscure, heavily depressing documentary about how bad you should feel every day of your life for even existing.

In other words:

"You're a vegetarian?" As if I should "know better" or I just generally have a "meat eating" look about me.

In other words:

"You are a vegetarian?" Which brings me more to my point. This is asked by people who swear they have seen me eat meat at some point in time. Didn't I, that one time, eat a piece of steak? And didn't I, that other time, enjoy a bowl of steamed mussels with saffron sauce?

In other words:

Why yes, I did. In fact, when asked if I'm a vegetarian (which usually comes up only because I've ordered something with tofu or have asked someone to leave the ubiquitous "chicken" off of whatever dish), my answer is usually: no. I don't typically eat meat, but I "can." For the most part, I don't like it. It just doesn't appeal to me. It's not a black and white "decision" or a "statement." I also don’t care for cooked green bell peppers, but this doesn’t bother people as much as my distaste for pork.

(And for the record, while I do find that there are better shoe brands to choose from and do occasionally enjoy the obscure, depressing documentary, I loved "Trasformers" and have two fish bowls.)

This all began for me while I was living in Paris. I'd often see "beef" on the menu. Just like that- in quotes. "Steak" frites, for example. When I asked why this was the case in the less expensive restaurants, I was told that "beef" or "steak" usually meant "horse." I had a horse. I adored him. I also had a rabbit, which someone tried to force feed me at a fancy Parisian restaurant. Once, when my rabbit was cornered by my dog, it screamed. Yes, rabbits scream, and I remember it vividly. To me, eating horse or rabbit is the equivalent of eating my cats. Now, eating cat is generally thought to be taboo, but all of this made me wonder, why?

Why is it okay for us to abuse and cruelly slaughter one kind of animal and not another? When we hear about someone kicking a cat or beating a dog, most of us are horrified- indeed there are laws against it. The kind of cruelty animals raised for meat endure is unimaginable. They are usually malnourished or force-fed and many of them never even see the light of day. Chickens have their beaks broken off so that they don't fight in their close quarters, employees of slaughterhouses have been caught many times "playing" with the animals before boiling (to de-feather) and skinning them alive. Some of them aren’t even well enough to stand by the time they are brought to the slaughter house. If the image of a skinned, sick or crippled cow covered in blood and writhing in pain is not enough to make you think twice about that hamburger...

And that's all I ever ask anyone to do: think. If you're fine with all of that, so be it. As long as you have a reason other than "the commercials/news/my dad told me," I respect it whether I agree or not. We learn to tune so much out simply because it makes us uncomfortable. We in turn numb ourselves by overindulging in what we think makes us happy or getting angry at others for shattering our illusions. Our culture has a special place reserved on every plate for chicken, beef, or pork, but I don't think it always needs to be that way. I think the "fake" chicken nuggets taste just as good, if not better, than the dead ones. If everyone replaced that meat spot on their plate with a substitute just once a week, it would have a major impact on the environment and their health.

On that note, the other question I get asked is “how do you stay so thin?” Usually, this question is asked of me because I am eating French fries or chocolate cake.

That’s a far simpler answer than the vegetarian thing: I never diet. That being said, I also don't eat those things all the time. I think the best way to set yourself up for failure is to tell yourself you can’t do something. It turns that thing into something else... something "tempting" and "forbidden." Once it becomes that forbidden thing, it’s hard to get out of the habit of seeing food as a part of a battle. Then when we "give in," we give in good! We go way too far, eat way too much, and do it while feeling guilty or convincing ourselves that it’s what we really, really want or need to be happy. But what’s the point of eating, then, if it’s either mindless or torture? Just like with the vegetarian thing, I "can" eat French fries every day, but I find that I don’t actually want to. In the words of Anton Ego (yes, I’m quoting this film a lot- I adored it and it's about food, so back off!!!!) I stay thin because:

"I don’t like food, I love it. If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow!"
I simply try to make consuming food something I enjoy and savor rather than something that is easy, fast, indulgent, or can occupy my hands while I’m watching television or working. Last night, I ate a huge salad consisting of things that were grown right in my yard- fresh leaves of lettuce, green beans, bok choi, fresh herbs. It was more than food, it was an experience! It took me back to planting the seeds months ago and watching them sprout and grow.

(Peaches from a friend's peach tree)

When it comes to the food that I put in my body, I don't like just gulping something down mindlessly. I love to cook, I love flavor and ritual. To quote Remy again: "If you are what you eat, then I only want to eat the good stuff! " Whether that includes meat or French fries or not...

*If you have not seen this film, you are not allowed to read my blog until you do.

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