A Week of Eating Dangerously
Searching for dťtente between man and beast
Jumpy is the name of my eldest sonís tree frog. He is misnamed, in that he does not jump. He barely moves, preferring to bask under a heat lamp, awaiting his next live cricket. Even with lunch skittering about the cage, Jumpy barely bats an eye. Eventually the cricket crawls by his mouth and is eaten. A sweet, slow, easy life, right?
Yet some people would claim we are oppressing Jumpy. That he is debased and wronged, being owned by my son. Thatís nonsense: Heís better off on the dresser. No predators. No fear his crickets wonít show up on time.
Whether you consider Jumpy fortunate or oppressed is a good barometer of where you come down on the general animal rights debate. Most people, secure in their personhood and assured of the value of humanity, are willing to use animals for human purposes -- to eat meat, wear leather, and keep pets.
Yet a small but very vocal minority tries to mask a sneering disregard for humanity with a concern for animals so extreme it would look exaggerated in a silent movie. Accompanying this disdain for people is a self-righteous delusion that they alone are saving the planet with their steady diet of self-denial. They believe each time you eat a soy burger, Earth gives you a big, grinning thumbs-up.
So I decided to tempt the wrath of such scolds by eating, drinking, and living in as un-P.C. a manner as I could for a week. I would indulge in forbidden meats. Horse, if I could find it. Whatever the law allowed. Herewith, a diary of my week of eating dangerously.
Friday: I lie in bed and plot out breakfast. My impulse is to stroll into the boyís room and munch one of Jumpyís crickets. That strikes me as a bold declaration of intent, seasoned with a subtle stab at Disneyís vexatious Jiminy Cricket. "Just let your conscience be your -- íí CRUNCH!
Iím girding myself to do it when my wife stirs. I run my plan by her. "Thatís disgusting,íí she says. She may have a point. So instead I breakfast at the Tokyo Lunch Box, where I do my share in the despoiling of the oceanís dwindling bounty with tuna and salmon sushi. Mmmm, fresh.
Self-denying environmentally conscious eaters stress how much impact their personal consumption decisions make, but for each tread-lightly vegetarian in the United States there are a thousand Asians whoíd dice the last whale on Earth into cubes and eat it on vinegared rice with great pleasure and without a second thought.
As I break apart my chopsticks, I canít help but ruefully smile. Chopsticks are the most Earth-unfriendly part of any meal. China alone produces some 60 billion pairs a year, and experts fear the entire country will soon be deforested. This never registers with green types, since Disney has yet to make a movie starring a pair of white-gloved chopsticks.
Saturday: At lunch I repair to a local spot called C.J.ís Lounge for a $1 draft beer and a steak sandwich. Itís really good -- tender, hot, on a fresh roll. Beef, perhaps because itís so delicious, is the No. 1 bugbear of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, though the "Meat is Murderíí argument is based on a fallacy: that were the cow not slaughtered to make this very tasty steak, Bessie would still be in a field cavorting with her bovine pals.
The truth is that nearly every cow alive owes its existence to either the meat or the dairy industry, and that should the fad of vegetarianism ever really affect those businesses, animal lives would be lost, not gained.
Sunday: On that note, the next day I brave McDonaldís, the belly of the beast for the cow-hugging set. They hate McDonaldís because it grinds up more beef than any other enterprise, and because its heinous, grossly American model of mechanized cow slaughter is so successfully spreading all across the globe.
This irks those who, indoctrinated by the adult version of Disney cartoons, National Public Radio, are morally opposed to any foreign cuisine that isnít a corn tortilla baked on a hot stone. I order a cheeseburger. I canít say itís good -- this is McDonaldís. But it suffices.
Monday: Veal stew. The calves, apparently, live their lives in these little stalls, thus making their meat more tender. This breaks the hearts of certain people. But Iíve seen plenty of cows in the field, and they look pretty naturally sedentary to me, making Jumpy seem like Gregory Hines. So one has to wonder just how much suffering is truly involved.
My wife initially balks. "Judaism believes in the humane treatment of animals,íí she says, but gives in, buys the veal, and serves it up in a stew of carrots and peas over thick slices of bread. Very savory. Chewing luxuriously, I dangle before myself the mental image of a calf in its little stall to see if it upsets my gustatory pleasure. Not a qualm. Iíve spent 17 years in a little box at the Chicago Sun-Times, where I work, and nobody is having a pity party for me. And hey, veal tastes better than beef, so the little fellowís sacrifice is not in vain.
Tuesday: Time to up the ante. I visit a five-star restaurant for a feast of foie gras -- slices of the livers of geese that were force-fed until they nearly burst. During the two-and-a-half-hour meal, I eat my way through a glittering array of sinful yet heavenly preparations -- cured foie gras au torchon with caramelized pears and a truffle vinaigrette, lingonberry foie gras draped in 24-karat gold foil, chocolate foie gras on Gran Marnier French toast -- washed down with Sauternes.
Instead of genuine, traditional force-fed geese, the chef uses a breed of Moulard duck that gorges itself continually, left to its own devices. (Who doesnít?) Iím completely won over.
Wednesday: After all that foie gras, food isnít really a priority. Breakfast is a slice of toast. Later in the day, I stop by my liquor store to see what kind of totalitarian regimes I can support. I settle on a bottle of Barbancourt, my favorite rum, the finest the cruel Haitian kleptocracy can produce. Oh, well. Itís not as if we donít put money into the pockets of the fascist Chinese Communist megastate with every pair of pants we buy. Itís a small world after all.
Thursday: My efforts to locate horse steaks failed. So I close out the week with a Tang-and-aerosol-cheese party in my office: a tribute to highly processed food, also doing their part to destroy our health and the planet. My colleagues enjoy their aerosol cheese, which I serve with Chivas Regal. I had worried that my little experiment would somehow offend them, but they seem more puzzled than anything else.
What did I learn from the week? I keep thinking of the happy hen eggs I saw that cost twice as much as regular eggs. The American food monolith, with its chicken mills and slaughterhouses, wasnít created because its owners are cruel. It was created because itís cheaper to make food that way, and most people live close to the bone.
Organic food is a luxury, another bit of rich American conspicuous consumption. And while eating organic has some impact, Iím sure, that impact is dwarfed by the colossal self-righteousness of its practitioners.
That said, utter indifference doesnít quite suit me either -- it couldnít suit someone who spends as much time as I do tending to the needs of a tree frog. I found myself most attracted to a friendís approach to animals: treat íem decently and then eat íem guiltlessly.
A line from the Greek poet Bion comes to mind: "Little boys throw stones at frogs in jest, though the frogs die, not in jest, but in earnest." This doesnít suggest we should try to forcibly change the ways of little boys. Nor does it ignore the sacrifice that the frogs make on their behalf.
Neil Steinberg is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, where an earlier version of this column appeared.