Abraham, Rachel, Soren and Liam. Our life together in Smalltown, Idaho.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Dead Chickens

"Mommy, what are those?" Soren asked one morning as I unwrapped a couple of whole roasting chickens and rinsed them in the kitchen sink.

"They're chickens, honey," I told him.

"Dead chickens?" asked Soren, looking horrified. He's used to the lively flock of hens and roosters who run around the yard at his cousins' house.

"Dead chickens," I confirmed, looking glumly at the empty hole where one of the chicken's neck had once been attached to its body.

Soren's eyes were wide. "Who killed them??"

"I don't know. A butcher, I guess. A butcher is somebody who cuts up animals so we can eat them. All meat comes from the bodies of dead animals."

"I don't fink it's very nice to KILL animals and then eat them," said Soren.

"I agree," I said, turning the chicken over and examining the hole where its guts had been ripped out. "Do you think we should stop eating meat?"

"Yes," said Soren.

"Me too."

This exchange took place three weeks ago aaaand...we're still eating meat.

However. Our conversation acted as a catalyst on a thought process that has been churning around in my brain since last year when I ordered a free vegetarian starter guide from PETA (the premiere unbiased resource on vegetarianism) and started thinking more about the ethical implications of eating meat and other animal products. Seriously, if you want to improve your ethics in just one area of your life, eating is a good place to start, seeing as how eating is something most people do every day, multiple times a day (or, if you're me, all day).

What I've decided is that the key to ethical eating is mindful eating-- eating with an awareness of the food you're eating, its source, its impact on the world, and how that impact aligns with your own values.

The truth is, most of us eat food without really thinking about where it comes from. When I eat a hamburger, I might briefly think, "Hamburger comes from a cow," but I don't really allow myself to absorb and understand the reality of that fact. If I did, I probably wouldn't eat the hamburger. This is largely a product of my tender-hearted personality: I don't like for any living creature to suffer or die. Seeing a dead skunk on the side of the road makes my heart hurt. Mouse traps upset me. I catch and release spiders that I find in my home. When someone carves on a tree, I grab their hand, press it against the bark, and gasp, "Can't you feel its pain?"

So if I stopped to really consider that the flesh ground up and mashed between the two pieces of white bread in my hands once belonged to a living creature-- that this food source had once had great big long eyelashes framing giant brown eyes, that it had spent his days lowing, moving like a mindless adolescent in groups of other cows, and flapping its tail around its manure-covered butt-- I'd probably set the burger back down. Especially if I thought about the day he (he!) was herded into a processing plant, shot in the head, gutted, skinned, and hacked into bloody pieces for my consumption.

This doesn't bother some people. And that's okay. My sweet beautiful little nieces, for example, happily shoot and butcher their own deer. But since I would have to be pretty darn hungry before I could find myself capable of going out and killing my own animals for food, I probably shouldn't eat them so readily and so casually.

But even if you're the sort not bothered by animal sacrifice, it's still important to be mindful of where your food has come from and cultivate an awareness of whether the dietary habits you pursue are making an impact on the world in a way that aligns with your values.

For example, a lot of people don't know about the horrible living conditions that many egg-laying hens and grown-for-meat chickens are subjected to throughout their sad, short, hormone-injected lives. I don't know about ya'll, but I have no desire to continue to contribute to an industry that abuses living creatures this way.

Another consideration we often stifle during our daily consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy products is the environmental impact of our diets. Did you know that in in America 1/3 of all annually used fossil fuels go to producing animal food products? That the crops grown to feed food animals deplete soil nutrients more quickly than crops grown to feed humans? That it takes 10 times more energy and land resources to produce a meat-based meal than a plant-based meal? The meat-heavy diet to which we have become accustomed is unsustainable.

Lastly, I don't care what you were told in school or what you read in Self magazine, animal products are really not all that healthy for you. Vegetarians who eschew all animal products are far less likely than their meat-eating peers to develop osteoporosis, heart disease, kidney stones, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, certain cancers, strokes, and obesity.

So what I'm saying is, I'm thinking about going vegan.

But it's hard. I was a vegetarian for a couple years as a teen, but that's because I didn't really mind cutting an entire category of food from my diet. Now I'm a bit more attached to food and have moved past a single food-choosing criteria ("What diet will make me the skinniest?") to a longer and more complicated list of questions, such as:

-What foods will provide my body with the vitamins and nutrients it needs, increase energy, and promote overall health?
-What foods will my husband and children eat?
-Will this diet fit into our budget?
-Will at least one meal I prepare during the week be deemed consumable by Briar, who needs her dietary sugar content thinned by something at least mildly nutritious?
-What foods are convenient and easy to prepare?
-Which foods will keep me from getting hungry again within the hour?
-How will eating/not eating this food affect my relationship with the people around me?
-How will eating/not eating this food impact the overall quality of my life?
-How is my diet impacting the broader world?

I'm quite entrenched in my current dietary habits, so change might be incremental and slow-going. However, since my conversation with Soren I have switched to buying locally-produced milk and eggs. The dairy farm where the milk is produced is located almost directly across the street from my office. I can go look at the cows any time I want and as them how they're doing and about whether they've been offered a 401K and dental plan. The origin of the eggs I am less certain about-- the girl at the counter said they were brought in by a farmer in nearby Ririe. (I wanted, couldn't bring myself, to ask if they had been produced by a non-oppressed chicken population. So if any of ya'll have contacts in Ririe, maybe you could do some sleuth work for me?)

I promise I won't judge you if I see you eating a meaty cheesy omelette. Eating is such a personal thing and many, many factors go into our food choices. You don't have to go vegan to be a good person. However, I would encourage you to think through the broader impact that your diet makes on the world and find a small way to change and improve that impact.


Lara said...

I generally go out of my way to buy free range/grass fed chicken eggs. Besides the fact that the animals are treated better, their eggs and flesh are healthier. I have seen a small farm house here in the Shelley area with a big hand-written sign on it that says "Fresh Eggs!" that I have been curious about but I feel odd just walking up to someone's house with my debit card saying, "I would like a dozen large eggs, please." :) Maybe I will get brave.

Kate Sharp said...

So thoughtful and well-written. I have a lot of the same concerns.

This is something that someday, I really, truly want to worry about. But right now I am overloaded and can barely manage to get ANY meal on the table, or even groceries in the house. The thought of changing it all up, figuring out new ways of eating and places for getting good, happy food--it would tip me right over the edge.

I will say that we eat meat far less frequently than what I grew up with. Two, maybe three times a week tops. But that's not anywhere near what I would consider "sparingly." Someday...

Karen said...

Eggs are pretty much the only thing I try to buy that are from "free-range nesting hens." They are a little more expensive than the regular ones, but it does make me feel better about eating them. I actually don't buy a whole lot of chicken, but when I do, I can generally find the organic "nice" chicken on clearance because it's a bit more expensive than the regular stuff so it doesn't sell as well. I try to buy up all the discounted packages so it lasts a while.

I don't know that I could give up meat. I just like it too much. At least cows anyway. But I figure somebody has to eat them otherwise they wouldn't have a purpose and wouldn't be around. So I'm giving them LIFE! HA! jk I think it's great if you can pull off the vegan thing. I think the farthest I could ever go is vegetarian. I just love eggs and dairy products way too much.

Anyway, that's not to say I haven't found a few vegetarian meals that I love. Some of my favorite recipes don't include meat and could probably be tweaked to be vegan. There's a grilled portobello sandwich that I love and the other day I made Greek Quesadillas which were fabulous. It's all about finding the right recipes. If you're looking for a place to start there's a blog I follow called Daily Garnish (link on my sidebar) and she's a vegan who posts her own recipes. Lots of good stuff out there if you're willing to look around try some new foods!

Tianna Homer said...

I grew up in Ririe, but my prime contacts (my parents) are currently on a mission in South Carolina. But I'll ask next time I talk to them if they know of any chicken farmers there. I personally don't. My guess, though, is that there aren't any overly-occupied hen houses in Ririe. Everyone there seems to have at least an acre of land, so it'd make the most sense to let them be free-range. But that's just a guess. Next time you buy some, though, see if you can find out more info. Like… a name? And I'll see what more I can find. (email me at tiannahomer at gmail)

Seth said...

Now I'm much more motivated to try to kill an elk this fall because I don't want to give up meat but I also want animals to have a good life. Hunting = Problem Solved! Nice!

heidi said...

I'm wondering... is Seth ALWAYS right? It seems like it.

Hunting is something that to me, too, feels like such an elegant answer to the dilemmas you discuss... You know the animals have had a GOOD LIFE. They were given a GOOD DEATH. AND they ate a healthy diet, relatively free of chemicals!

I'm not a hunter but I'm admiring and envious of them--they are the only ones amoung us (well, among us meat-eaters) who don't pay others to do our difficult, dirty work for us.

I do have hunters in my family, I think they could be enticed to share but--alas, I don't eat red meat. (Paul and I gave it up a dozen years ago, when he read Fast Food Nation. I don't know all the precise details, but I decided if it was enough for him, it was enough for me to give up red meat. Plus I never liked it that much anyway.)

Anyway we made that small change years and years ago... and I have known, in the intervening years, about factory farms but only recently was able to do anything about it where my own practices are concerned. And I can't say that anything really happened for me to take action, just... I was finally ready. I remember, over a year ago, reading about how well known it has been, for so long, that factory animals "live lives of sheer misery." And I thought: YES. It has been known, and in fact I myself ME have known, so why do I pretend like I DON'T know?!

Argh. But eating, like you say, IS a personal thing and it's so deeply etched into the patterns and needs and feelings of our daily lives and changing a single habit is hard, even if you (well, I) hate what I'm doing.

But in the end, I was able to make a big change by starting to make little changes, one at a time: not eating red meat. Then, when it came to cooking poultry items at home, only buying free range. Then, I slowly cut out other items--turkey sausage I miss the most since free range sausage isn't a thing around here--and now I also only eat free range when I eat out, which means being limited to fish and cheese, sometimes, but that's okay. I no longer feel like... please don't be offended anyone... I no longer feel like an a-word, when I eat. I try to eat a cruelty-free diet--I guess you could say I try to be a good-karmavore. (:D That phrase came out by accident when I was telling friends about what I was trying to do and it cracked me up.)

But I had no idea, when I started, that making small changes would lead to a big one. (The commitment to goodkarmavorism.) I just knew that making small ones lifted a weight of worry and feeling like an ugly person who participated in suffering and misery for FOOD. And we can afford to pay a little more. Most (not all) Americans can. I just kinda regret my hypocrisy and taking the easy way out for so long--I can so well remember being at the grocery store and picking up a package of meat and looking at the price and thinking, "What? So much?" And putting it back. Why? Why was I so concerned about the price to my pocketbook when my soul was hurting? Why did it take so long? I wish I had my whole life of callous choices to do over.

So anyway that's what worked for me. (Regret. Ha! That's what works!)

I wanted to say, your idea of mindful eating is... beautiful. That's the word. I think that's what lots of hunters do--mindful hunting. They're aware and grateful and they cause no unnecessary suffering.

WHO among us who doesn't hunt can say the same?

I will try to be aware and grateful at dinner. And whenever I can. This was a good reminder.


p.s. I learned from all the comments and I can so relate to Kate--not about food but just life in general. I want to do better but it... what? It's hard. But this I can do and I will keep trying about other things where I feel I have any influence for good.


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