The Ethics of Eating Meat

This is the season for predicting trends for the coming year. Often when these predictions come to pass, they’re more fads than trends but there is one a growing school of thought that you may be vaguely aware of but which I think is at about the point the organic food trend was six years ago: humane meat production.

This trend toward humanely-raised meat tends to get tossed into the whole organic food thing and that’s certainly where its roots were, but I think the motivations for it have diverged and will continue to do so.

Most people choose to eat organically because they consider it a healthier alternative to produce doused with herbicides and grown in soil that’s adulterated with petroleum-based fertilizers. A few also like the fact that “organic” just seems better for the planet. And lot of folks started seeking out organic meat for the same reasons. But even vegetarians don’t form emotional bonds with their broccoli. Meat-eaters, on the other hand, can imagine a bond of some sort with a steer or even a pig. Remember the pot-bellied-pig-as-pet fad a few years back?

This identification with animals means that thoughtful meat-eaters must find a philosophical basis for their choice. In The River Cottage Meat Book, English chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall refers to the issue frequently in the book’s 500 pages. My friend, Chef Bob del Grosso (a professional charcutiere) addresses it often in his blog, A Hunger Artist. Our relationship to the meat we cook and eat is becoming more and more a subject of discussion among food professionals and foodies.

When I was growing up my mother would often invite her students from at the University of Tennessee out for a day of horseback riding and dinner. It never failed to freak the new ones out when we’d sit down to a plate of beef stew and compare how tough the meat from Brown Cow was compared to Mayberry. The concept of eating an animal with a name was hard to get past for many of our guests. And back then most of us were closer to our source of meat than most of are today. So how do you justify eating a steak that had a name, or even, as in the case of Mayberry, whose birth you’d been part of?

Some (the less-thoughtful, I would assert) believe we have “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Even many non-religious folks embrace this fundamental right to do as they please with non-human species. To me, that’s a phenomenally arrogant attitude – an example of supreme hubris.

My take is that I too am animal, different in ability but not in kind, from cows, sheep, lions, dogs, chimpanzees, and pigs. Cows and sheep evolved to eat grass, lions and dogs to eat cows and sheep, and baboons and pigs to eat grass and cows. I’m no more obligated by any absolute moral stricture to avoid meat than a lion or pig.

But I have different abilities from my fellow animals and two of them appear to be a more general sense of empathy and the capability to apply that empathy to abstract concepts such as ethical behavior.

The cattle we raised and ate when I was growing up lived good lives. They had plenty to eat and plenty of choice (given the opportunity cows will eat spring twigs, sassafras bark, and other things one might not expect). When the time came to butcher an animal it was prodded gently (more or less, cows are big and stubborn) into a truck, hauled to the meat processor, painlessly killed, and converted to steaks, roasts, and hamburger.

Did the cow’s life end early? Compared to what? Animals in the wild constantly face predation and being eaten alive by a lion can’t be much fun. Parasitic disease is far more common among wild animals than domestic animals raised on pasture and winters are brutal. Even though our cattle spent the entire winter outside we never lost one due to weather because they were uniformly healthy and were fed hay all winter. They had a good life and no being knows when it will die.

The majority of animals destined for supermarkets aren’t so lucky. A side effect of breeding lean pigs is a linked gene that promotes aggression – so industrial pigs have their tails unceremoniously cut off as piglets. Industrial chickens have their beaks cut off. Both live on a wire mesh floor that allows their waste to drop through to a holding area – they may not be laying directly in their waste (as industrial cattle do) but they can’t escape it either. A few months ago, in “No Prevention, No Cure” I linked to a video showing sick cows being abused with fire-hoses and forklifts at a commercial processing plant. This is probably more common than many of us would like to think.

Pigs and chickens and cows aren’t human and anthropomorphizing them diminishes rather than enhances their dignity. But they are my fellows on this planet and as such are entitled to respect. And so as part of my New Year’s resolution, I make at 25-mile round trip to buy some meat and plan to continue doing. I’ve seen Tracy Monday’s farm and it reminds me of where I grew up. And if I were one of his cows, I’d be tempted to trade a short good life his farm a longer but miserable existence.

Managing The Machines of Politics

Many science fiction movies have a common plot: The machines created by humans rise up to take power over their creators. And while the real world version is far more benign, our addiction to knowledge has created a world where we are, for better or worse, increasingly defined by machines. To survive in the Smart Phone Era, we must learn to manage the machines.

Just over a decade ago, I decided to go all-cellular all-the-time. In just a decade, however, the era of the cell phone has come and gone. The cell phone has given way to the smart phone and early adapters, regardless of how smart they truly are, are fast becoming arbiters of knowledge, news and information in their communities.

While visiting my family in Texas over the holidays, my relatives quickly saw how helpful it was to have hipside Internet access. Want the latest stock quotes? Need a phone number for a restaurant? Forget what time you had plane reservations? Just ask Scott, who has the whole Internet in his pocket. A quick tappity-tap in the phone’s browser and any question can be answered, from which team won the 1996 Rose Bowl Game to the ranks of the three enlisted men sitting at the next table over in their dress blues.

No more arguing, no more debates, no more people acting holier-than-thou because they have some trivial information stored in their heads. As my roommate says, the phrase, “I wonder” will soon be replaced by, “I Wiki.”

Where’s My
Fifteen Minutes?

In his new book, Where’s My Fifteen Minutes? Get Your Company, Your Cause, or Yourself the Recognition You Deserve Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman argues that everybody has a public image that they must manage. What your Facebook profile or Google results say about you is as important as any image you put forth about yourself, talking at a seminar, walking down the street, dealing face to face with your neighbors and colleagues. Now that more and more people have the Internet in their pockets, first impressions are as important as the second impressions someone has when they look you up online.

Whenever I meet a new person, I look them up on Facebook and probably Google them. Same goes for many companies evaluating new employees. I have even heard of one courtroom prosecutor who befriended a defendant on a social networking site and gathered evidence for his case!

Our online personas are becoming part of each of us. A blogger’s online persona can quickly define them as a person in the eyes of others, for example. If someone does not manage their Facebook profile, the comments and photos of others will tell their story to the world – be it a true on or not. This, of course, goes double for politicians and public figures.

And if we do not control what is being said about us online, the Internet will begin to control us. Google, Facebook and other online outlets tell stories to others about us, and what everyone must learn is to take charge and tell the stories we want people to hear.

Today’s MySpace kids will become tomorrow’s leaders. The comments of a fifteen or twenty-five year old today could become a speedbump on the information superhighway should they decide to take on, say, a political career at some point in the future.

In some ways, the rise of the machines is well underway. As the World Wide Web becomes ubiquitous, on our desktops, in everyone’s pockets, in cars, on subways, at work, on vacation, those who have access to it will have knowledge to use as they see fit. So for politicians today, and those aspiring to go there, it’s more important than ever to control what you say, and what’s said about you, online as almost any assertion, unless corrected, becomes the truth.

Milk: The Raw Deal

A few days ago I received an offer to purchase unpasteurized milk for my pets from a local organic farm. For $103 I’d receive a gallon of raw milk once a week for 12 weeks. I’ll save you the trouble of doing the math: that’s $8.58 a gallon. I’m really fond of my cat, but not $8.58-a-week fond. Which is why I’m pretty sure this offer is an end-run around Tennessee’s laws preventing the sale of raw milk for human consumption.

It’s still very much on the fringes, but there’s a growing movement in this country promoting the health benefits of raw milk. But a little history first.

When our country was largely rural, raw milk was a common beverage, often produced by your own cows, but sometimes purchased from a neighbor. There were no mortality and morbidity survey from public health departments or the Center for Disease Control to track illness from raw milk but it’s certain no one thought twice about drinking it. Both of my parents, who were born in 1920, regularly drank raw milk as children.

But as our society became more urban, providing truly fresh raw milk became more and more difficult. Transportation was slow and there was no effective refrigeration. Perhaps worse, because the milk producers weren’t the friends and neighbors of the people buying the milk they were less inclined to be scrupulous about the quality. And even for well-intentioned milk producers, the inability to easily test for contaminants like campylobactor, salmonella, and e-Coli meant problems could arise. And, given all these factors, they did.

Food poisoning from raw milk sky-rocketed in the first half of the 20th century. In 1938 25 percent of all cases of food poisoning were associated with dairy products. In 1924 the federal Public Health Service began mandating pasteurization for milk sold across state lines. With the passage of this ordinance (and subsequent legislation in most states) incidents of poisoning dropped dramatically (although they still haven’t disappeared, as we’ll see) and the program was deemed a complete success.

Jump ahead to today. Transportation is an order (or two) of magnitude faster and everything is refrigerated. Testing for bacterial contamination is easy, cheap, and highly effective. And these days, even living in a metropolis such as New York City, you can know and learn to trust a milk producer if you take the trouble to do so.

Still federal and state governments remain strongly antagonistic to raw milk sales (22 states absolutely prohibit it and where it’s permitted sales are discouraged in various ways) and they are quick to point fingers at raw milk as a source of food poisoning. In 2008 three cases of campylobacter poisoning were blamed on raw milk from Hendricks Farms near Franconia, Pa. A single sample of the milk did turn up the bacteria – at the purchaser’s home. Additionally, two of those sickened had just returned from travels abroad. No other samples tested positive and thorough testing at the dairy failed to find the bacteria. I happen to have a friend (a professional chef) who works at that dairy and he tells me the food processing areas are as clean or cleaner than any restaurant where he’s worked.

In 2004 FDA Consumer published an article warning against drinking raw milk. Ironically, that same year 38 cases of salmonella poisoning in several states were traced to pasteurized milk but FDA Consumer didn’t publish a subsequent article warning of the dangers of pasteurized milk.

Raw milk advocates argue that raw milk is healthier and tastes better than pasteurized milk because the pasteurization process kills helpful bacteria (probiotics) as well as harmful bacteria and that the process also destroys helpful enzymes. True or not, there are people who want to drink raw milk. Presumably they’re aware of the risks – it takes some research to even find a source. And clearly pasteurized milk presents a risk as well.

Raw milk does taste better, but not so much so that I’m willing to pay $8.58 a gallon for it. But it’s ridiculous that in order to sell raw milk here in Tennessee, the farm near me has to emphasize that it’s for pets, not humans. As I said, I’m fond of my cat, as most people are of their pets, and if I thought raw milk was unsafe for me I certainly wouldn’t feed it to my cat. But at that price neither of us are going to be drinking it.

Eagles, Turkeys and Detroit

Relying on nostalgia when American consumers demand quality, these so-called captains of industry act as if they have a right to access the wallets of the American taxpayer because of their own collective failure to perform the basic functions of their jobs, namely, manage a profit-making company profitably. If we can’t build cars for which Americans are willing to pay their hard-earned money, their logic goes, we’ll just pull an end-around and take their money via Washington.

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History Lesson

Barack Obama is on the cusp of inheriting a nation where many of the conditions that fomented McVeigh’s terrorism not only remain, but have been exacerbated by nose-diving economic conditions and piqued political rhetoric. There’s already fear that the federal government is going to come hard after the Second Amendment — a short-fuse issue for those on the extreme political right.

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Review: The Science of Good Food

Back in 1990 my father gave me a copy of Harold McGee’s The Curious Cook for Christmas and reading it was a revelatory experience. Although I’d been cooking for many years and was aware that cooking involved elements of science, I had no idea how much science – particularly physics and biology – was involved in the creation of a good meal.

Since then I’ve built a small library of books on the science of food and cooking. It includes McGee’s On Food and Cooking, Shirley Corriher’s Cookwise, and Herve This’ Molecular Gastronomy. These have all had a positive effect on my cooking. Knowing the temperature at which collagen melts has greatly improved my stews and braises, while knowing the effect of acids on beans has led to greater control over the texture of my baked beans.

The publisher, Robert Rose, recently released a book named The Science of Good Food by David Joachim and Andrew Scloss. At 600 pages it’s a massive compendium of facts about food and cooking starting with acid and ending with wine. Among the topics covered are carcinogens, frying, types of game meat (the book reports raccoon tastes like pork), and the anatomy of a bivalve.

The book’s dictionary-like entries range from a page to multiple pages, for example wine covers six and a half pages and touches on cooking with wine, how wine is made, wine vinegar, and the effect of the environment on wine’s taste – what the French call terroir.

Each topic is divided up into sub-sections named “What It Is,” “What It Does” and “How It Works.” But this rather arbitrary organization doesn’t always make sense. For example, under thistles “What It Is” states, “Comprising more than 300 species, thistles are plants characterized by their prickly leaves or stems,” which is fine but in “What It Does” you get, “Artichokes and cardoons belong to the same thistle genus and share several attributes.” That doesn’t really strike me as good description of what a thistle does.

Spaced throughout are a number of sidebars with titles like “Kitchen Wisdom”, “Fast Facts”, and “Science Wise”. The Kitchen Wisdom sidebar on oil offers a tip on cleaning up spills (sprinkle flour on it) and the Fast Facts note that toasted sesame oil is less likely to turn rancid than most oils. A Science Wise note on molecular gastronomy says that you can improve cheap whiskey by adding a few drops of vanilla to a bottle. This entry also contains a recipe for making ice cream using liquid nitrogen. Although this isn’t a cookbook, there are quite a number of recipes spread throughout.

The Science of Good Food covers more territory than On Food and Cooking and offers less depth; it’s intended for home cooks with easy-to-understand entries. And Robert Rose also sells The Food Encyclopedia which would be a good companion to Good Food, offering shorter and more specific topics for the home cook.

These books are valuable – I think every cook should have some understanding of the chemistry, physics, and biology of food and cooking. If you know about umami and its natural sources then adding a touch of anchovy paste to tomato sauce makes perfect sense. Understanding Maillard reactions will help you when roasting or grilling meats – or even baking bread.

This knowledge – of science – will make you a far better and more flexible chef.

Reading Periodically

I just renewed my subscription to Cook’s Illustrated, my favorite cooking magazine. For years and years before the World Wide Web and before cookbooks had become one of the largest categories in book stores I subscribed to Gourmet and Bon Appetit, because those magazines were the best bets for a varied collection of recipes. In those days the first step I took in planning a dinner party was to sit in the middle of the living room floor with all my back issues and a note pad and go through every issue – often multiple times – putting together a menu.

I didn’t actually read those magazines. They’d arrive in the mail, I’d scan all the recipes, flag one or two to try, and after trying them file the issue away. The editorial content on parties in the Hamptons or three-star restaurants in Vienna didn’t interest me.

But in 1993, I received a copy of the charter issue of Cook’s Illustrated and fell completely in love. This was a cooking magazine. The authors explained what they tried, what they ended up with, why the end result worked, and the recipes were, er, spot on. Furthermore, the reviews clearly explained what they were looking for in a sauce pan or tomato sauce. In other words, these were reviews in the tradition of Consumer Reports and the kind of analysis I’d been taught to write when reviewing software. It was – and remains – a magazine for and by cooks without the froo-froo travelogues and parties. I subscribed immediately and, 15 years later, it’s still my favorite cooking magazine.

I confess, I don’t rely on CI as much as I once did, in large part because I’ve learned so much over the years from the magazine. But I still read almost every bit of the magazine as soon as it arrives. Some folks object to CI’s rather dry tone and pedantic attention to detail (no pictures!) but if you want to improve your cooking you can’t do better than subscribing to Cook’s Illustrated.

I also subscribe to Cuisine at Home. Like CI, Cuisine is bi-monthly, unlike CI it provides neither the technical depth nor recipes that are as consistently useful. Nevertheless, I do occasionally use recipes from it (albeit usually with some tweaking) and even a few of my favorite recipes began on the pages of Cuisine. I’ve been a subscriber for about six years.

My other long-term subscription is to Fine Cooking. Again, it’s bi-monthly, but unlike the other two magazines it includes advertising. FC’s production values are excellent, it’s just plain fun to flip through looking at all the food porn (pictures!). In terms of technical content it falls between CI and Cuisine and I think the recipes are generally as good as Cook’s Illustrated.

I’ve twice subscribed to Cooking Light but I’ve never received an issue. I don’t recall what happened the first time, but most recently they wanted me to pay for the subscription before sending an issue – at least I kept getting bills and never got a copy, and I wasn’t going to buy a pig in a poke.

I also regularly try a year’s subscription to the likes of Gourmet, Saveur, and Food and Wine. Currently I get Bon Appetit again. But these magazines simply don’t hold my interest. They are cocktail table publications, intended more to impress guests than provide tools for work-a-day cooks.

If you, like me, are truly obsessed then the food magazine for you is the Art of Eating. If you want to impress a real foodie, have AoE on your coffee table. And if you’re just a food wacko, you’ll read a few pages each night before going to sleep to stretch it out as long as possible. This quarterly publication edited by a former plumber named Edward Behr happily devotes 8,000 words on the cheeses produced in a single valley in France, dwelling in detail on how the product from the northern side of the valley differs from that on the southern.

Readers know I’m not an inverse food snob – I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy dream vacations where I got to cook for friends and family in Spain and Italy. And I’d love nothing more than a couple of weeks spent cooking in Southern France, Greece or Morocco. When I do dinner parties for myself or clients I give a great deal of thought to presentation – and love having the opportunity to do so. But I prefer the work – and the creativity – involved in doing the cooking and presentation myself rather than copying a magazine’s efforts for my table.

Review: Free Lunch

Few of the books I’ve read lately have been quite as staggering as Free Lunch, from former New York Times investigative reporter David Cay Johnston who, heroically, made his career writing about – brace yourselves – the U.S. tax code. Free Lunch is a fabulous book by a veteran investigative reporter giving you his life’s work–a look at how corporations and wealthy Americans have profited, again and again, at the expense of you and me.

Johnston’s best known for his exhaustive investigations at the Times into how corporations and very very rich individuals subvert U.S. tax law so that they pay less to the government, while the rest of us pay more. But in this book – written after he’s free of the “responsibility” of being a Times reporter – he gets almost biblical in calling out the cheats, crooks and murderers.

“Free Lunch”

And when I say murderers, I’m not fooling. In that case, Johnston is talking about John Snow, President George W. Bush’s former Treasury Department secretary – the one who did such a great job regulating the sub-prime mortgage market back around the turn of the century that the potential for a credit and housing collapse in the latter part of this decade was avoided…Oh, wait. Nevermind.

Snow was CEO of CSX Corp. the railroad which, Johnston shows, sucked entirely off the public teat, and systematically and knowingly reduced the amount it spent on train and passenger safety – and also subverted the safety inspectors who were supposed to enforce the law – to the point that train crashes and railraod passenger deaths dramatically increased. Even worse, when CSX was successfully sued by the wife of a Miami cop who died in a crash, somehow the company managed to get Amtrak – the government-supported train service – to pay the penalities demanded by the court, not the CSX’s CEO or the shareholders. Yup, you and me paid for it. That of course didn’t stop Snow from raking tens of millions off CSX over his tenure, even as the stock price fell.

My usual bailiwick, health care is not spared Johnston’s wrathful scrutiny. I was amused last year when Bob Gumbiner who made tens of millions converting FHP International Corp., from a non-profit HMO to a for-profit sent me his book proclaiming that a single-payer socialized system was the answer for America. Johnston reminds us how Gumbiner essentially defrauded the state of California out of about $200 million (in 1986 dollars!) when he bought FHP on the cheap. Same with Wellpoint CEO Len Schaeffer, who’s initial attempts to pay nothing when Wellpoint/Blue Cross converted from non-profit to profit-making insurance company were eventually at least partially blocked.

It’s good to know that in the course of Schaeffer, Gumbiner and others like United HealthGroup CEO and options cheat Bill McGuire becoming gazillionaires, the health care system became cheaper and all the problems with access got fixed….Oh wait. Nevermind.

But it’s not just large corporations that feel Johnston’s wrath. He goes after the welfare queens who run sports teams (George Steinbrenner, George W. Bush) and the politicians who tax the poor and middle class to pay them huge subsidies. In fact organized sports in the U.S. makes a profit for their owners that is less than the amount of public subsidies they receives for stadium construction and other “incentive” tax breaks. That’s right – we’re all paying for the billions those owners make, often in the name of urban renewal or economic redevelopment.

Johnston presents a long line of industries and individuals who have lobbied to change the rules that benefit the rich at the expense of everyone else. You think Warren Buffet is some cuddly grandfather who gets a free pass cause he’s a Democrat who’s giving it all away to charity? Not in Johnston’s world. Johnston shows how lobbyists for electric utilities Buffet owned systematically went after municipalities in Iowa and prevented them from competing with him in the power business. Buffett didn’t stop the municipally-owned power utilities in the free market; he stopped them by paying off politicians.

This is part of Johnston’s look at de-regulated electricity “markets” – the kind brought to you by Enron and its “kept” politicians which were systematically rigged against consumers. It was news to me but he shows that there’s theoretical and actual proof that municipally-owned plants are cheaper (and more reliable) sources of electricity. Something, by the way, that the residents of Sacramento, Palo Alto and Los Angeles know and that those in San Francisco would like to find out … which is why PG&E’s ads against the public power initiative on the ballot in my home town have started two full months before the election.

That pattern is repeated over and over again in the book. Under the cover of obfuscation and with the co-operation of an emasculated corporate-dominated media, politicians at the state and federal level take campaign contributions to do the bidding of wealthy men and corporations who, in return, do anything they can to suck more from the public teat and to avoid paying their fair share. The final tally: The richest 400 families in America, making over $100 million annually, pay a lower proportion of their income in tax than the rest of us.

Johnston ends the book laying out the income data. And although we know it, it’s staggering. All of the gains in the last thirty years have gone to the top 10% income bracket. Everyone else has seen their incomes go down in real terms and of course their share of the nation’s wealth plummet. But wait there’s more (a catch phrase Johnston likes!). The bottom half of the top 10% are standing still and it’s only the top 5% who have gained, and most of that gain is in the top 1% and most of that gain is in the top 0.1%.

After 35 years of “free marketeers” running their own version of corporate welfare, we are a nation that has an income distribution that looks like Mexico, Russia or Brazil. Or like France before 1789.

Revolution anyone?

Mommy Olympics

The Grocery Shopping Marathon: Parent must buy a week’s worth of groceries for a family – with a child or children in tow. Extra points awarded if you’re not too embarrassed by the performance to return the next week.
The Young Child Schlep: Parent juggles children, including one who doesn’t yet know how or refuses to walk, and all the equipment needed for a 12-minute excursion from the house, including diaper bag, change of clothes, snack, drink, favorite toy, book, spare baby carrier, etc. Stroller not allowed. (You were just running out for a minute.) Extra points awarded if total strangers don’t offer major pitying looks.

The Public Toilet Germ Avoidance Dance: Parent must change baby’s diaper and/or assist older child on the toilet while simultaneously preventing any part of child and/or baby/child equipment from touching any part of the public facilities. Shoe bottoms an exception. Extra points awarded if family can exit restroom without anyone touching the door with bare skin.

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