My hometown, Buffalo, NY, isn’t famous for much. We’ve got Buffalo chicken wings and the ill-fated Buffalo Bills. There’s SUNY Buffalo and Lake Erie and the faded glory of the Erie Canal. But mostly, if you ask people whether they’ve been to Buffalo, they invariably say, “Sure. I drove through it once on the way to Niagara Falls.”
But in facebook land, where I spend a lot of time (for a writer, it’s a deliciously fertile jungle of gossip and human peculiarity), Buffalo suddenly started showing up in the form of links to a bizarre news story. Apparently, a man was pulled over for running a stop sign and the traffic cops found in his trunk a cat that, “according to police, was in a cage ‘marinating’ in a mixture of crushed red peppers, chili pepper, salt and oil” (The Buffalo News, Aug. 10).
Facebook posters immediately exploded in righteous indignation. What cruelty! How dare he marinate his pet! What kind of a psycho would think of eating a cat! The guy should be put away for life!
...Now excuse me, my hamburger’s getting cold.
There is a disconnect in our culture that becomes more profound the farther we get from our food sources. This phenomenon produces factory farms, genetically modified corn syrup, and that wonder of DNA-splicing, the fish-tomato. It also produces a moral stance in which killing a pig to eat it is fine, but killing a dog (which, according to many measures, is the less intelligent and affectionate of the two) to eat it is not okay. Marinating a cat is wrong, wrong, wrong, but hey, if we’re talking chicken wings, go right ahead. What disturbs me is not that people draw lines that resemble an abstract painting between what they will and will not eat. We all have to draw some line: a carrot is alive after all, and to eat it involves viciously killing the entire plant by ripping up its roots. My cousin, a deeply moral vegan, won’t eat honey, because it involves “bee slavery.” On the other end of the spectrum, even the most voracious steak-devourer from Texas probably wouldn’t touch a nicely grilled cutlet of human rump. Some people draw the line at anything that bleeds, or at fish, or at red meat. In some sense, it’s an arbitrary choice. No, what disturbs me is that many people don’t seem to realize that they are in fact making a choice, and one that has real moral (as well as practical, political, economic, energy, environmental, policy, etc.) implications.
In his essay “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace recounts (originally for Gourmet magazine: it’s amazing they published it) a visit to the annual Maine Lobster Festival, where over 25,000 pounds of lobster are consumed with great verve and enthusiasm. No one there seems to be bothered by, or even aware of, the live lobsters that are being thrown—fully awake and aware in their lobster-awareness—into boiling water to die (what would be for us anyway) an excruciatingly painful death. DFW, an omnivore, struggles over the moral issues raised by the act of killing and eating these little creatures, and thereby puts forth the best argument I’ve read for, if not vegetarianism, at least an awareness of food as a moral choice. Instead of the fact-based arguments of someone like Michael Pollen, or the hard-to-swallow conclusions of Peter Singer, or the propaganda of the PETA and like organizations (which I mostly agree with, but let’s call a spade a spade), DFW carefully lays out the ambiguities and trade-offs and moral uncertainties that every decision of this type presents. He tries to empathize with the lobster. He doesn’t gloss over ugliness, make assumptions, or forgive himself anything. He refuses to condemn anybody, except perhaps himself. Please read the book for its own sake, and along the way, why not reconsider your relationship with the humble lobster?
Tomorrow: and now for something completely different