Posted by Rob Eshman
In his column in today’s New York Times, Mark Bittman contrasts the arrest of a Brooklyn woman for cruelty to a pet hamster with the quite legal state sanctioned brutality and killing inflicted on hundreds of million of meat, egg and dairy producing animals each year.
The hamster is a good hook—Jonathan Safran Foer made the same point in his book Eating Animals by reflecting on his pet dog. In fact, Bittman quotes Foer to make his point:
...we protect “companion animals” like hamsters while largely ignoring what amounts to the torture of chickens and cows and pigs. In short, if I keep a pig as a pet, I can’t kick it. If I keep a pig I intend to sell for food, I can pretty much torture it. State laws known as “Common Farming Exemptions” allow industry — rather than lawmakers — to make any practice legal as long as it’s common. “In other words,” as Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of “Eating Animals,” wrote me via e-mail, “the industry has the power to define cruelty. It’s every bit as crazy as giving burglars the power to define trespassing.”
For Bitman, what separates the protected animals like the hamster and Foer’s dog from the unprotected ones is our intention to eat them, or use their products.
But thanks to Common Farming Exemptions, as long as I “raise” animals for food and it’s done by my fellow “farmers” (in this case, manufacturers might be a better word), I can put around 200 million male chicks a year through grinders (graphic video here), castrate — mostly without anesthetic — 65 million calves and piglets a year, breed sick animals (don’t forget: more than half a billion eggs were recalled last summer, from just two Iowa farms) who in turn breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria, allow those sick animals to die without individual veterinary care, imprison animals in cages so small they cannot turn around, skin live animals, or kill animals en masse to stem disease outbreaks.
All of this is legal, because we will eat them.
But I don’t think that quite explains it. Bittman isn’t wrong, I just think his view needs to be broader. A better way of looking at the seeming hypocrisy is as a matter of property rights. As long as we define animals as property, we as their owners are pretty much free to do with them as we will. In a society that regards individual property as almost sacrosanct, the burden is on the state to prove why and when it can stop me from treating my charges any way I see fit. Slaves in this country were treated as animals. Animals are still treated as slaves. In both cases, it’s because the law saw them, human or beast, as the sole property of their masters.
There are laws that forbid certain cruelties to the animals we define as pets (no such laws really existed towards slaves), but there are, after a fashion, rules that regulate how we treat food animals too. They may not be as strong, and they may be corrupted, as Foer points out, by the industry that benefits from their breech, but the fact is they exist, and are subject to the evolving, shaping forces of public sentiment and citizen action.
I’m not arguing that we need to redefine animals legally as something other than property. I’m no lawyer (sorry, mom), but there doesn’t seem to be much gray area in the law between humans and everything else. But I do wonder how, as long as society sees animal as property, we can really effect the crucial changes in how we raise and slaughter the animals that feed us. Because Bittman’s overall point is not just right, but urgent. Perhaps there is a legal path toward redefining the use of animals as a privilege. Why not put animals in the same category as rental cars, where we have the right to derive benefit from them, though they belong to someone else, and we must pay dearly for their abuse. From Hormel to Hertz— that would be a huge step up in animal welfare. (It would also necessitate a whole new profession of animal lawyers, and thus an entire David E. Kelley franchise).
If we can change the laws, great. But I wonder if before we can change the law we have to change our faith. The role religion plays in shaping these debates is vastly underestimated, even though you could argue that our entire legal approach to animal welfare derives from the Genesis myth, in which God gives man dominion over animals. Though subsequent Jewish law and philosophy provide room for argument over our obligations to animals and nature, society as a whole doesn’t do nuance very well. Most good Christians woul tell you God tells us these creatures are ours. Period, end of story.
I wonder then, if what began with faith can’t evolve through faith. After all, it was the Christian pulpit that spearheaded the struggle against slavery. It was people of faith who rose up against what they saw as an abomination of God’s word. Maybe it will be our religious thinkers and leaders, the people whom the leaders of government and the factory farming industry turn to for prayer and moral guidance, who will be most influential in helping society redefine our relation with animals. For that to happen, they will have to see our treatment of these creatures as a spiritual crisis, a moral aberration, a sin, even. They will have to believe, and to preach, that one way to draw closer to God, is to draw closer to animals.
I, for one, believe that’s true.
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March 15, 2011 | 5:00 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
To quote myself, television is littered with lousy food shows. When I was writing a column about Anthony Bourdain and No Reservations, I decided to make a list of my favorite cooking and food shows of all time. Here it is:
1. The French Chef with Julia Child
As did many food lovers in my generation, I learned a different level, a different order of cooking, from Julia Child. These shows approached food with gusto, joy and seriousness. They transmit not just the love of food and cooking, but the technique. And technique matters. I still have some episodes downloaded on my iPhone through iTunes. And she’s still the greatest. More on me and Julia here.
2. The Complete Pépin
Jacques Pepin is a professional chef with an easy, clear approach to cooking. I devoured his two books, La Methode and La Technique, and combined with his shows, it’s a very accesibe culinary education. The ones he did with his daughter, if only because they allowed me to fantasize about marrying into the family.
3. Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home
This show was the best of both worls for me: Jacques’s expertise and ease in the kitchen with Julia’s sense of what people need and want to know. You can still get the book.
4. Rick Stein’s Taste of the Sea
Stein has a simple approach to the best seafood, and whoever produced this show was a pioneer in what it takes to create a beautiful, even sensuous and fast-paced cooking show. These shows were the first I’d seen that moved beyond rather stagnant shots of people cooking. Still, you learned a lot: as pretty as it was, it was pretty educational.
5. Baking with Julia
It’s not easy to teach the more exacting craft of baking and still make lively TV. Guess who did?
6. No Reservations
Julia took food seriously and herself not so much. She appreciated the role food plays in sustaining and ennobling culture. She ate heartily, swore happily, and drank mightily. Tony Bourdain, who doesn’t bother to teach you how to even scramble an egg, much less make Filet au Poivre or Paris Brest, is her rightful heir. Plus, he’s almost as tall as she was.
7. Mario Eats Italy
Of all the Mario Batali iterations, this one finds him at his most excitable and knowledgable. He shares his joy of the food and landscape and people of Italy and he cooks some uncommon, authentic dishes.
8. Iron Chef
It opened the floodgates to competition food shows, but it was a shocking wonderful spoof-able mess when it premiered, unstoppably watchable.
9. Top Chef
Less about cooking and food than it is about stilted reality show drama, but it does offer up insights into what it takes to be chef.
10. Kill It Cook It Eat It
I recently discovered this show on Current TV and I’ll be blogging more about it. Maybe it’s more a great idea for a show than a great show, but it does break ground.
March 15, 2011 | 4:50 pm
Posted by Rob Eshman
Television is littered with lousy food shows. I know I risk sounding like some grumpy old coot wondering whatever happened to Jack Paar, but I do wonder what the spirit of the great Julia Child would make of the utter mediocrity, the sheer lack of aspiration, the game show approach and personality-driven fluff that has become the norm in food TV.
Thank God for Anthony Bourdain.
Writer/chef Anthony Bourdain is the host of “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel. It’s not a traditional cooking or food show, but rather Bourdain’s essayistic take on food and culture around the world. In each episode, Bourdain travels to a new location and finds the people, conflicts and foods that most inspire and intrigue him. He has filmed episodes in almost every important and fascinating food location in the world, with one glaring exception: Israel.
Tony, it’s time.
“No Reservations” is a critical and commercial success. The show has won Emmys, millions of people have tuned in to watch it, and it has more than 1,047,000 Facebook friends. Bourdain, already a best-selling author beginning with “Kitchen Confidential,” has become a cultural icon.
I think that’s because people have come to understand that food is not just intricately tied to eating, but also to culture, politics and spirituality; to the health of our bodies as well as to the health of our planet. You won’t learn how to make fresh pasta watching Bourdain, but you will learn what fresh pasta means in the communities that have raised it to an art form. Come for the food, stay for the revelation.
In his eighth season opener last month, Bourdain visited post-earthquake Haiti. He ate some gnarly-looking chicken stew in a makeshift restaurant, then decided to buy out the inventory and distribute it for free to the hungry people nearby. A riot ensued. It was a painful illustration of how tragedy and hardship can easily break the bonds that food ordinarily cements. Bourdain’s predilection is for stories others might leave behind, or for the unsavory, the offal of food television (not surprisingly, he prefers meals that include giblets, guts and glands).
The most dramatic Bourdain episode took place in Beirut in July, 2006. He and his four-person crew arrived to do a story on the rebirth of the Lebanese capital as a travel and food destination. They enjoyed a great traditional meal of mezze and lamb … and then all hell broke loose.
Soon after Bourdain arrived, Israel invaded Lebanon in what has become known as the Second Lebanon War, an attempt to punish and subdue Hezbollah after a series of cross-border attacks. One moment Bourdain is looking forward to lamb-innard kebabs and tabouli, the next he is bivouacked in his luxury hotel watching Israeli bombs rain down on Hezbollah positions. In an attempt to stop captured Israeli soldiers from being spirited out of the country, or arms from being smuggled in, Israel destroyed the Beirut airport. That left an increasingly edgy Bourdain waiting for an eventual evacuation via water.
If anyone could make the transition from sybaritic, world-weary chef to seasoned war correspondent, Bourdain could.
He reported on the grim toll he saw the battle take on the Lebanese he knew, as well as on the nerves of the Americans and other tourists witnessing the shock-and-awe up close. It would have been easy for him to lapse into an anti-Israel narrative — after all, Israeli rockets had destroyed his exit route. But during the show and in interviews afterwards, Bourdain kept his balance.
Here is what he told The Washington Post just after the experience: “As it happened, I was standing with a Sunni, Shiite and a Christian when Hezbollah supporters started to fire automatic weapons in the air celebrating the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers. As a few supporters drove by, the three people I was with all instantaneously took on a look of shame and embarrassment as if a dangerous and unstable little brother had once again brought the whole family into peril.”
Bourdain returned to Beirut last year to see how the city has recovered. He found the food was as good as ever, the city had bounced back, and Hezbollah had become more powerful than in 2006.
“If anything,” he told CNN, “they seem to be the beneficiaries of the conflict.”
One place Bourdain hasn’t been in the Middle East since 2006, or ever, is Israel. He did an episode in Dubai, in which he focused on the plight of the maltreated, deracinated imported laborers, and in Saudi Arabia, where he humanized a culture that exists mostly in monochromatic stereotype, while falling short of giving it a ringing endorsement.
But why not Israel? The comments section of Bourdain-related blogs is peppered with unanswered pleas for an Israel episode.
The country has undergone a food revolution; it is, and has long been, at the crossroads of Middle Eastern cuisine. Israel is home to great chefs, innovative producers, and there’s no lack of moving stories. If you want to examine how food and culture interact, Israel is one of the world’s perfect laboratories.
I assumed Bourdain was keeping his distance out of pique. With a bit of bad luck, he could have been killed in 2006 courtesy of the Israelis. I e-mailed Diane Schutz, the show’s producer, at Zero Point Zero Productions and asked flat out, “Will Tony go to Israel?”
I expected no answer. But very quickly, by return e-mail, came a yes. Yes, she e-mailed me, it is something they are very much interested in. Not this season, which is in the can, but soon.
Now that will be a food show. Stay tuned.
Go to the Facebook page, Send Anthony Bourdain to Israel.
For a list of Foodaism’s Top Ten Food and Cooking Shows, click here.