Faux Pho ConsciousnessPosted: July 16, 2009
We haven’t posted any of these “food for thought” pieces in a while, but I read an article today that inspired me to write a little thought piece on food politics. I’ll say up front, however, that this post is going to include some potentially inflamatory opinions about vegetarianism, so if you’re just here for the recipes and would rather not get into all that, feel free to skip this post. On the other hand, respectful disagreement is, as always, completely welcome.
Naomi Pomeroy, chef, Beast restaurant in Portland, Oregon says,
“Favorite Cheap Eat:
Portland’s Pho Oregon. ‘I eat pho [Vietnamese soup] twice a week. I don’t eat the meat in it. I need to know the meat I eat is sustainably raised, and at $5 a bowl, I doubt it.'”
The thurst of Kasten’s response is as follows:
Let me tell you what’s unsustainable, Chef Pomeroy – Pampered yuppie fools who have the poor judgment to not only cheapen the life of the animal that gave its life to float in your bowl of Vietnamese soup but then sanctimoniously brag about it while being honored as an innovative chef!
I found this critique really interesting in that it brings to light the fact that food politics is a really complicated and multi-layered issue. Kasten is essentially saying the Pomeroy has allowed herself to slip into a false consciousness regarding her support of sustainable agriculture. First of all, she (Pomeroy) is most certainly still ingesting this questionable Pho meat in broth form even if she picks out the solid bits. More to the point, however, the money that she pays for the Pho supports the unsustainable agricultural practices whether she eats the meat or not. This is where Kasten’s point really cuts to the bone: Pomeroy’s concern for sustainability does not extend beyond her own skin. She prevents this potentially unhealthful produce from touching her directly (or so she thinks), but simultaneously encourages the continued production of this product, and in turn continued environmental degradation, etc.
As Kasten points out, it is perhaps the height of absurdity to purchase and then throw out meat for the purpose of “sustainability.” But through these ideas of waste and sustainability, she begins to weave in her own set of somewhat wobbly assumptions about food ethics. In the quote above, she argues that throwing out the meat “cheapen[s] the life of the animal that gave its life [to be in your soup].” Later, she berates Pomeroy, saying, “If you’re going to kill an animal, at least have the good sense to honor it by appreciating the sacrifice it made.”
Here, Kasten romanticizes her own gastronomic practice by imagining that the dead animal had some sort of agency in determining its own fate. The cow whose flesh ended up in Pomeroy’s soup made no willing sacrifice – it was herded down a corridor and slaughtered. The act of throwing out the meat, while certainly wasteful in the context of human hunger and sustainable agriculture, cannot possibly “cheapen the life” of an animal whose entire feedlot existence was directed toward the purpose of this slaughter – the economic systems behind this entire mode of production already ensured at every turn that its life was as cheap as possible. I’ll admit that it’s at least feasible that the life of “free range” farm animals is more pleasant, and this may affect the ethics of consuming meat, but the underlying fact of the animal’s life and death being managed for the purpose of consumption remains unchanged. This right to manage the life and death of animals toward our own ends (in the presence of numerous alternative sources of nutrition) is Kasten’s the underlying assumption.
Regardless of whether one believes that people have such a right, arguing that the act of consuming an animal whose life was governed in this way “honors” the animal (which Kasten erroneously represents as having willingly sacrificed its life) necessitates a narcissism rivaling Pomeroy’s. Kasten constructs the act of killing an animal to consume its flesh as sacred and then declares that Pomeroy has profaned the act by committing “a crime against food.” It is thus Pomeroy’s violation of this ritual that becomes the ultimate focus of Kasten’s critique; not to the economic or environmental impacts of agribusiness or the needs of hungry people around the world.
In fact, while Kasten berates Pomeroy for the narrow way she implements her beliefs about sustainability, she goes on to shut down a commenter who (hyperbolically) pushes a vegetarian/vegan critique on her claim that the act of eating and appreciating meat can somehow “honor” the dead animal. Certainly it is Kasten’s blog and she has the right to shape the discourse as she sees fit. However, she betrays the narrowness of her own outlook when she establishes those boundaries.