Faux Pho Consciousness

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.

At Open Salon, food writer Jodi Kasten has written a post that caught my eye. In it, she responds to the following quip that she found in Food & Wine magazine:

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.

P.S. As I was writing this post, I happened to run across this random old blog post that seems apropos and in turn reminded me to visit an old favorite blog, Suicide Food.


7 Comments on “Faux Pho Consciousness”

  1. Angela says:

    Very well-written.
    I had just completed a lengthy essay to my sister-in-law, who had supported a statement in an article in Time magazine that said, basically “people buy calorie-dense food because it’s cheaper than fruits and vegetables.”
    I sent her tons of supporting evidence that fruits and vegetables are in fact the CHEAPEST way to eat, the real problem being education, access, fast food, and what I consider addiction.
    I linked to The Crunchy Chicken for the challenge to eat organic and local on the food stamp allowance (which my husband and I are doing without a problem) and to you for your inspirational lifestyle and recipes.
    So thanks for the inspiration!

  2. eric says:

    Nice post!

    I’ve recently been thinking that many of the “good” things we do aren’t really done for the good, but because they make us feel good (or feel superior). So, you seem correct in your assessment that neither Kasten nor Pomeroy are really concerned with doing the “good” thing, but rather with doing the thing that makes them feel good.

    They each have their own sacred cow (pun fully intended) that they’re honoring. I suppose there’s some “collateral good” from each position, though.

    But what baffles me is that Pomeroy, as a chef, doesn’t know that the beef is what give the pho its flavor? That’s what you’re eating when you eat broth, right? Melted meat, bones, gelatin, etc.

    (Full disclosure: I’m a big fan of the pho in Portland [although usually pho ga, not beef]. It’s one of my occasional meat exceptions, not routine.)

  3. Daniel says:

    Nice job finding an interesting narcissistic hypocrisy wrapped around yet another narcissistic hypocrisy. And I’m a fan of anyone who calls BS on sanctimony.

    I have to say, though, on the spectrum of good and evil, wasting meat has to be closer to hell than eating meat and *not* wasting it.

    Dan
    Casual Kitchen

  4. K says:

    Yes, very nicely written! I could see the absurdity in their statements immediately. It baffles me how the vast majority of the population can stay so in the dark about what they’re eating and where it came from – but then I remember not so long ago when I didn’t really give it a second though either. There was no magic moment, but the more I read the less I could ignore what started to weigh more heavily on my conscience….now I just wish there was a good way to spread the knowledge about how sick our food systems are.

    Have you guys seen Food, Inc. yet? I want to just so I can discuss it, but otherwise it’s preaching to the choir I guess.

  5. Toni says:

    I read this same thing on Chow. The whole thing made an impact on me, obviously I am not the only one.

  6. Jen says:

    Life and death are a part of the cycle of food, like it or not. You can kid yourselves that not eating meat will make for a “sustainable” world, except that without predators, jack is sustainable.

  7. P says:

    Jen,

    To make an equivalence between contemporary industrial methods of meat production and the nutritional “food cycle”, by which I assume we mean processes of energy production and consumption that occur in a natural ecosystem, is a deeply flawed line of argument.

    I needn’t kid myself about meat being a source of environmental sustainability. The following Time Magazine article, for example, can point you to a UN study on carbon emissions in food production which shows that the production of meat far outweighs the production of other foods in terms of its carbon footprint:

    http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1839995,00.html

    On top of global warming concernes, take into account the environmental stresses created by the feedlot system itself – in terms of the waste lagoons and medicinal/chemical products that leech into the ecosystem. For some in-depth information on feedlots, I recommend Michael Pollen’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma (note: he is not a vegetarian).

    I have a hard time understanding how one draws a parallel between being a “predator” (i.e. hunting and killing other animals for food) and buying a pack of ground beef at your local supermarket. Other than the basic fact of consumption of flesh, how do you view these two processes as the same?

    “Life and death” being necessary parts of an ecosystem is of course neither here nor there in terms of vegetarianism, as human beings are quite capable of surviving (healthfully and deliciously) on a diet of plant matter.

    Finally, I think I could clarify one point from my original post. I did notmake the the case that all vegetarian diets are fundamentally more environmentally sustainable than all omnivorous diets. The person who raises some livestock on a self-sufficient farm almost certainly has a smaller carbon footprint than a person who lives on a diet consisting largely of industrially-produced vegetarian food (frozen veggie burgers and what not). Rather, my point is that it would be better for the planet if our currently predominant global systems of meat production ceased to exist.

    Nevertheless, my personal sense is that vegetarianism remains ethically preferable due to what I said above regarding the right to govern the lives of animals for food production. I understand that reasonable, caring people’s opinions may differ on this subject.


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