The Missing Ingredient

Published on: 14:04PM Mar 18, 2009

My son turned six last weekend, so as part of the celebration, we steamed snow crab legs (from Alaska – not local, but at least domestic and definitely yummy) at home last night for dinner.    


While I was picking some meat out of a leg, my son spontaneously offered a…how to describe it?  Not a prayer, since it wasn’t to a deity.  It was more of a eulogy, except that it was delivered in the second person, directly to the crab.  My kindergartner said thanks to the shell and legs of the crab he was ingesting, offering his gratitude that the crab gave his little crustacean life so that my son could eat.  It wasn’t an overt display of emotion, but there was with it a sense of sincere and simple appreciation, that this act of eating a once-living thing wasn’t merely just another commercial transaction or random bodily function.


Perhaps this act of thanks was prompted by the fact that when we eat certain foods, (i.e. shellfish, like crabs and lobsters), there is a shell involved, and we can see that a once-holistic creature is our meal.  Too often, of course, the true source of individual cuts of meat and poultry are unfathomable, especially when processed into unrecognizable shapes like dinosaur chicken nuggets (which my son also likes) and hot dogs. 


Farmers and ranchers often complain that consumers are so removed from food that they have no idea where it comes from, and think it’s all magically shrink-wrapped, bloodless and refrigerated right in the store.  Other than hunters, fisherman and farmers, not many people are out there butchering livestock or game animals (in fact, the number of hunters is declining faster than the proportion of farmers in the U.S.).  Is it because people actually don’t want to know?  Or that they don’t care?  Or that, as this new movie trailer asserts, “Food Inc.” whoever that is, is trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes?


If you watch the trailer of Food Inc., it makes the rather sweeping and erroneous assertion that dairy farmers don’t want people to know where their milk and cheese come from.  Most dairy farmers I know welcome visitors to their farm, as long as they have open minds and actually want to learn, as opposed to those looking to have their prejudices and biases confirmed. 


The “pastoral fantasy” mentioned in the trailer is actually a straw man argument set up by the film’s marketers, not necessarily by farmers themselves.  And the movie marketers are really no different, and certainly have no higher moral ground, than the marketers of many foods:  they’re trying to generate some sizzle to sell tickets to their movie, which I’m guessing will be far less revealing and insightful than this trailer makes it out to be.


What it seems to me is missing from the debate over where food comes from, who produces it, and in particular, balancing the rights of animals vs. the rights of humans, is a sense of the cycle of life.  At meals, we say Grace to God, to our loved ones and guests, and occasionally to the farmers who provide us with food, but too often what’s absent at the dinner table is the sense of the connection between the diner and what he or she is eating, often an animal product.


I think that if even a six year-old understands that there are trade-offs in life, that to live in nature and with nature is to make choices about how to use nature’s products, like farm animals or seafood…well, perhaps then there is hope that older people who aren’t too far gone with their biases and agendas can also understand that life offers us choices that aren’t necessarily black and white. 


But that would require too much thought for some.