A Modest Proposal

Want to win over meat-eaters? Celebrate the decadence of vegetarianism.

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Eating Animals reminds us that vegetarianism is a diet of intellectuals. Which is to say, it is eating intellectualized. Vegetarian thinking thrashes against itself, rattling between intention and action, between “animal nature” and “human nature,” reason and desire. Vegetarians can seldom just eat. They justify, apologize, rail, denounce, weep, cajole, entice. At the end of Eating Animals, in the closest we get to a recipe, Foer describes the menu for the no-turkey Thanksgiving of his dreams: “…sweet potato casserole, homemade rolls, green beans with almonds, cranberry concoctions, yams…” As vegetarians intellectualize, they start to believe that people will find rolls and casserole so inspiring as to turn their backs on Thanksgiving turkey.

“Let the stoics say what they please,” wrote Emerson, “we do not eat for the good of living, but because the meat is savory and the appetite is keen.” I agree with Emerson here, as would Foer. People eat meat because they desire it and make their excuses after the fact. We don’t know for sure if it is more or less natural for humans to eat meat, if eating meat or vegetables made us the awesome, complex animals we are, made our brains larger, our thumbs stronger or whatever. We do know that it’s now perfectly possible to live a meaningful and healthy life without meat and without suffering for it. Even an extraordinary life, as demonstrated by da Vinci, Tolstoy, Kafka, Shaw. Foer thus appeals to our nobler sense, reminds us that we need not be ruled by the flavor of meat, that we are animals who recoil from unnecessary cruelty; who can enjoy simplicity; who strive to raise ethical, gentle children that will go on to promote a better world. The old internal mantra of the reformer, “If they only knew, they would change,” beats throughout Eating Animals.

This is where I disagree. All people, with few exceptions, understand the inherent cruelty of killing for food, whether in farms or in factories or in the wild. Most who know about industrial meat farms also know that they are ghastly for the animals and employees alike. People know, but still they do not want to change. This is because people need more than education to act ethically — they need reward. Humans have the capacity for good, but we are also scoundrels. Nobly intentioned as we are, we are creatures of appetite. Honorable as we can be, we are perhaps the cruelest of God’s little creatures. We rarely derive our culinary pleasure from goodness and even more rarely from abstinence. Just as a life of celibacy isn’t a proper reward for refraining from rape, a potato casserole does not a meat substitute make. Take all the naughtiness out of food and you take away much of its taste. What, exactly, do the vegetarians want? A well-reasoned argument or a food revolution?

Proponents of meat-eating often hold decadence up as their banner. They imply that no one who really loved food, who loved life, would decline meat. This puts vegetarians on the defensive. Their bulwark is the claim that meat-eaters are selfish, or that vegetarian food needn’t be (maybe even shouldn’t be) tasty because it is morally superior.

Moral superiority, however, is not enough. The vegetarian too needs to claim decadence. The syphilitic dipsomaniac poet Paul Verlaine wrote a superb description of decadence:

I love this word decadence, all shimmering in purple and gold. It suggests the subtle thoughts of ultimate civilization, a high literary culture, a soul capable of intense pleasures. It throws off bursts of fire and the sparkle of precious stones. It is redolent of the rouge of courtesans, the games of the circus, the panting of the gladiators, the spring of wild beasts, the consuming in flames of races exhausted by their capacity for sensation, as the tramp of an invading army sounds.

Don’t we all want our food to be like bursts of fire and panting gladiators?

Verlaine’s decadence is not so much about self-indulgence as it is about freedom. The Decadent poets wanted to create their own moral standards and design their own world. They wanted freedom from the prescriptions of “normal” daily life. This freedom required a certain amount of artifice, the so-called rouge of courtesans.

All vegetarianism is, in large part, artificial. It is based neither on ritual nor on necessity. It is a diet by humans for humans. A diet of modernity, whose survival will most likely depend as much on innovations in food technology as the simplicity of the family farm. I say that is the strength of vegetarianism. It can offer a freedom that meat-eating cannot: a diet that is about choice and a liberation from the prescriptions of “normal” daily life. A whole new way of eating that doesn’t rely on the whims of Nature. In short, a form of decadence. An acceptance that, like artists, we can fashion our own food and ergo, our own lives.

Below I offer an outline for an Eating Animals sequel entitled A 21st Century, Balls-out Decadent Explosion of Naughty Vegetarian Food Exploration Appealing to Degenerates, or for short VEGETABALLS. It will be written by an intrepid vegetable adventurer who wears a cabbage hat and lamé hotpants, a postmodern-molecular-gastronomist-Shackleton of beans who couldn’t care less about tradition and “the earth.” VEGETABALLS  is for a vegetarianism of chocolate, vodka, fries, and habanero sauce that shows how you can be a selfish drunk fat slob and still do your part to limit the unnecessary suffering of animals. A vegetarianism that is an expression of freedom from the habit and the anachronism of meat-eating. A vegetarianism that embraces its relationship to artifice and technology. A vegetarianism that is a celebration of life rather than a denial of it. A diet that is more futuristic, more fun, and more satisfying morally than meat-eating. A vegetarianism, as Verlaine would have it, of ultimate civilization, all shimmering in purple and gold.

Samples chapters could include:

Chapter One: Vegetarian Transgression

A little consensual transgression spices up any recreation. Honest meat eaters admit that the titillation of eating a beast that has suffered is part of the fun. Adrenalin may make the meat of a thrashed dog taste better, but whose adrenalin, the dog’s or the beater’s? Perhaps a bit of both. What’s queer is that many of these same meat-eaters will go out of their way to perform a play of mock revulsion at vegetarians who eat fake meat. At fake meat specialty stores you can get veggie kidney, gizzards, shark’s fin, eel. I propose they add veggie kitten, dolphin, panda, and elephant. If it attracts converts, huzzah.

Many have proposed using human breast milk as a base for cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and the like. Breast milk foam atop morning cocoa? How about a creamy breast milk chowder with caramelized leeks? Yum.

Finally, for a UK Channel 4 program this year titled Heston’s Roman Feast, the adventurous chef Heston Blumenthal created splendid ejaculating puddings made with white chocolate mousse, Pop Rocks, and dry ice. For 25 years I’ve been asked by sniggering dingdongs if vegetarians swallow and it’s here I answer, “Pourquoi pas?” If it tickles the tastebuds of men and women and harms no one, a vegetarian’s delight! Now that’s a pudding.

Chapter Two: The Dining Halls of the Palace Of Versailles, Where Peas Reign

Gardens were the 17th-century European symbol of decadence. In Chapter Two, we toast the plant world. What we now take for granted once dazzled the tastebuds of botanists and royalty. In the famed Le potager du roi — the Kitchen Garden of the King — Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie created for Louis XIV a paradise of fruits and vegetables that was for years the culinary obsession at Versailles. A maze of truffles, strawberries, melons, asparagus, cucumbers, pears, apples, figs (a particular favorite of the King). “The craze for peas continues,” wrote the aristocrat Madame de Sévigné, “the impatience waiting to eat them, to have eaten them, and the pleasure of eating them are the three subjects our princes have been discussing for the past four days now.” Inspired also by Acetaria, John Evelyn’s 1699 treatise on the beauty of salad, the Garden nourished 16 varieties of lettuce that made their way to the royal table on a regular basis, replete with fresh herbs. The King’s betrothed, the Spanish Princess Maria Theresa, brought a love of chocolate to the court, too, often flavored with black pepper, a rare prize from the forests of India. The Kitchen Garden showed the King’s dominion over nature and the exotic tastes of the New World that had all been cultivated in one place just to please the aristocracy.

CHAPTER THREE: A Response to Anthony Bourdain’s Book The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps and Bones, to be called Naughty Bits: Selected Savory Inessentials from the Human Form

As vegetarians are denounced by the terrifying Anthony Bourdains of the world, who wander the globe sucking the eyeballs out of baby seals and slurping the still-beating hearts of live snakes in a pathetic grasp for authenticity, Chapter Three of VEGETABALLS encourages consuming and relishing human secretions. Such secretions harm no one and are surely just as decadent. If blood is food in our craven minds why not sweat and piss and tears?

Who wouldn’t enjoy the following amuse-bouche?

JUSTINE BOUCHE

Sprinkle one-quarter teaspoon of crystallized tears of joy from a newly deflowered bride over a piece of candied ginger. Place the ginger atop an edible flower petal on which a single bead of the chef’s blood has been dropped. Serve.

Chapter Four: Praising the Factory that Brought Widespread Vegetarianism to Pass

When Michael Pollan writes things like, “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” as he did in In Defense of Food, I start to feel hair grow on my palms and my cerebral cortex shrivel. My great grandmother wouldn’t have recognized sushi as food, nor seedless watermelon. Is ridding ourselves of these food triumphs really the pinnacle of omnivorous achievement? Also, nothing has championed vegetarianism like the clanks and gears of globalized, year-round vegetables, soy products, and futuristic processed veggie meats from Taiwan. The exciting promises of a succulent Petri-meat, though still out of grasp, could be the savior of many an animal. Why let vegetarian food be co-opted by the Michael Pollans and other food Luddites (here known as Foodites) who fear the very industry that makes produce plentiful?

Chapter Five: Terra Incognita

While the bold meat-eater can waltz easily into the unknown — that is, restaurants where they don’t know the language and don’t know what they’re eating — the vegetarian explorer has a bigger challenge. Yet the idea that going into an “authentic” or “ethnic” or “traditional” restaurant means waiting for a plate of stewed eyelids does a disservice to the glories of plant-based delicacies from all over the world. Chapter Five evokes Chinese breakfasts, warm bowls of thick, creamy congee porridge dappled with spicy pickled roots. The sticky caramel-like strands of natto, a strong Japanese dish of fermented soybeans feared by many a daring meat-eater. Yak butter tea, salted tamarind candy, Marmite, huitlacoche… and don’t forget the simple pleasures. Hungarian cuisine abounds with goose fat, but bite into the blood-red flesh of a tomato in Hungary and you’ll understand why it is named “paradicsom,” the same word for paradise.

Chapter Six: Food Is for Sissies, Vegan Experiments

Vegetarian doesn’t have to mean vegetable — hell, it doesn’t even have to mean food.

CAPTIVES PERFUMES

(formula by the Futurist Dr. Sirocofran)

Put a drop of perfume inside some thin brightly colored balloons. Blow them up and warm them gently to vaporize the perfume and swell the outer surface.

Blammo! That’s a vegan recipe right there — no meat, no dairy, no food, just pure sense experience. How about asking a child to conjure up an imaginary meal for you with her plastic baking pans and curiosity?

Chapter Seven: The Joy of Soy

A chapter on the amazing versatility of soy, inspired by the article “The Joy of Soy” (Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, Los Angeles Times, 2009):

Sweet or salty, mild or spicy, served chilled or boiling hot, smooth or firm, Vietnamese soy puddings topped with sweet ginger syrup, soft Japanese tofu you can eat with a spoon, flavored tofus (with bits of mushrooms or pieces of ginger, lemongrass, and chile flakes), tofu flavored with pandan with a bit of a floral undertone, tofu topped with a bit of coconut milk, fresh soy milk flavored with black sesame, warm and fresh tofu, delicate Japanese artisanal tofu like you’d find in the mountains of Japan, supreme tofu with a thick, custard-like texture and a wonderfully rich soybean flavor, tofu bought from little old women hidden in the dark corners of markets, selling from wooden tubs next to bags of biji (called okara in Japanese), made into a hot and spicy stew by Korean grandmas.

Chapter Eight: Delectably Loathsome and Menacing Plants

1. The curious, buttery flesh of the medlar fruit is said to taste of caramel and dirt.

2. The durian fruit’s reeking, custardy innards make it illegal to bring on an airplane. “On first tasting it I thought it like the flesh of some animal in a state of putrefaction,” wrote the French naturalist Henri Mouhot.

3. The dangerous false morel is a Finnish delicacy. It can cause death and/or liquid stool if eaten raw—even its fumes can be toxic. Sought for its intense, earthy flavor. Just don’t try to snort it.

4. A relative of the longan, the fragrant spongy flesh of the ackee fruit is akin to scrambled eggs when cooked, and is often served as a main course in Jamaica. Underripe ackee can throw you into a coma or kill you so make sure the chef is a friend.

There’s a sonnet about love written by the English poet John Suckling that has the line “’Tis not the meat, but ’tis the appetite / Makes eating a delight”. Humans are wonderful like that, our inchoate desire that can be channeled into taste. Unlike other animals, we can choose the object of our desire. It’s not always easy but a new world of pleasure can open up when we spend the time to cultivate our appetites. As meat-eaters scramble about thinking of ways to square the ethical circle, vegetarians can have fun thinking of ways to aestheticize what is already an ethical choice. You’ll have to investigate what you’re eating before making your decision, but knowledge is part of the explorer’s quest too. Sometimes life is sexier with the lights on. • 20 November 2009

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.
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