This month Taco Bell began giving away coupons for 10 million tacos as a way to reward customers who were perhaps scared away by a lawsuit which claims their beef mixture contains only 35% meat. But even if their product is 88% real meat as the chain advertises, shouldn't that still be a wake-up call to put down and slowly back away from the Chalupa? It's time we start to think about the food we mindlessly shovel into our mouths on a daily basis, especially when it comes to meat. As a proud Philadelphia native, I swore early in life that I would never let vegetarian ideals get in the way of an amazing cheesesteak. And while I realize the debate rages on as to whether or not humans are meant to be vegetarians or omnivores, I've decided there's enough evidence for me to feel comfortable with my decision to eat animals. But if I'm choosing to eat meat is it not then my responsibility to know where it came from?
For most of my life I simply ignored this moral incongruency, but as I got older, I kept hearing about people reading Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma and having transformative experiences. I was skeptical of the unbridled enthusiasm of the newly converted. To me the whole movement seemed to come with more than an extra helping of pomposity. But after a while, enough of my friends were recommending the two tomes, so I decided it was worth taking a look. The books and their counterpart documentary Food Inc. didn't change my view of food overnight, but they helped open my eyes, as did interviewing Fedele Baucio, the CEO of Bon Appetit Management Company. In my podcast about making informed decisions when dining out, he told me about his work to bring sustainable food to the marketplace on a large scale by working with schools like The University of Pennsylvania and companies like Google.
The real game changer for me came earlier this year, when I met farmer Jesse Straight. I was working on a story about the pasture poultry farm movement (pioneered by Joel Salatin of Food Inc. fame) and discovered that Straight actually has volunteers come and help him slaughter and process his chickens. Did I get that right? I could kill my own chicken? The fact is for my whole life there seemed to be a real disconnect between the animal I'd see in a petting zoo and the chewy white stuff that tastes great with a little barbecue sauce. Saturday Night Live pointed this out years ago with their fake commercial for Cluckin Chicken where a decapitated bird ironically shows how odd it is that we anthropomorphosize the very animals we eat.
So in an attempt to right my head with my gut I set out to kill my own bird. My trip to Straight's farm started off pretty mellow. He dutifully showed me around the hatchery, and then the special cages he uses to raise his birds on grass rather than grain, and finally we walked to the processing operation. Straight aims to mimic Salatin's operation at Polyface Farms where workers use kill cones which are about the size of the orange traffic cones. The bird goes in beak first, the head pops out the bottom, and all that's left to do is make a clean sweep across the jugular. After Straight demonstrated on one bird, I questioned whether I would have the courage to go through with it. But more than feeling squeamish about the situation, I was feeling ashamed about the hypocrisy of my food choices. Every chicken wing, thigh, and breast I had mindlessly devoured over the years was related to this real live animal whose life was literally in my hands. If I were to pop another nugget again, I knew I had to do it. And so I did. The knives Straight uses are extremely sharp and shaped specifically for poultry processing so the act was surprisingly easy. With one firm stroke I sliced through and almost instantly the neck turned crimson as blood poured out. The next thirty seconds were the hardest to witness, Straight and I stood in silence as we watch the bird convulse and die. "Watching an animal die is never pretty" he told me. Knowing it's death was the result of your own actions is a different experience altogether. But then it was back to business as we defeathered, gutted, washed, and bagged the chickens. We took a separate bag containing the livers and hearts back to Jesse's house where his wife sautéed them for us. And then I ate it. I actually ate the heart from a live animal I had killed less than 20 minutes earlier. What kind of sick person was I? Well if you ate chicken this week and chances are you did...then I don't see how we're any different.
At some point you have to make peace with yourself and decide how you're not going to call yourself a hypocrite every time you step into the meat aisle of the supermarket. After my farm visit I felt even surer about my decision not to become a vegetarian or a vegan or even an organictarian, one who only eats organic food. I decided to label myself a conscious eater. Kind of like a conscious rapper in the realm of Mos Def and Common. So what are the credentials for being a conscious eater? Really it's not one thing, it's more just to think about each morsel of food you put in your mouth, to question why a hamburger only costs a buck while a can of sardines costs three, or to eat a hot dog knowing every single thing that's in it. There are bound to be situations where you won't be able to check the label or where someone hands you something and you're not sure of the ingredients. To me that's not a big deal. Nor do I think everyone needs to kill their own chicken, though perhaps it wouldn't be a bad thing for more people to have that experience. The bigger picture is whether or not you care enough to make different choices when presented the opportunity. That's how movements start, one choice at a time.
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