Thoughts about food bring out the weird in people. Otherwise agreeable, laid-back folks get a weird glow in their eyes when talk turns to ways of eating. We are what we eat, in a very concrete sense, and also in a variety of more or less metaphorical ones.
—How do you spot a vegan at a cocktail party?Food is a marker of identity. The Inquisition even came up with a special dish to make sure that Iberian Jews who had converted really had done so. It's made with pork and shellfish. The Greenland Norsemen preferred to die out as Christians rather than eat seal like the Inuit, when the Little Ice Age hit.
—Don't worry, he'll let you know.
There are the traditional identity foods—national or regional dishes, sometimes associated with particular holidays. Pumpkin pie and turkey. Fattouche. Mämmi. Eisbein. Gefilte Fisch. Borshch. Shchi. Beijing duck. Fugu sashimi. Wot with injera. Surströmming.
Nowadays, there are whole new tribes marked by dietary choices coming up. Paleos. Vegans. Vegetarians. Low-carb. Dieters. Fasters. Slow foodies. Fenno-vegans. Macrobiotics. These are the ones that really weird me out. They're so absolutely certain about the rightness of what they do. Diet becomes a moral imperative, and a universal one. Those who don't eat the right way are not merely other, or weak-willed, or self-destructive, or otherwise inferior, but actually evil.
It's not that they're completely wrong, either. There are ethical issues related to food, and there will be until the day nobody has to go hungry, and all food is produced with no exploitation of people, animals, or nature. Could take a while.
These ethics get hairy, which makes simple absolutes like the vegan "meat is murder" position so attractive. Find a rule and stick to it, and you'll get a clear conscience. Except that it ain't quite so either. Lots of vegetables are grown in scarily unsustainable ways, by ruthlessly exploiting vulnerable people—and very often animals too. Focus on sustainability and social justice, and you'll find yourself eating lots of delicious, varied, and high-quality food... if you can afford it. Which means you're right back up the top of the food chain, like Marie Antoinette playing at shepherdesses in the English garden of Versailles.
Our general cultural approach to food and health is really off. I come across articles on healthy living or healthy eating, and they're mostly written in terms of punishment and reward; discipline and "treats." Eat thus-and-so, and you'll be a morally upstanding good citizen and be healthy, thin, and beautiful. And, there's always a reminder, you can reward yourself with the occasional treat. A couple of hamburger meals a month, or some candy, or a creamy dessert.
This strikes me as wrong-headed in many ways. It creates all kinds of equivalences and oppositions, most of which are completely or almost completely spurious. "Right eating" ~ "ethical living" ~ "healthy living" ~ "self-discipline" ~ "suppression of bad impulses" ~ "repression." The "bad" things you're not supposed to eat become forbidden rewards, and as such, even more attractive.
This mode of thinking is there, regardless of the specific definitions of "right" or "wrong" eating. Paleos, vegetarians, whole-fooders, slow-fooders, vegans, macrobiotics, dieticians, national health experts, physicians; they all approach it this way. No wonder people have so much trouble with their diets.
There's got to be a better way to approach this.
I've significantly changed my diet over the past three or four years. It has improved my health and general sense of well-being. By and large, I've just done it by paying attention to how I feel when eating something, and after eating something. I don't like the way I feel after overeating, or not eating enough, or eating a burger, and I'm aware of that feeling when I'm doing, or not doing, any of that. The upshot is that I rarely want to eat burgers. If, on occasion, I do want to eat a burger, I eat a burger, and end up rediscovering that yup, yuck, it does make me feel like crap afterwards, and I didn't really enjoy it all that much even while I was eating it.
At the same time, I've been exploring all kinds of interesting things to eat, many of which are, according to someone anyway, "good." I've also been exploring how the way they make me feel. And I've been considering where the food comes from, who grew or farmed it, what kind of mark it left on the world on the way to my plate. That informs my food choices as well. I don't want to eat stuff that I know is doing a lot of damage.
Another thing I've had to come to terms with is that my knowledge about this web of cause and effect that food comes from is incomplete and often incorrect. I'm not certain about any of this. I don't really know how a factory-farmed broiler feels during the few short weeks of its life in a tiny little cage. I guess. Nor do I know how, say, a moose feels during its life in the Finnish forest, or how much it suffers when someone shoots it, or how much they would suffer if nobody shot them and they died of starvation and disease through overpopulation instead, or eaten by wolves.
I think it'd be great if we had enough wolves to keep down the moose population. But I'm not at all convinced that a moose would prefer being chased down and torn apart by wolves to a clean shot in the chest, if there was a way to ask him.
So I make guesses about suffering, and consequences, and alternative scenarios. And I eat venison, but not factory-farmed chicken, or plantation-grown bananas, if I can help it. And I try to remember how incredibly privileged I am to be able to fuss about choices like this, instead of having to wonder how to find enough of any kind of food to stay alive, never even mind healthy.
Fussiness has negative consequences too. Refusing food on ethical grounds has consequences for the people whose food you refuse, and yourself. Do so, and you cut yourself off from them, in a very concrete and immediate manner. Hector them about their food choices, and you cut yourself off even more. That is action with ethical implications too.
Finally, food is just a part—and not even the biggest part—of the impact our actions have on each other and our environment. The clothes you wear. The car you drive, or the planes you fly. The place you live in. The electricity you use. The Internet you connect to. The computer you're typing on. The job you work in. The people you vote for, or against, or neglect to vote for. The everyday little interactions with people. It all leaves a mark. It's all ethics. Actions with consequences. Generating karma. Some good, but always, always some bad.
It really would be cool if there were arahants who have stepped out of that. Who really can act without generating karma.
But somebody grew the rice they eat, too.