Every Twelve Seconds: Animal Suffering and Normalized Violence

On Monday I wrote about the horrific conditions for laying hens, which reminded me of this Opinionator piece by Mark Bittman from a few weeks back.

He draws attention to this new book by Timothy Pachirat, out from Yale University Press–Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight.

Perhaps the cover says more than the title:

From the Yale Press description:

This is an account of industrialized killing from a participant’s point of view. The author, political scientist Timothy Pachirat, was employed undercover for five months in a Great Plains slaughterhouse where 2,500 cattle were killed per day—one every twelve seconds.

Working in the cooler as a liver hanger, in the chutes as a cattle driver, and on the kill floor as a food-safety quality-control worker, Pachirat experienced firsthand the realities of the work of killing in modern society. He uses those experiences to explore not only the slaughter industry but also how, as a society, we facilitate violent labor and hide away that which is too repugnant to contemplate.

I’m really intrigued by the phrase in the subtitle: “the politics of sight.”

I would rather not see the sweatshop workers sewing my jeans.

I would rather not see the landfills filled with the crap I’ve thrown away.

I would rather not see how the people who pick the grapes I eat are treated.

What other things would we prefer be invisible? How does relying on invisibility contribute to an increasingly violent and less empathetic world?

{Then there’s that lunatic farmer somewhere in Virginia who has an open-air slaughterhouse…huh. Got nothing to hide, I guess.}

WE LIKE MEAT! (& The Food Matters Cookbook)

{Yes, I’m still away! This review of Mark Bittman’s Food Matters Cookbook originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Flourish magazine.}

My family and I love meat. If the answer to “what’s for dinner?” is remotely carnivorous, my sons and husband are thrilled, and, I must say, I am too. During each of my pregnancies, I craved nothing so much as meat, especially red meat. But I’m also a little wary of meat, for lots of reasons—namely, the environmental destruction caused by factory farming, the treatment of meatpacking workers that isn’t any better today than it was when Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, the health risks that are associated with eating too much meat—particularly the factory farmed kind—as well as the more acute risk of E coli O157:H7.

Both on my own and with my family, I’ve had extended periods of de facto vegetarianism—but I still love meat. And I think that there are some good reasons for continuing to eat it, although I try only to eat meat from animals that have been raised and slaughtered in ways that are responsible and humane. Of course, the price of this kind of meat accurately reflects its value, so we eat much less of it. Cooking and eating this way makes sense to us, and it’s making sense to more and more people—“flexitarians”—who choose to consciously limit their intake of meat while not foregoing it altogether.

Vegetarian cookbooks are of value to flexitarian types, in large part because they invite you to reconsider what a good meal looks like. For many Americans, a meal without meat seems incomplete, because meat is so often cooked and served as the “main” dish, while veggies and starches are “side dishes.” Mashed potatoes and broccoli seem lonely without a slab of animal protein to keep them company; sometimes people turning toward vegetarianism look to commercially produced meat substitutes to fill that gap. But those products are not always so healthy, they can be expensive, and as anyone who has eaten Quorn can tell you, they’re not guaranteed to be incredibly appetizing.

That’s where vegetarian cookbooks like Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone or Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian come in—showing you that great meals don’t have to center around meat or meat substitutes. But what about those of us who don’t want to be vegetarian, but simply to eat more fruits, veggies, and whole grains and eat meat in moderation?

Bittman’s newest offering, The Food Matters Cookbook, does just that; it’s a treasury of more than 500 less-meat (but not meatless!) recipes following up on his 2009 book Food Matters, which told the story of Bittman’s own culinary conversion. Despite having been a professional food writer for nearly 30 years, despite even having written a vegetarian cookbook, at age 57, Bittman was 35 pounds overweight with high cholesterol, high blood sugar, sleep apnea, and serious knee problems. His doctor told him to go vegan, and go vegan he did: for breakfast and lunch. He still eats like an omnivore for dinner, but he’s changed the overall way he eats—many more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, much less meat, dairy, sugar, and anything that isn’t “real food.” At the same time, Bittman became aware of the multiple environmental concerns surrounding meat production and processed food (producing one can of calorie-free diet soda consumes 2,200 calories of energy.) Happily, on his new way of eating, Bittman saw his health improve—and those of us who watched his weekly videos at nytimes.com were able to see him grow much thinner and younger-looking in a relatively short span of time. Now, we can enjoy many of the recipes that helped him get there.

The best thing about Bittman’s recipes in general—and this book in particular—is that he teaches you how to substitute things to suit your tastes and what you may have on hand, and how to use one technique in various ways: One recipe, not three, shows you how to make baked tortilla chips, pita chips, and croutons. (“I think these might change my life,” my dad said of the tortilla chips. They were delicious.)

In this book he also offers guidance on choosing and substituting seasonally and locally available produce and tells you when you can substitute frozen vegetables, which is handy, since frozen vegetables can actually be a tastier, healthier, and more sustainable option in the winter months. Sweet Potato and Corn Fritters with Thai Dipping Sauce made with frozen corn brought a bit of sunshine into our winter meals, and we’ve eaten more variations on the whole-grain Sweet Potato Muffins than I can remember—carrot and spice, blueberry (from frozen blueberries), and coconut are just a few among them. Bittman also explains how to omit or include small amounts of meat or fish in many dishes.

While culinary professionals and purists sometimes criticize Bittman for supposed sloppiness, one of the things I value highly in this cookbook is the effort he has put into making wholesome home cooking accessible, easy, and fun: The Chipotle Black Bean Quinoa, for example, takes only a little while to put together and is healthy, delicious, and economical; Chickpea Tagine with Bulgur and Chicken was similarly simple and unusually tasty. And it’s hard not to love recipes like Vegetables au Vin with Coq, Chili con poco Carne, and the TLB: Tomato, Lettuce, and Bacon Sandwiches—recipes that take old favorites and retool them for those who, like me, want to continue to enjoy meat—but for the sake of creation, humanity, and health—not too much of it.

Eating Well as a College Student (for example)

A reader named Chelsea wrote:

“I would love to live a more sustainable lifestyle and to eat healthier but I don’t know where to start. I feel I eat semi-healthy but now that I moved out and live on my own, I tend to gravitate towards the ultra-high processed foods. I convince myself it’s easier and portable to take to my night classes. So I was wondering if you had any suggestions for living healthy on a college budget, living in a small apartment.”

Great question, Chelsea!

Mark Bittman, a cookbook author and food writer for the New York Times, whose work I really respect, wrote an opinion piece last week in which he took on the notion that junk food is cheaper. Now, I think there were some problems with his piece, namely, that those who are very, very poor frequently lack basic cooking equipment (and sometimes even a kitchen) but there was one part of the article that I thought was very, very good:

“The alternative to junk food is not grass-fed beef and greens from a trendy farmers’ market, but anything other than junk food: rice, grains, pasta, beans, fresh vegetables, canned vegetables, frozen vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, bread, peanut butter, a thousand other things cooked at home — in almost every case a far superior alternative.”

I think he has his finger right on a pattern of thinking and behavior that, to my mind, keeps many Americans following abysmal habits–namely this: all of us can make the perfectionist error of turning “the perfect” into the enemy of “the good.” It happens all the time. I have read so many extreme-“health” type diet books (like The Paleo Diet) that pit fast-food diets against whatever low-fat, raw, vegan, macrobiotic, whatever kind of program, and it’s just plain discouraging. I recently received a review copy of a book that looks at OLIVE OIL as a “bad food.” Olive oil, for cryin’ out loud!

The point is this: it’s easy to fall into a pattern of thinking that goes something like this: “well, since I can’t afford to buy everything at Whole Foods, I’ll just go get something from Wendy’s.” That’s an extreme example, but what I’m trying to say is this: the most important thing, when you’re working with a small budget and in a small kitchen, is to take what steps you can take and not worry about the ones you can’t.

That said, learning to cook is probably the most important thing you can do to eat well on a budget. If you can bake whole-grain bread–even in a bread machine, since that’s fairly foolproof–prepare vegetables in a tasty way, make soups, oatmeal, pancakes, rice and beans, and stir fries–that is your best bet. Yes, there is an investment of time. Yes, there is a learning curve. And yes, Chelsea–you have a small kitchen!

You know what? Mark Bittman does too! (read this!)

“I once cooked for six months in what amounted to a basement with a hot plate, microwave and a refrigerator and sink. Not only did I cook for six months, but I wrote [my food column] for six months. It was funny. People like to cook when they’re camping and in other places where the situation is less than adequate. For some reason they think they have to have a great kitchen to cook at home, but it’s not true.”

I have to say, also, that college can be a hard time as far as eating well. But it’s also a very important time to eat well: you need brain food! Perhaps the most important thing, next to learning to cook, is creating a community for yourself around food. I realize it’s not always possible–roommates have different tastes, different schedules–but eating together is important. And this is where you non-student readers come in: you probably have people in your life who could use some company at mealtimes. Make that happen! It doesn’t have to be perfect. (See my piece last week on the Christianity Today women’s blog here.)

So, in a nutshell? Learning to cook. Eating together.

And, oh, yes. Eating with joy.

Happy Monday, readers! I’ll be away as of tomorrow, but in the magic of the internet, there should be no break in blog postings…so stay tuned.