Feb 9, 2011

This Post is *Not* About Chicken

Okay, maybe just a little.

But really this post is about applauding last week’s Oprah show, entitled “Oprah Goes Vegan”.

This wasn't just another one of the talk queen’s attempts to share her unhealthy relationship with food diet and lifestyle advice.  In this episode, her reporters managed to score a tour of a meat packing plant, following a herd of cattle from the feed lot to the grinder.

Such graphic television exposure is something to which higher-ups in the meat industry rarely consent, and according to Oprah, producers contacted twenty companies before they found one that would agree to have its facilities filmed. Even guest Michael Pollan remarked that persuading Cargill's Fort Morgan meat processing plant to open their doors to the cameras was quite a coup, stressing that watching the disturbing footage is something everyone who eats beef should have an opportunity to do (although he was quick to add that Cargill is one of the cleanest and most humane of the major American meat-processors).

The footage, which showed every step of the process with the exception of the moment the bolt was driven through the cows' skulls, was extremely graphic. Yes, I cried.

Indeed my own decision to stop eating birds and mammals came years ago, shortly after I saw similar television footage in an episode of 60 Minutes exposing the inner-workings of a meat packing plant. It just so happens that my aunt had been scheduled to be on the program that same evening, in another segment that unfortunately never aired, focusing on the much tamer subject of occupational therapy. Our family watched for an hour, patiently waiting for my dear aunt and her therapy practice and their proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, but all we were shown was dismembered cows and fat people eating tri-tip.

Something in my head clicked during that episode of 60 Minutes, a connection was made between my longtime dormant discomfort about the practice of meat-eating, and the stark, unflappable reality that we all have been trained (both by ourselves, as well as by the food industry and society in general) to deny—denial that is aided tremendously by the industry’s tightly closed doors and securely drawn blinds.

Click. No more burgers, steaks, or chops for me.

However, as I watched Oprah last week, as I wiped the tears from my big emo eyes, I also, strangely enough, got a tinge of nostalgia when I saw Oprah reporter Lisa Ling walking amongst the scores of hanging carcasses.

That’s because my grandfather was indeed himself a butcher and meat packer.

He gave up the profession relatively early in life, but I still can remember, as a small child, pit-pattering through his industrial meat cooler, bits of cold sawdust sticking to my button-clasped mary-janes as I’d slap a side of beef here and there, trying to exert enough force to swing it like a punching bag. And the smell—I can remember it decades later—the sweetest, cleanest smell of death you could conjure. Sanitized, pasteurized death.

While the idea of meat coming from animals bothered me from an early age, I don’t remember being repulsed or frightened by the huge, partial animal corpses in real life. Again, my introduction to those carcasses began in the packing room, not in the feed lot, and thus rendered them things rather than beings in my eyes. Even as a child, I possessed that supremely Darwinian coping mechanism that allowed me to disassociate from reality those things in the physical that in actuality deeply troubled me in the psychological. The meat was just another part of the store, like the white coats hanging on the wall or the cold, steely grinder.

Incidentally, the one thing in my grandfather's store that did fascinate me on an intense level had little to do with meat at all.  It was in the cheese case.

Oh, did I forgot to mention, my grandfather’s butcher store also carried a small selection of cheeses? Well it did, and that case was of great delight for me. I didn’t really care about the banal bries and mundane muensters that I’d seen so many times in my parents’ fridge. No, I was obsessed with that psychedelic star of the 70s hors d’oeuvre scene: port wine cheese.

For a five year-old girl, love and light befall all things pink, and of course, it goes without saying that cheese exists in the universe to make everything better. The fact that my parents vehemently refused to bring home this extraordinary foodstuff only served to persuade me that they were evil villains set forth to bring misery and longing to my existence. We don’t eat dreck—my mother’s succinct reply to each of my pleas for port wine cheese— served as no consolation in this regard.

But back to Oprah going vegan; so far she successfully persuaded (read: forced) her staff to join her in giving up all animal products for an entire week.  In addition, she's vowed to institute "Meatless Mondays" at Harpo studios.  I have no doubt that this on-camera tour from the feed lot to the slaughterhouse will change the way many viewers think about meat. Will it change lives? Probably a few, just as my viewing of similar footage changed my own life many years ago. Plus, she’s the omnipotent Oprah; if she could pick our president for us, she can definitely coax a girthy Tofurky sausage down America's throat. 

Regardless, this little episode was way better than Oprah's last effort to get our nation eating right (see below).

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the Tsaritsa said...

Port wine cheese? I never heard of such a thing.

I don't agree with veganism, but I think people need to drastically reduce the amount of meat they eat. It's bad for the environment and bad for everyone's health to eat too much. And if we reduce that number it's more feasible for everyone to get their meat from a local butcher or farm.

tsada kay said...

Tsaritsa--I think you have to have grown up in the 70s to remember port wine cheese, although I've heard it's been making a comeback in certain circles.

And I'm totally with you on the less meat/small farm thing. There is no reason why a pound of beef should cost less than a bunch of organic greens. It's crazy. The mass production of cheap meat is the crux of the problem IMO (and in the opinion of Michael Pollan), and what is most at fault for the suffering of animals as well as the deterioration of the public's health.

Back in the day, meat was a splurge and a delicacy. It still is in countries that don't have a meat industry like ours. My bf's mom came to visit from Africa a few years ago and wouldn't even eat the meat she saw in the stores here. She was repulsed by the color, the quantity, and the quality of the product, as well as how it was handled in the stores. In Ethiopia, the livestock are raised and slaughtered humanely on small farms, and eaten in extreme moderation, with an emphasis on grains and legumes and vegetables. What does that tell us when people from 3rd world countries are disgusted by the food we consume?

Even my grandpa, may he rest in peace, was very critical of the quality and production of the meat sold in grocery stores in this country.

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