In the Beginning

light from the heavens

The obvious inspiration for this blog is Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which for me is the book of Genesis for this issue. The film Food Inc. would be Exodus, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, Leviticus.

Here’s the basic story: 98% of our meat comes from factory-farmed animals (that is, animals raised and slaughtered under excruciatingly inhumane conditions). Agribusiness works (and lobbies) hard to hide this reality from us, and our government all but blesses their efforts. Many of us know these things on some level, but we try not to think about them too much or in too much detail. Particularly at dinner time.

I am one of these many. This blog will chronicle my odyssey toward knowing how to feed myself (something that you’d think I would have learned in 40 years, but alas). Like the actual Odyssey, I expect it to be full of horror and deception, glory and faith, torture and—on a good day—redemption.

Hmm. The Bible and The Odyssey. I seem to have set very high expectations for my writing.

Here’s the thing: Like most humans, I love to eat. Truly, madly, deeply. To me, every meal (and snack) is a precious gift, a sensuous celebration. There is a region of my heart that will always belong to bacon. And cheeseburgers. And chicken soup.

The other great (non-human) love of my life is animals: not only the two remarkable cats that share our apartment, but every dog on the street, the sloths I encountered in the rainforest of Costa Rica, the lemurs on the National Geographic Channel, the pets at the shelter I volunteer at, and every other creature in the animal kingdom. There’s even a word for this: biophilia, the affinity humans feel for other life forms (the definition includes plants as well, but I’m not so into plants). I am a born biophiliac.

So after reading and watching Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus, I finally resolved to only eat animals who had lived good lives and been slaughtered quickly and painlessly (which pretty much rules out eating the meat served in restaurants). I believed this was doable because I had the Golden Ticket.

It’s true. With my like-minded partner, Michael, I happen to live within crawling distance of The Park Slope Food Coop, one of the oldest and most successful member-owned and operated food stores in the country, with more than 15,000 members. Stocked full of organic this and cage-free that, and powered by a heap of admirable ideals, the co-op was going to be our one-stop source of meat and animal products, keeping us in a state of humane, carnivorous grace.

Or so I imagined. On my next shop, I checked out the labels on the chicken, beef, turkey, fish, eggs, cheese, butter, and milk. One kind of chicken had an official-looking seal that read “Certified Humane.” Most of the rest had some combination of the following terms: organic, pasture-raised, all-natural, minimally-processed, grass-fed, free-range, cage-free. I already knew plenty about the term “organic”—at least as defined and regulated (loosely, in both cases) by the USDA. In short, while it has some significance for human health (no hormones or antibiotics), it has little bearing on how animals live and nothing to do with how they die.

For the remaining terms, some research yielded bad news: food marketing claims such as “grass-fed” and “cage-free” have no regulatory definition by the USDA. The agency pre-approves product labels based on producer testimonials and does nothing to confirm compliance.

At this point, my idealism kicked in and I decided to talk to the meat buyer at our co-op. As I imagined it, he would have first-hand knowledge of the practices of the co-op’s meat suppliers. Inspired by my enthusiasm, he would suggest forming an Animal Welfare Committee—spearheaded by yours truly! I and my fellow committee members would create shelf signage that would decode and deconstruct producers’ labeling claims. This would lead to members making better choices and increase the demand for products from better producers.

My fantasy came crashing down when the meat buyer failed to return my phone calls and letters.

Several “cooperative” developments followed, but the big twist came a few weeks ago as Michael and I were sitting on our couch with our Amy’s All-American Vegetable Burgers. Between bites, he pointed out that Eating Animals may be the tipping point for this issue (at least in our demographic), and that there are doubtless many others with similar questions, frustrations, and struggles. “I think it’s a blog,” he said. “And I think you should write it.”

So here we are, somewhere in cyberspace, exiled from Ithaca. In truth, I don’t know if I can affect change at the co-op—or even in my own life. More to the point, I don’t know if anyone can make a difference for factory-farm animals. But I do know that exile is easier when shared. Please join me on the journey and let me know what you think.

22 thoughts on “In the Beginning

  1. Kama, As I read your blog I thought of a book and a movie, you might be interested in. The movie about Temple Grandin, essentially about autism, does touch on her work to treat animals decently. The other is Catching Fire, a book by Richard Wrangham about how the event of cooking food focused our communication and thus our humanity. Don

  2. This is real cool. Though I have no issues myself with the eating of any kind of meat at any time or place, you’ve somehow made me completely invested in yours. I want to see that unresponsive coop meat buyer prima donna brought DOWN. Get him. KILL him EAT HIM.

  3. Hey Kama,

    Two resources for you and your interested readers:

    1) a film called Fresh. It is a very thoughtful and well-made film and is extremely relevant to this exploration. Here’s some info about it:

    2) And a film/multi-media/educational project called Wtah’s On Your Plate, again, absolutely relevant, and targeted to kids.

    Cheers, and GOOD LUCK!

  4. Mickle: I actually pity the poor meat buyer. Part of what makes the co-op the co-op is that it has 15,000+ members, each of whom technically owns the place and is thus empowered to demand stuff. How was the buyer to know that Kama is actually the nicest person in North America? Let us use our metaphorical knives not to slaughter the man but to cut him some slack. For the time being, I mean. Of course if he turns out to be a genuine baddie, the oven mitts come off.

  5. Heavens, woman, you’re brilliant. An epic poet, no less. I have nothing more to add but that I’m looking forward to the next installment…L

  6. Holy cow, Kama. Oh, I guess that’s inappropriate. As one of your biggest fans I can’t wait to read about your journey. And I’m really glad for the sake of you and for the sake of our friendship that there is no dilemma about wine.

  7. Amazing! And I’m sure you’ll do just great. If I have a suggestion, it’s that I would be interesting in reading about how this affects our food economics — and at some point it’s all about economics. Would it be feasible and sustainable for us to…well I’m not sure what exactly? Go back to raising our food ourselves? Best of luck and no, I’M your biggest fan!

  8. go kama! i feel your struggle, and i love your writing! and definitely check out raj patel, stuffed or starved, if you are interested in the economics. (haven’t actually read through entirely yet, but it is sitting next to my bed. and he is brilliant).
    really, a day is not complete without my having experienced something close to complete outrage about food, in some way or another. something so seemingly simple. and now i have a place to rant and rave! yay!

  9. Kama,
    I’ll be glad to find out what you discover because I’ve been too afraid to find out for myself. I’ve picked up Pollan’s book dozens of times and put it down so that I could remain blissfully ignorant as I enjoy my bolognese sauce and bacon-wrapped dates. Looking forward to following this, and keeping my fingers crossed that there’s a way to be a responsible carnivore.

  10. Hi Kama – I love that you are doing a blog and that this is the topic you have chosen! I look forward to reading more and seeing where this journey goes. When I got to Brandeis, at 17, it occurred to me that I was finally in control of my food choices, and I haven’t knowingly eaten meat or poultry since then. I literally just can’t eat it without thinking about the animal it was, and without that ability to separate the live animal from the meal, it’s impossible for me to eat it. So I am curious what you’ll discover and what your readers will have to say. It’s not always convenient to be a vegetarian, but to me it’s worth the trouble!

  11. My dear Kama,

    I have oh so many questions: Is Michael some manifestation of Penelope? Is Toby, perhaps, Telemachus? Is the meat buyer a myopic Cyclops or a misunderstood giant? Sing on, Muse. Tell us more!

    As an aside I have one point of information, I read your blog and related comments as I slowly devoured a chicken parmagana roll.

    Love you, J

  12. Thanks everyone for making day one so exciting! I’m really happy you are coming along for the ride.

    SUNI: We’re watching “Fresh” tonight and I’ll be trying to find “What’s On Your Plate” – trailer looks great!
    DON: Saw the movie on HBO and loved it!
    DAVE: I definitely plan to address food economics, but you know how I am with numbers…it will be very big-picture. Maybe you could write a guest column…
    BROOK: Will add Raj Patel to the list.

    Stay tuned and thanks again for your encouragement and kind words!

  13. The timing of this is interesting. Just yesterday I was watching something on PBS about Dolly Madison, who had slaves and who had a lot of friends with slaves, though she probably thought of herself as a more or less good person. I wondered what it would be like to know, or at least suspect, that slavery was wrong, even deeply wrong, and yet not be willing to really face it, not just because of the changed lifestyle one would have to embrace, but because of all the grief one would have to live with. There’s probably no direct analogue for most of us, but perhaps eating factory farmed animals comes the closest. That, and being part of the 1/5th of the world’s population that consumes 4/5ths of the world’s resources. And using energy that comes from mountaintop removal. And having people massacred with daisy cutters in my name. OK, I guess there are lots of things. And some of them are worse than slavery, quite possibly.

    But: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because the USDA doesn’t regulate meat production doesn’t mean that the farms PS coop buys from aren’t humane and ethical. I hope you hear some good news in this wise. If not, are there any good farmers’ markets in Brooklyn?

  14. I love this site! Teach me, teach me, teach me…I want to learn all there is to know about these issues. (But how often do I need to come out of my animal-cruelty denial?)

  15. I’ve recently been trying my hand at various forms of sushi. Many recipes call for the use of roe. Where do we stand on eating the unborn?

  16. And FISH is a whole other minefield!!! It makes me insane to see people smugly wiping out an ecosystem (of course when I do it it is not smugly but with guilt and self-loathing)

  17. Hey K

    Nice start! Meat is a sticky issue. So is Nature and Death and Survival.

    I remember a professor in freshman year of college who told a story about how he stood by in the woods or something and watched as one set of animals killed another(dog/raccoon? can’t remember ). When asked if he thought it wrong not to prevent the killing, he decided that it was a natural occurrance and therefore should be left alone.
    While there is nothing natural about killing a cow with a club in a meat factory, or whatever they do, it gets tricky, I think, when trying to justify a) not eating because of the grisly death of your sustenance, or b) impressing more ‘unnatural’ modes of murder on your supper to preserve some sense of right, wrong or responsibility.

    Fact is, left to its own devices, Nature is mean, unforgiving, selfish and hungry.

    The magazine of a friend of mine has been looking into this issue from a variety of angles:


  18. Thanks, Erin – I’m looking forward to checking out Small Bites, too; Beth recommends it highly!


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