Eating and Being   /   Fall 2019   /    Thematic: Eating and Being

The Distance from Our Food

Stepping into the mud of a moral ecology of production and consumption.

Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft

Le Poulet plumé (The Plucked Fowl) (detail), 1918, by Chaim Soutine (1893–1943); Peter Horree/Alamy Stock Photo.

“You probably shouldn’t cook the animal whole,” Andrés told me over coffee, contemplating a whole pig he had just acquired. We were sitting in a hotel in Volcán, a mountain town in western Panama. Chef Andrés Morataya, whose seaside destination restaurant in another part of Panama is called Panga, was getting ready to cook for a big party. I was one of the guests. Andrés reasoned that it is difficult to cook a whole animal and achieve the same level of doneness through all its parts. An animal had died, and deserved our respectful treatment. Better to butcher it and cook the parts separately.11xThe well-known Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini is widely quoted as arguing that the animals we eat are owed four things: “A good life, a good death, a good butcher, and a good cook.”

We cleared our breakfast dishes, and Andrés went off to work. He started by building an open oven out of bricks and bamboo, his style of cooking being so personal and idiosyncratic that I hesitate to call his presence at the hotel “catering.” I reflected on the dozen or so animals I have seen cooked whole for celebrations and gatherings, often spit-roasted, but sometimes buried with hot rocks luau-style, waiting to be unearthed after a wedding ceremony. I have pulled meat off the flanks of whole pigs cooked this way and observed how the collagen jellifies, as if this rough cookery were nodding toward that more refined dish, a plate of aspic. Andrés’s comment surprised me, only because I have become used to whole animal cookery serving as a rather theatrical but sincere gesture of respect for a creature that had died on our behalf. But whether whole or in parts, an animal cooked snout-to-tail is different from the form in which most denizens of the developed world get their meat: trim cuts wrapped in plastic, cradled in Styrofoam, juices absorbed by a thin layer of green or white sponge-like tissue unpleasantly clammy to the touch as you toss it in the trash. Whatever your attitude to nonhuman animal life, it is hard to describe such packaging as respectful treatment.

Later that day I watched as Andrés built his fire and cooked chickens and myriad, fully butchered pig parts. Andrés had met the farmers who raised the animals; the chickens and pig would be eaten just a few miles from where they had lived. If there is a Chiriquí version of terroir, the “taste of place,” it must have been present in their fat, and in the development of muscle tissue you see in animals that can roam. We were in high country where the climate is right for growing coffee, and also good for raising cattle. We were inside what the anthropologist Heather Paxson has called a moral ecology of production and consumption, a kind of virtuous circle linking land, farmers, and eaters in a circuit of sustainability, respect, and value.22xHeather Paxson, The Life of Cheese: Making Food and Value in America (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2013). I was part of a visiting group of North Americans who do not eat this way regularly, up close and personal with the animal body. When we looked at Andrés’s chickens, which were suspended from a bamboo rod by strings that were tied to beer bottles stuck in their body cavities, we could not help but recognize ourselves as the beneficiaries of animal husbandry and slaughter. We were standing near a circle of moral regard, and if we had been close enough to those animals in life, we might have stepped inside that circle’s chalk. I am not sure what living inside that circle is like, but I imagine it begins with paying farmers enough, so that they need not work in ways that exhaust soil or water, nor oppress their animals unduly.

The Moral Regeneration of Food

Whether in the United States or elsewhere in the developed world, we mostly eat plant and animal foods whose life cycles we never come near. We experience them as products, not life forms. They reach us after so much processing that their origins are obscured. Consider the corn oil in an energy bar or in a cardboard box of breakfast cereal. Consider the pork chop, taken from an animal fattened on corn during a brief life so unpleasant that cameras are, by and large, banned from industrial feedlots and slaughterhouses.

Distance can breed ignorance of the ecosystems and individual animal lives that feed us. Over the past twenty years or so, snout-to-tail eating has become a prominent symbol of the moral regeneration of the foodways of eaters in the developed Western world, but, as implied by Andrés’s comment about doneness, snout-to-tail can also lead us astray if we do not butcher and cook carefully.

But it is too cheap and easy to say that proximity is good and distance bad. The division of labor, combined with the process of industrialization (hundreds of years of complex developments compressed into a quick turn of phrase) mean that I am free to write and think and still have flour with which to bake my own bread, should I choose to do so. I am the product of generations of people who did not have to kill their own chickens or forage for their mushrooms; should I assume that my moral development is impaired thereby? To observe that industrialized food production makes certain foods overabundant (cheap meat, refined sugar and flour) is not the same as dismissing industrialization itself, but critiques of industrialized foodways often shade off into such a dismissal.

From the mid-1990s to the present, the food sections of bookstores in the United States and Britain have been full of volumes whose starting point is the distance between Western eaters and their food, a distance that is both a matter of information (how much we know about what we eat) and of experience (how personally involved we are with agriculture, processing, and cooking). These books promise to teach us, the adult children of a society sickened by fat and sugar on a Western diet, alienated from the life cycles of our ingredients, how to eat, which is to say, how to live. That the chefs, pundits, and food moralists have a market for their books implies the existence of a widespread sense of self-doubt about how, and what, we consume. As the literary scholar Siobhan Phillips once argued in an essay on food writing and the problem of moral value, our accumulated popular publications on food have gone beyond prescriptions for better eating—that is to say, technically better eating, more fitting for sustaining our small planet or reducing our large waistlines.33xSiobhan Phillips, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Food,” Hudson Review 62, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 189–209.

The effort to render food not just better, but more moral, animated much American food writing published from the 1990s to the late 2000s. Although synopsis does some disservice to the differences among voices such as those of Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, and Alice Waters, such writers seem to agree that Americans are uniquely lacking in a national food culture, which makes them especially vulnerable to the predations of big food companies that load their goods with sugar and fat. After all, the argument runs, a society in which companies keep introducing new food products must be deeply uncomfortable with the way it eats.

 The argument’s next rung is that American consumers need to learn many lessons. They must be taught (to choose one example from Pollan’s work) to shop from the produce aisles, at the fringes of the supermarket, rather than among the processed, prepared foods in the store’s center aisles. They need to learn to tell the difference between food and what is merely food-like. From the chaos of constant change, they need to relearn the stability of tradition. One popular strategy advocated by food writers is to borrow another culture’s food traditions, often those of France, Italy, Spain, or Japan, deemed to be healthier (and their eaters, more effortlessly slim). The idea seems to be that once we live in a coherent and stable food culture, our confusion will vanish, replaced by confidence and dietary security.44xFor a counterargument to the effect that Americans have their own local food cultures, and indeed have had them since the colonial period, see James E. McWilliams, A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2007).

There is certainly something American about the optimism that we might, through individual choice, adopt another culture’s foodways as our own, though if you recommend a traditional Japanese breakfast to many Americans, you will quickly find that they do in fact have their own culinary culture, and it has no room for fish, rice, and seaweed in the blinking vulnerability of early morning.

The Community of the Hungry

Much English-language food writing of the past twenty years displays a curious feature. The writing addresses the reader as an isolated individual, and either summons communities of provisioning and cooking or laments their lack. The butcher and meat educator Camas Davis describes the resulting ironies with skill in her 2018 book Killing It: An Education, a memoir of learning and practicing French-style butchery.55xCamas Davis, Killing It: An Education (New York, NY: Penguin, 2018). The author, having lived and worked in the world of rural French boucherie, leads her French butchery teacher through a series of small Oregonian farms. He shakes his head at how American farmers seem to mistrust one another, refusing to share knowledge or the use of farm equipment. “Tout seul, tu meurs,” he says. All alone, you die, for producing meat responsibly is a cooperative matter, just as eating meat responsibly is a communal one.

Patrick Martins, in his 2014 book The Carnivore’s Manifesto: Eating Well, Eating Responsibly, and Eating Meat (coauthored with Mike Edison), offers a different communal model drawn from those preindustrial Italian towns in which a single slaughtered animal’s meat might be parceled out to many eaters in a sauce, roughly a tablespoon of meat per serving.66xPatrick Martins with Mike Edison, The Carnivore’s Manifesto: Eating Well, Eating Responsibly, and Eating Meat (New York, NY: Little, Brown, 2014). Both France and Italy have language for the parts of a pig many Americans would not consider fit for the table: the quinto quarto, or cinquième quartier, and they have dishes, such as fromage de tête and boudin noir, that make good use of them. Part of the power of Davis’s memoir is the way she exposes the problem of scale when it comes to changing how we eat. The task is not as simple as summoning an image of community and waiting for hungry aspirants to take part. Davis describes setting up a “meat school”—the Portland Meat Collective, in Portland, Oregon—and facing the challenges of angry vegan activists and a star-hungry food media. She finds an enthusiastic audience for her work: The collective’s classes sell out. Some people do want to learn how to butcher an animal. They want to change their relationship with eating meat, shifting it from a habit to a practice. Yet they represent a tiny percentage of meat eaters. The market for meat that acknowledges the life and death of animals is vastly smaller than the market for meat that does not. Only tiny elective communities seem prepared to abandon the industrialized everyday and come close to an animal’s rising, falling flank.

You can step in the mud of a moral ecology of production and consumption. If you are fortunate enough to live in a place where fruits and vegetables have long growing seasons, and privileged enough to have yard space, you can grow a meaningful percentage of your own food. Responsibly sourced meat is hard to find, but not impossible, and sourcing enthusiasts might even buy a “cow share,” part of what is usually a multifamily purchase that includes the slaughter and butchery of a whole animal, the parts to be frozen until needed for a specific dish. (Do not attempt this if you lack a large freezer.) Most of us will not learn to butcher, a lost art in American kitchens both professional and domestic, but you can endeavor to grow, to forage, to pickle and cure, even to hunt. If you live in Berkeley (or anywhere else in California), you can do these things year-round. (Please do not attempt to hunt in Berkeley.) These are human-scaled activities you can pursue with your friends on the weekends.

Neo-Agrarianism and Its Discontents

However, moral ecologies of production and consumption have nothing to do with the industrial scale at which most food is produced, processed, distributed, and consumed, especially by people who lack the money and time required to forsake the grid of industrial food. (Sometimes the fantasy of leaving the grid is, notably, a fantasy about not being governed, less a matter of foodie-ism than of libertarianism or anarchism.) This complaint is scarcely original to me. It has nearly attained boilerplate status among critics of neo-agrarianism, who use it to characterize the model proposed by figures like Alice Waters as quixotic, or perhaps a boutique practice only accessible to the rich.

The historian Rachel Laudan, in an essay defending what she terms “culinary modernism” (broadly speaking, the styles of growing, processing, shipping, and other practices linked to industrial agriculture), rightly decries neo-agrarianism for ignoring the incredible gains created by industrial agriculture, which have liberated us (and, especially, have liberated women) from hours of toil we would otherwise do.77xRachel Laudan, “A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love New, Fast, Processed Food,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 1, no. 1 (Winter 2001): 36–44. Nor do neo-agrarian solutions seem to produce enough food to satisfy the ever-increasing appetites of an ever-increasing global population.

The limitation of this complaint is that, in correctly assessing the practical flaws of neo-agrarianism, it passes over its emotional appeal, which is the appeal of mud, jam jars, or watching my neighbor in Oakland kill the family turkey in front of his toddlers the day before Thanksgiving. Physical actions performed at the scale of the human body, the household, the garden, even the small farm, provide a certain reassurance. (He cut the bird’s neck with a pair of shears.) We romanticize mud and hard work, but we do it for good, or at least understandable, reasons. We do not have easy access to satellite images of effluents flowing from industrial pig farms in the American South, but we can, sometimes, with extra time and effort, get to know the sources of our own food, and take part in the soft orthopraxy of growing, cooking, and eating, the reassurance of inhaling microbial funk, the moral dilemma of eating animals. This is not just an effort to fill in the blank space where America’s (purportedly) missing food tradition should go, but to make our lives with food more meaningful than commodity corn can be, repacked in an energy bar and eaten on the go. Call it a push to jettison the snacks of precarious living.

The Ballad of Kevin the Twitchy

The conversation about neo-agrarianism might well seem like an unhelpful cul-de-sac to stand around in, perhaps drinking wine, at a time when more pressing matters present themselves to anyone concerned with the future of food. These include climate change and concomitant shifts in where crops grow, as well as the potential failure and near extinction of crop plants whose fruits are presently ubiquitous in the developed world, such as bananas and coffee. Arguably, the first climate change refugees are already among us—farmers whose crops have failed, and who must seek new work in new places. For those whose preoccupation is the grandest of scales, neo-agrarianism might seem like a purely decorative and self-indulgent practice, the art of building miniature models of a better world while the full-size one burns, all the while calling oneself a vanguard of change.

But as our painfully slow mobilization of political resources in the face of climate change illustrates, the tragic limits to our vision also limit our ability to respond when crises do not feel immediate. Modernity presents us with the problem of distance, animals suffering in industrial feedlots becoming sheer numbers. But this problem is not original to industrial modernity. It was a common view among the philosophes of the French Enlightenment that distance and time can diminish or prevent moral response. Denis Diderot speculated that killing a man who stands at a great distance might provoke less moral revulsion than, say, killing a steer up close and personal. Honoré de Balzac, in his novel Le Père Goriot, uses this idea of diminishing moral sympathy to argue that, in modern bourgeois society, it is difficult for us to meet our moral obligations—or even keep them fully in view. The implication is not only that distance curbs our moral sentiments, but that those sentiments are evoked by proximity in the first place; we do not always have access to the moral responses that we might, in another mood, recognize as the most noble.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Discourse on Political Economy, suggested we feel sympathy more readily for those who resemble us. The historian Carlo Ginzburg draws on such Enlightenment-era discussions to term our moral imaginations “feeble”; we could reach the same conclusion by observing industrial meat production, or our failure to think concretely about the climatic welfare of future generations, or whether someone’s grandchildren might live to see a tiger or a monarch butterfly, or to drink a cup of coffee.88xCarlo Ginzburg, “Killing a Chinese Mandarin: The Moral Implications of Distance,” Critical Inquiry 21, no. 1 (Autumn 1994): 46–60, republished in Ginzburg, Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1998). My discussion of the philosophes borrows from Ginzburg’s discussion.

Distance does not necessarily make us cruel; nor does proximity automatically make us kind. But their respective aid to cruelty and kindness is amply attested. Although the shortcomings of neo-agrarian projects are real, such projects, from community gardens to butchery classes, give us opportunities to enact ethics at a human scale. The crucial question is how we might move from this scale to that of climate change, much greater than the scales the philosophes saw as thwarting moral response.

In his 1977 essay “Why Look at Animals,” John Berger waxes elegiac about a lost relationship between human and nonhuman creatures, a relationship effectively displaced by industrial capitalism and modernization.9John Berger, “Why Look at Animals? For Gilles Aillaud” in About Looking (New York, NY: Penguin, 1980). Previously, Berger asserts, animals were in “the first circle” surrounding us—indeed, they were with us at the center, he says, using language that should remind us of the discourse of a “moral circle” that philosophers have invoked ever since the Greeks. But Berger also implies that when we lived closer to individual animals, the fact of their species-ness was closer to our consciousness. A certain “immortality” of a very specific imaginative kind could thus attach to animals, helping them to persist even as we ate them. Thus, a specific rabbit (call him Kevin the Twitchy) is also Rabbit, heroic trickster-protagonist of mythic adventures. We should not believe for a moment that “animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn,” just as we should not believe that corn first entered our imagination as a tortilla, or coffee as espresso. “Animals,” Berger writes, “first entered the imagination as messengers and promises,” and in a different way plants must have as well.1010xIbid., 4–5. Our self-understanding was based upon living with them, and so was our sense of the coherence of the world. This is broad-brush anthropology, to be sure, but it also gestures toward an enlarged sensibility the industrialized world has lost. However unrecoverable that sensibility may be—for rolling back the changes, gains, and losses of industrial agriculture seems comically implausible, and probably undesirable—it is worth asking if neo-agrarianism can still serve us as an imaginative aid as we contemplate the losses to come, and the ethical worlds we might build in the face of loss.

To be sure, there is a fundamental divide between two ways of life at work here. Neo-agrarianism and Laudan’s “culinary modernism” can coexist, but they represent rival systems of value, and rival theories of economic life at the level of the oikos—the “home,” in Greek, which economic thought promises to organize sensibly. Stances on the production, preparation, and sharing of food are implicitly statements about political economy. More to the point, neo-agrarianism in its contemporary Western form seems to be made possible precisely by the gains in leisure time that industrialization brought us, and it takes place within the broader context of industrial agriculture. (Dredge your backyard chicken, or even Kevin the Twitchy, in a mixture of egg and industrially milled flour before frying.) For most of us who do not live fully off the grid, whether in urban or rural areas, personal food-procurement strategies are secondary to gridded ones, even if we can take pride in pickles we have made ourselves more than we can take pride in, say, membership in a relatively advanced society with an effective system of food safety legislation, refrigerated shipping, and supermarkets filled with jars of brined cucumber spears. We are, in other words, living in a field of tension between personal, backyard food practices that cannot “scale,” in the contemporary sense of growing large enough to feed billions, and the unsustainable character of scale itself.

Industrial agriculture will necessarily change, crops growing on unaccustomed soil as the land changes. The struggle to bring our food practices within a distance and scale that enables moral response has, in fact, been deeply correct in its imaginative instincts, even if it has led to inaccurate claims about what forms of food production can feed billions of people. Beyond the false choice between local agrarianism and impersonal industry, eaters in the developed world are tasked with rethinking the way we provision in the first place, which is a moral and political project as much as it is a technical one. The question is not only how to feed the world, but what kind of world we want to help feed. And this question comes into sharper focus when we cease insisting that there are only two ideological options, symbolized by the supermarket, on the one recently washed hand, and the garden, on the dirt-smeared other. A personal encounter with animals and plants as life forms, rather than simply products, helps us to begin within the narrow limits of our sympathies, limits we might hope to expand.