Sunday, June 25, 2006

Food + Media Ecology = Commentary on "It Died For Us"

Frank Bruni, head restaurant critic for the NYT, wrote a piece for the paper entitled It Died For Us. It’s a cursory, biased exploration of the increasing American consciousness regarding the meats we consume. Online, it’s listed under the heading "Critic’s Notebook" implying an editorial, but it’s not definitively categorized as such, thereby blurring the lines between objective journalism and subjective editorials.

I’ve excerpted and commented on it below, but please read the article in its entirety and draw your own conclusions.

Let’s start with the headline: It – the cow, the chicken, the lobster, the goose with the fatty liver – died for us. Where have I heard that before? So, by equating animals with martyrs (or the martyr), Bruni trivializes concerns over animal welfare. There is a world of difference between eating a burger and eating a communion wafer, but Bruni steamrolls it with his pithy little title.

On to the article. Bruni writes:

They [referring Americans who care about their food sources] prefer that their beef carry the tag "grass fed," which evokes a verdant pasture rather than a squalid feed lot, and that their poultry knew the glories of a "free range," a less sturdy assurance than many people believe.

But these concerns are riddled with intellectual inconsistencies and prompt infinite questions. Are the calls for fundamental changes in the mass production of food simply elitist, the privilege of people wealthy enough to pay more at the checkout counter? Does fretting about ducks give people a pass on chickens? Does considering the lobster allow seafood lovers to disregard the tuna?

I think Bruni’s already made up his mind. He’s decided to throw out the lobster with the boiling water.

As any Journalism I student knows to do, Bruni then shows (or at least pretends to show) the other side of the story, with quotes from Michael Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilemma) who argues for the healthy and humane treatment of animals destined for our plate. (There is also an odd anecdote regarding a reader’s reaction to Pollan’s purchase of a steer destined for slaughter.)

"Foie gras and lobster are not at the heart of the real tough issues of animal welfare, which are feed lots and pigs and cattle and chickens and how billions of animals are treated," said Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," which traces the messy back stories of our meals.

It’s interesting that Bruni inserted the adjective "messy" before "back stories." It’s not needed in the sentence except to cast an unfavorable, if not illicit, light on Pollan’s food chain examinations.

Bruni goes on to write off Pollan’s inclusion of beef and foie gras in Pollan’s diet thusly: "For different omnivores there are different codes."

If only Bruni had substituted "dilemmas" for "codes," he could have really zinged Pollan, don’t you think?

This is followed by Bruni’s statement that "there is often as much sentiment as sense […] many people make distinctions and decisions based primarily on the degree to which they have become familiar with the creatures they ingest, the degree to which they have anthropomorphized them."

He tries to back this up with a quote from Jay Weinstein ( "The Ethical Gourmet") but that Weinstein agrees with Bruni’s point is only assumed by the juxtaposition of the two paragraphs.

Here’s what Weinstein said:
People look at the lobster and try to imagine what its experience would be like, but they don't look at a package of chicken breasts and imagine what the experience would be like […] It's because they're closer to the final step of the [lobster’s] killing."
Weinstein then discusses the miserable lives of chickens raised for consumption, which Bruni promptly ignores.

Bruni continues his article with quotes from Eric Ripert, chef and a co-owner of NYC’s Le Bernardin. First, Bruni reports that Ripert kills lobsters by slicing their heads with a sharp blade, as Ripert feels it’s more humane than plunging the crustaceans into boiling water.

Bruni follows that up with Ripert’s comment: "When you think about treating animals in a humane way, it's unlimited. If you start with the lobster, then next month you should think about the clam, and then you have to think about the fish, which is suffocating outside the water after we catch it."

This is backed up by David Pasternack, a fisherman and co-owner of NYC’s Esca, who says "you can see the struggle in the flesh of a fish …. [if the fish isn’t killed quickly] the meat feels and looks stressed out."

"Does that struggle," Bruni asks, "deserve as much heed as the grisly realities of the abattoir?" Not exactly, as Pollan points out that consciousness is different among animals. "There really is a difference between the sentience of an oyster and the sentience of a lobster and the sentience of a cat," Mr. Pollan said. "These lines really can be drawn."

But Bruni’s ignoring that, too.

Finally, he brings out the big guns: a quote from author Nicole Lea Helget, whose book, "The Summer of Ordinary Ways" discusses (in part) the treatment of animals on her family’s farm. Bruni writes, "Even in a country as rich as ours, some people can't afford chickens reared according to exacting standards. Other people's livelihoods depend on the status quo."

"Exacting standards"? Is not having a livestock eat food derived from old chicken feathers and feces an exacting standard?

One might also remind Mr. Bruni that at different points in American history, the status quo supported misogyny, genocide, and slavery. Status quo shouldn’t always be maintained.

Here’s the final paragraph in Bruni’s piece:

[Helget] expressed confusion about the concern for animals serving a purpose as essential as food. "I just spent a little time in New York," she said. "What seems abnormal to me is having a Great Dane in a one-bedroom apartment. I guess it's all a matter of perspective."

Nice way to trivialize concerns about ethically raising animals, Bruni (and Helget): compare thousands of cooped up, stressed out chickens with chopped beaks and lacerated feet to pampered dogs living on the Upper West Side. That's a fair and balanced comparison worthy of FOX News.

Why is it "elitist" to ask that the animals we consume be raised in a humane and natural way? Why should that be "the privilege of people wealthy enough to pay more at the checkout counter?" Doesn’t it strike Bruni that something as awful as Mad Cow Disease might be prevented if we raised cows in a humane manner –- allow them to graze on wide swathes of chemical free green pasture -- instead of confining them to a dank feed lot and forcing antibiotics and contaminated food into them? (To say nothing of the way they are killed and processed.) It is elitist to want to reduce one’s chances of contracting bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or is it humanist?

But disease aside: is it such a bad idea for our food to be raised ethically and responsibly with respect toward the animal, the farmer, the consumer, and the environment? Is it a goal that should only be the prospect of the "wealthy?"

Where on God’s green earth is Bruni coming from? If nothing else, one would imagine that a food critic would comprehend that food raised in a healthy, humane, and responsible manner tastes better.


lucette said...

Good post--you did a great job of summarizing and rebuttal.
I'm surprised at Frank Bruni!

Laura Rebecca said...

Thank you Lucette. I don't usually have anything against Bruni, but he's way off base on this.

During my period of frustration with his article, I stumbled onto the Bruni Digest. Jules eviscerates him on a regular basis.