e-mail us

Inside NCR

Why we’re of two minds about food

If you want to read about food, you could turn to The New York Times, Feb. 3, whose “The Living Arts” section has noticed a subtle adjustment in the good life, as expressed by one diner: “There’s a trend toward restaurants where the food is really fantastic, but the atmosphere is casual and you are made to feel welcome.” We’re talking nuance here.

Or you could turn to NCR’s page 13 where some excellent reporting by Kathryn Casa offers different food for thought. It’s about what seldom gets said when people write or talk about food, and it’s vitally important.

We need to be honest. Before Adam was a mile out of Paradise, and the key thrown away, being a typical male, he was hungry. He had already tasted the drawbacks of fruit, especially Eve’s apple, and no doubt soon got tired of potatoes and pasta. “What I need is meat,” he probably said.

One wonders did he feel a tinge of conscience when he killed his first rabbit or cow or whatever. The bad news for the world is that for some of us to eat well, a lot of animals get badly treated. Our meat-eating rituals have evolved since Adam’s day, the dead meat elegantly camouflaged in your butcher section. But the bald fact is that we kill animals, birds and fish in such numbers that we dare not think too much about it. And, adding insult to injury, we mistreat the birds and animals from the day they are born until the day we kill them, so that we can eat them cheaply and so that armies of middlepersons can get rich on the transaction — as the story shows.

Big theological and human questions seem to be lurking here. It would be a giant step toward solving the cruelty dilemma if we all went vegetarian. That, however, merely brings a wider problem into focus. Animals would still get killed, often cruelly. Big animals kill smaller ones, while birds and fish and insects do ditto. This is bound to be a sore spot for creationists of the purer hue: There is a savagery to life on earth that makes one wonder if God shouldn’t have taken one more day on creation and found some practical solutions to the restaurant problem and likewise to the predatory proclivities of nearly every living thing that as soon as it emerges from the ooze wants to demolish some other part of creation just to stay alive.

It’s no wonder we’re ambivalent about food. It’s part of the dilemma of being human. There is part of us that enjoys food immensely, and, lets face it, the more money we have the more we indulge this part of ourselves. As a race we have made food a fine art. Some nations are famous in this regard, the French for example, while Italians are famous more for the length of the meal and the single-mindedness devoted to it than for the substance itself. And don’t even mention the Irish: A few years ago, there was an elegant book, Irish Culinary Masterpieces, which was all blank pages on the inside.

The food problem is much more complicated than the above dilemma hints. It is surrounded not only by practical problems but by moral problems that call for choices on our part. The Casa article is a significant contribution to the debate.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, February 12, 1999