from M.F.K Fischer, Edna Lewis, Jonathan Safran Foer, Michael Pollan, David Foster Wallace, and J. M. Coetzee
Most honest discussions that bring together food and animals are really, at bottom, about suffering and killing and death, topics that we all know have a way of making people feel bad. This is especially true, I’ve found, if those people are young college students whose lives have been relatively unburdened by the kinds of suffering and death—and the increasingly regular thoughts about such things—that go along with honest living in the world.
Each semester for the past five years, I’ve set out to discuss the suffering and killing and deaths of animals as part of a freshman-level food-writing course I call “Setting a Fine Table,” so named for a favorite line from M. F. K.
Fisher. Fisher is the American food writer whose work, which I first read after a few too many years as a vegetarian and then a vegan, suggested how I might return to taking real pleasure in food again. Step one involved admitting I’d been wrong about the supposed pleasure (and joyful pain) I’d been taking all those years in refusing so much of what’s out there to eat. No matter what I thought about how pure and good my diet was as a vegan, how Fisher ate was always better, whether in her youth, when she watched Old Mary the cook “make butter in a great churn between her mountainous knees,” or as an adult, when she took an entire day to eat three or four tangerines, whose sections, resting on the radiator, grew “plumper, hot and full.” She saved the best part of the fruit—the kiss—for her husband Al.
Over time my regimen around food had become a kind of devotional, ascetic practice; I never saved anything for anybody. And though it had the stink of puritanism, there was nothing at all evangelical about it. In fact, refusing meat and dairy and eggs, three meals a day, became a way of distancing myself from those around me, sort of the way abstaining from sex keeps you from the person you love. This approach wasn’t ever intended as a model or lesson for others on how to live better; rather, it offered me my own version of the best of all possible worlds—population, one.
Reading Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me, I was reminded in language no less religious, however, that “There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.” The eater lives in the world with others. I took another important lesson in my last days as a vegan from Fisher’s fellow midcentury New Yorker mainstay A. J. Liebling, whose criticism of my approach to food cut just a little sharper: “No ascetic,” he once wrote, “can be considered reliably sane.” Fisher’s ideas about communion—or better, commensality—and Liebling’s barb about sanity have stuck with me over the years and continue to shape a class in which I’m hoping to score a few points for honest living, which, if we’re talking about eating, means living with full awareness of our place in the food chain.
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