By Jill Howard-Church, on
Society Institute (ASI)
I was listening to the NPR cooking show "The Splendid Table" on the car radio the other day and heard an interview that for me typified the shortcomings of what might otherwise be considered "enlightened" eating these days.
In it, well-known chef Daniel Patterson was being asked about his favorite cooking tools: his hands. As he spoke about metal tongs being "a brutal way of handling food" and about an "unlucky" steak being removed from the pan and "mangled" to test its doneness, I found it odd that the show was talking about an unfeeling chunk of meat in terms that I doubt were ever used regarding the intact living animal from whom it was cut. I found myself talking back to the radio to remind him that the meat had already been "mangled" during the process of slaughtering the "unlucky" animal to whom that flesh originally belonged.
Patterson and the show's host went on to compare the feel of certain human body parts (noses, chins and ear lobes) to the feel of meat cooked rare, medium and well done. He said that using your hands while cooking gives you "a connection to your food." He lamented "the larger remove from our food that's happened over the last 40 or 50 years" and how "people have gotten afraid to engage with what they're eating." He added, "There's something about the tactile interaction between your food and touching it that leads to a deeper sensitivity [and] brings you closer to what you're cooking."
Calf photo courtesy of Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary.
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Now, I will say that Patterson - who owns an upscale San Francisco restaurant and other enterprises - sounds like one of those "mindful eating" types like Michael Pollan who gives far more thought to food choices and origins than the average person sitting at the McDonald's drive-thru. I am not questioning his sincerity or his commitment to his craft. However, he and many other nouveau noshers always seem to stop short of taking their ethical considerations to the ultimate endpoint: considering whether the concept of food choices includes the right of an animal to choose to not be killed for food.
Having visited several farm animal sanctuaries and volunteering regularly at Farm Sanctuary years ago when it was in Pennsylvania, I agree with Patterson's assertion that one's sense of touch can influence one's palate. But perhaps if he visited one of these sanctuaries, he'd be touched in a different way.
If he and the meat-eaters listening to his interview took just an hour to see cows, pigs, sheep, chickens or turkeys up close, one on one – touching their skin or feathers, looking into their eyes, watching their behavior, noting their preferences, seeing them communicate and experiencing them as something other than "resources" – perhaps the ultimate lesson would be that these animals have the capacity to enjoy lives of their own. Instead of comparing the density of cooked meat to his own facial features, Chef Patterson might consider that the animals he's cooking also had noses that smelled the air, ears that heard the cries of their brethren and chins that pressed against pens and cages from which they could not escape.
Just because such animals may have come into the world as part of the larger meat machine doesn't mean that as individuals they don't have minds, feelings, fears, desires and needs of their own. If they met these animals, maybe those radio listeners would see that the "brutality" of handling a steak with metal tongs is really nothing compared to the brutality of keeping sows and hens locked inside metal stalls and cages for months on end, or that "mangling" a piece of meat pales in comparison to cutting of chickens' beaks or pigs' and sheep's tails without anesthesia.
Really, that "deeper sensitivity to food" Patterson spoke of should begin not in the kitchen but on the farm, or on the feedlot, or in the slaughterhouse. And whatever may be felt with the hands must ultimately be felt by the heart.
Jill Howard-Church is a writer and editor who specializes in animal issues. She serves as the part-time communications director for the Animals and Society Institute, and is the volunteer president of the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.