Aug 26, 2008

What is Meat? (Pt. 1)

With the early onslaught of Halloween preparations, a holiday that's never been the same for me since I found out that many of my favorite candies have shredded beetles and other unsavories in them, I thought this as good a time as any to post my consideration of the more-complicated-than-I-thought-it-was question: "what is meat?"

I have been surprised by the different ways that people in the Northeast (my only frame of reference) consider the various subgroups of "food" and justify the exclusion of each from their personal definition of "meat." I don't know if this is true in other parts of the U.S. or if even this is another one of those uniquely American propositions. But it just knocks me out that this is as debated (or at least contested) as it is. Pescatarian, Vegan, Non-Red-Meatatarian... the variations have promulgated in a way not unlike the many permutations of American Christianity.

I actually think it's not so complicated for people who aren't in the United States. Or maybe that's a massive generalization that isn't large enough - perhaps it is more the whole Western, Christian world that doesn't quite get the difference between a carrot, a crab, a carp, and a canary. Whatever it is, there are a number of observations and impacts on people who are trying to stick to one or more of these diets, and more importantly, the assumptions that come from people who just don't get the difference. It also has ramifications for movement work in communities that have heterogeneous and specific diets.

I know it's been a source of frustration for the older desi generation (well, my Mom is the sample for me here) when someone asks if they eat seafood or poultry right after they've said "I don't eat meat." Because to them, "meat" is anything that used to be an animal. And "animal" means anything that's not a plant, fungi, monote, or phytoplankton. For many of them, even eggs are included in that definition, but milk and dairy are not "meat" because they are not directly "animals" but rather animal products, I guess. For some reason, this is really hard to understand for a lot of people - I don't know if it's the penetration of the concept of "vegan" into the American psyche or sheer, complete ignorance. The number of questions about whether "x" or "y" are acceptable under old school immigrant definitions of "vegetarian" is sometimes frustrating. It used to be basic questions like "where do you get your protein?" and "that's weird!" but now that the concept of vegetarianism has permeated mainstream American life more, the questions have actually multiplied and become more specific.

Anyway, I believe that the regular exclusion of fish (and even poultry) in the Western conception of "meat" strongly normalizes carnivorism. Anthropomorphism is also a fairly common way of describing diet: "I won't eat anything with a face" translates to me that some of the Disney animated shows with cute talking animals must be having some lasting effect, at least on the subliminal level, and maybe some of the kids who watch the films over and over again will grow up wondering why Bambi equals venison, and Thumper makes a good stew. But then, why is Sebastian the crab is less sympathetic and more likely to find himself taking his final dip in a giant hot tub that is really a hot pot? Let's not even get to the fact that people get all freaked out by insects and spiders, but are more than happy to crunch into other, larger, many-legged arthropods like lobsters, shrimp, and crabs. I just don't get the logic: eat a damn spider already. And that's not because I'm an Indian, and we eat that kind of stuff regularly.

I also think that the inability of some people to fully understand that fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and the various other exceptions to the meat rule seem, at least to me, to signify one of two things: 1) "I don't care about science, I'm proud that I don't know what an animal is, and you should go screw yourself," or 2) "It's too hard to include all of these things, and as long as I'm not taking a bite out of a live whale's trachea or something, you should leave me alone to my drumstick. At least I don't go hunting these things (off season)."

Ah. Yes you do. You may not lay the trap, throw the net, or reel in the line, but you are hunting them as you maneuver between the CostCo, the Super WalMart, and the other discount food retailers (the nutritional-industrial complex?) to get your best price. You're driving this crazy market for faster, cheaper, and more "consistent" tastes in meat products. Your attenuated tolerance for variation and regional nuances in food and food preparation have lead to the mass production of these food products. For shame! Your burger just had to taste the same as what you just had in Chicago after your week away from home. I may have philosophical and faith reasons for rejecting a carnivore's diet generally, but I can accept eating for the sake of sustenance and survival, and in a way that doesn't turn fellow species into a commodity. But that's not what the modern method of meat and food production is about.

The furthest extreme includes so called "white meat" in the list of acceptable and consumable flesh. And does anyone remember the posters in the NYC subway announcing "pork: the other white meat"?! Man, come on. You've got to be kidding me - pig is the meat forbidden even to the most meat eaters. I'm convinced that the campaign was some crazy Christian right thing to piss off the Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and other assorted veggie heathens in one fell swoop. Ugh. I'll take those annoying peanut ads any day of the week.

I'll revisit this theme in at least one more post, to go through some thoughts on vegetarianism as a framework for social and political consciousness, and also for the challenges that remain for vegetarians in Asian American spaces.


Fire Fly said...

Great post!

Perhaps consider submitting it to the Vegans of Colour blog?

I might also add that, despite some 40% of the Indian population defining itself as vegetarian, this sometimes pans out to include some meats or animal products that aren't seen in the same category as meat. It follows a very different logic than Western pseudo-vegetarianism though...

Rage said...

Thanks Fire Fly. I don't know if it's polished enough for there, but I'll keep thinking about these themes and maybe something will fit.

Also - would love to hear more of what you mean by the different kinds of vegetarianism from the subcontinent... I think I know what you're talking about, but any insight would be great.

Fire Fly said...

Well, from what I understand, veg*nism in South Asia generally comes not from Western philosophical notions about animal rights, but from religious concepts of purity/pollution, suffering, and obligation. I've heard of some coastal communities who consider themselves vegetarian but eat fish, and their word for fish would translate to "sea-eggplant" (i.e. they don't consider seafood in the same category as meat). It follows a logic, whereas Western pseudo-vegetarianism (eating seafood or poultry while claiming to be vegetarian) just makes no sense and seems to follow whatever is convenient to the person (although there might be good reasons for those dietary choices too).

But I sooo hear you on the veg*nism being treated as though it all fell into a single paradigm... when white veg*ns mostly eat traditional veg*n foods from the cultures of poc. The erasure is mind-bloggling.

Rage said...

Thanks for the insight, Fire Fly. Interesting stuff! I definitely hear what you're saying about the erasure. I'm debating whether that's worse, or the "I'm cool because I'm down with your ancestral philosophy, and I know it better than you now, so let me guide you back to the path, sad brown one."

Another reason why I won't take yoga in the U.S, (or probably a lot of the places in India now, while we're at it. :)