Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Where to Begin

Inspired by BFP

Poster from a talk, based on one of my dissertation chapters, that I gave in February

So, a number of things have me thinking about vegetarianism/veganism. One, as noted above, are the thoughtful discussions BFP has about potentially becoming a veg*n.

Another is the nature of my work. Invariably, when I talk about my dissertation, I talk about conditions in poultry processing plants. For the workers, there is exhausting, dirty work, at unbelievable speeds. There is routine underpayment of wages. There are supervisors who treat you as if you are nothing. There is the huge company that will do almost anything--legal or extralegal--to keep workers from organizing. There is the exploitation of the most vulnerable workers. There are the "chicken" rashes, bone splinters, musculoskeletal disorders, cumulative trauma disorders, cuts and amputations, slippery, fat-slick floors, extreme temperatures, dealing with frightened, live chickens and dead ones that rest in a "fecal soup."

Here are the hands of a 22-year old man who works in live hang.

What happens in live hang really troubles me. The workers are scratched, pecked, and defecated upon. Frustrated and hurt, they take their anger out on the chickens. They throw the birds against the wall. They break their necks. One employee told me that once, a chicken scratched him so deeply, he took out his pocket knife and stabbed it.

I am also struck by this merging of memories that my mind has done. The first dates to the serious burns I suffered when I was twelve or so, the memory of seeing my skin actually blister and become translucent.

The second occurred when I was pledging. One of my line sisters, Ginger, was a vegan (I didn't even know the word back then). We loved her but thought she was so out there--she used to sit in our meetings drinking rice milk and twisting her short fro into what would soon become the beginning of locs. For one of our meetings, we decided to pick up some Popeye's chicken for dinner. Initially, it was in the car with Ginger and another of my line sisters. I was in the car behind them. Ginger flagged us down and three or four cars pulled over on the shoulder of the freeway; we all knew something terrible must have happened.

Ginger got out of the lead car, marched to where I was sitting and thrust the chicken into my lap. "Here," she said. "I cannot stand the smell of cooked flesh." We rolled our eyes, mumbled about how dramatic she was, and continued on. But her phrasing stuck with me. And sometimes when I have meat and I watch as it cooks, I am turned off by the blistering and browning of the flesh, remembering how horrible my own ordeal was.

Finally, I think an animal-free diet would work wonders for my health and my son's. He doesn't really eat a lot of meat, but his digestive system is in a mess and has been since he was small. He's on a 30-day glycolax prescription right now to ease chronic constipation and soiling.

But I am afraid. I have sworn to myself several times that I'm going to give up meat, one animal at a time. And I'm scared to do it. I think it is the result of this that BfP mentions, "many black feminist vegans I have read/talked to say that veganism is unfathomable as a choice to most of their community."

First, I spend an inordinate amount of time cooking. It relaxes me. I love trying new recipes. I love seeing things emerge from a group of ingredients to a beautiful, tasty whole.

But I also cook to nurture. I know that's problematic--to encourage people to seek comfort in food--but it's something that I know and am hesitant to unlearn. I cook for people I love. I cook for families when they are bereaved. I cook for friends when they're having parties. I cook when my closest friends and I are sitting around doing nothing. I cook for the kids at my summer job. It is something I like to do, something I take pride in, something I am comfortable with.

So imagine the idea of shaking all that up. What if people don't like my cooking anymore? What if I'm no longer good at it? What if I can't share meals anymore?

And then there is the outside resistance. My family looks at me crazily or with smirks when I bring it up. The other day I tried to discuss it with my mom. She stopped in the middle of sweeping and looked at me. "Why would you do that?" she asked. She sounded genuinely offended.

"Think about the processing industry, for one thing, Mama," I said.

"elle, I work in a plant and I eat meat." That threw me, gave me the feeling I get when I see people appropriate others' struggles/pretend to know more about others' plight than the people themselves. Did I sound like I was contemplating it for purely academic reasons? Was it a luxury I could afford to think about when so many other people cannot?

So there are times when I "don't feel right" about eating meat and others when I "don't feel right" about the idea of giving it up.

At this point, however, I have vowed to at least try.


Mommy to Ander and Wife to Box said...

I do all sorts of things that my mom disagrees with, and everytime, I find myself struggling as I decide. Still, I almost always decide to do what I know is the right thing for me and my family, even as I meet the family resistance. (I'm not saying whether vegetarian or vegan is the right thing; I'm just saying the you can do this, even without mom's support. ;))

Kimberly said...

If you feel strongly about can do it. It definitely seems like it would be a challenge.

I remember watching Ginger eat sprouts like she was eating some chips and giggling to myself....but I also admired her committment.

Don't overthink your motives. They sound logical and sensible. I sense you somehow feel that since your mother doesn't feel that way, you don't really have the right to feel uneasy given what you know about what she and her colleagues go through. You feel what you feel. It affects you differently that it affects your mom. Nothing wrong with that.

Good luck with all of it.

Kate said...

Wow, what a lovely post. You've described the dilemma perfectly. Thanks for sharing your thinking Elle!

k8 said...

Ah, just as I was thinking about roasting a chicken.

I think about the same things, at times. I grew up out in the country and, while I've never worked at a processing plant, I'm well aware of what happens to farm animals once they are sent there.

Have you read the children's book Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata. It's a beautiful book - it won the Newberry in 2005. The parents of the children end up working in a non-unionized poultry plant during the 1950s in Georgia (after moving from Iowa). The father is a chicken sexer. There are some pretty frank descriptions of the work conditions and the power the plant owners have over their (mostly non-white) workers.

Rachel said...

I come from a long line of Southern cooks raised in the Kentucky-style manner of cooking which inevitably includes three staples: lard, meat and potatoes. So, when I announced I had gone vegetarian nearly six years ago, my family didn't take me seriously, either. They still kind of rib me about it sometimes, but it's all in jest and even my mother makes separate meat-free dishes for my husband and I or uses faux meat alternatives.

I think the crowning point in our mother-daughter relationship came just last year when she made her famed breakfast casserole with veggie sausage and didn't tell my serious-meat-eating brothers. I arrived for brunch late after they had already ate and started eating. They looked at me shocked and said "Don't you know that has meat in it?" You should have seen their faces after I told them my mom had made it with veggie meat and didn't tell them. They never even noticed as they ate - and heartily enjoyed - it.

I'm glad you're deciding to at least try in making the switch to a more cruelty-free lifestyle. Even if you never totally go veggie or vegan, the simple act of reducing your meat intake makes a significant difference.

Anne said...

It can be hard to choose a cruelty-reduced lifestyle without coming across like a holier-than-thou snob. Rejecting meat might make your mother feel rejected herself, since she raised you eating meat. She may feel guilty herself about the chickens, and seeing you go veg might be a reminder of that guilt. I sympathize with the delicacy of verbalizing your own choices and reasons without sounding judgmental about the choices of others.

USJogger said...

I'm not a regular reader (I got sent here by Shakespeare's Sister), so forgive me if I step on any toes. I just couldn't resist jumping in, since this reflects issues that are in my head.

I waffled about going vegetarian for years. I knew all the reasons -- it's better for my health, better for the environment, the meat industry exploits people and animals -- but I just like meat too much.

I finally took the plunge last fall. I'm not a vegan (yet), and in fact, I do eat occasional seafood, so I would be classified as a pseudo-vegetarian. (To my knowledge, there's no good ethical argument for eating fish but not cows.) I feel better about myself, and I feel healthier. It was the right thing to do, and I'm keeping it up (with the occasional slip.)

I think that you should follow your heart. Your heart wants to give up meat, but it's too ingrained a habit.

And give yourself permission to ease into it. Go veg, but don't kick yourself for an occasional backslide.


katecontinued said...

Good for you. None of us has anything to lose to try. Moreover, just the adventure of it is teaching your kids something. I have tried to go vegan, but I don't succeed beyond a few weeks. I have succeeded in becoming primarily a plant eater with a meal a week of meat, when I am a guest at my son's restaurant. I also now keep eggs and yogurt in my diet. Those two items and the weekly meat meal are a kind of transition for me.

One day I think I will be vegan because it feels good, it's cheaper, it's a far superior use of the planet's resources and it's humane.

It would have never thought of, yet alone articulated, as you have all of these influences. This is a really good post.

lemontwist said...

Just a random feminist vegan checking in. Becoming a vegan is ultimately a decision you should make on your own, after you feel you're ready. And it's something you can easily do in stages. I took a few months taking meat out of my diet until I was comfortable as a vegetarian, which I was for two years. I just recently decided to take all animal products out of my diet, but I waited until I knew I could cook vegan food and would be able to eat. I wouldn't worry about what other people will think about your cooking - there are amazing recipes out there ( that are totally vegan and absolutely delicious. And, you know, Oreos are vegan...... :)

Hagar's Daughter said...

I've been vegetarian for 2 years now and I must say I don't miss the dead flesh. I've gone vegan for short periods of time and will probably go back to eating that way.

My decision to eat vegetarian was based on a doctor's (Joel Furhman?)research in treating fibromyalgia. When I ate vegan my symptons were so few and far between. Eating vegetarian is easier for me and I have fewer flare ups than when I ate meat.

It can be done and it's worth it. When I told my family, my sister asked: What are *you* going to eat? She asked because there are very few vegetables that I eat, seriously. A vegetarian that doesn't like vegetables. What I do is juice what I don't eat, which is almost every vegetable. While I wouldn't touch a salad with a fork, I'll put that salad in a juicer a drink it - lol!

elle said...

Thanks for all the comments and advice, especially that about there being a place to begin. I eat meat with every meal. Even on salads, we have ham. So if I at least begin to cut back, I think that will be a good starting place.

PICO said...

Elle and BFP, you're cookin' up a conversation that deserves to be showcased on every blog. As a feminist, southerner, queer activist heavily engaged in immigrant and worker rights, and a white woman, I thank you. Your thinking and your writing are equally elegant. I don't see a lot of that here in Phoenix, on the front lines of the immigration war. You feed, inspire, encourage, and move me, and I thank you. I'll be pointing my readers your way for sure, and invite you to check my blog when you get a chance:

Anonymous said...

Hi Elle,

A couple of things your post made me think of...

One, I don't think it's necessarily problematic to associate food/eating with comfort, and feeding people with nurturing. I mean, in a real sense, it *is* a function of eating, that it nurtures, physically for sure. I feel like the don't-associate-comfort-with-food thing makes sense as it applies to me having what I think of as a sugar tantrum because someone hurt me - "this mountain dew/ding dong/bunch of cookies will make me feel better, fuck them." My body is not nurtured by that kind of food, nor is any other part of me.

But, well, cooking is a creative thing, and a loving/nurturing thing, and I have to say that I think there's a difference between me downing 40 oz. of Mountain Dew versus me making myself a delicious meal if I'm feeling bad, or splurging on delicious take-out, or someone else making me a delicious meal.

Both types of eating are technically associating comfort with food, but one actually mistakes a toxic rush of sugar spike in the blood as comfort/nurture, and the other can in fact *be* comforting/nurturing to my body and mind. I don't think it's an accident that sometimes people use the phrase "feed oneself" in relation to self-nurturing things that aren't food.

The other thing I am thinking about is, ugh, the meat industry. What you wrote about how workers sometimes take anger out on the chickens, and the picture of this young man's hands... I feel like greed is what is hurting the people and the animals in the processing plants.

That's a simplistic and obvious statement I know. I mean that I don't think it is inherently immoral to eat meat. I know it is possible to eat meat without torturing animals and slow-killing people to do it. I don't think a lion is a selfish asshole for eating an elk or whoever he eats. But I would be heartbroken and crazed if lions started torturing the elk while they're alive, and virtually enslaving other lions, as the precursor to eating them.

Given that right now, the way most all meat comes to be meat is via torture of animals and torture of the people who work in processing plants, I see this incarnation of meat-eating as obviously corrupt.

I don't know if I will ever make progress in cutting down or eliminating meat from my diet. I practically live off of whole milk, and I have tried to eat fake meat stuffs before and I know I'm just not willing to eat that stuff. It grosses me out - no matter what anybody does with it or how good it tastes to other people - and I end up just not eating at all. I also have mixed feelings about just opting out of eating meat.

I don't feel like leaving it at that - me personally, not saying anyone else actually is "just leaving it at that" - I don't feel like it does anything to help people who work in plants or chickens who die in them. I want to know how to shift the focus and the solutions to: it is unacceptable to treat people these ways. It is unnecessary to treat animals this way, on top of the unaaceptability. We don't actually all have to stop eating meat - we have to stop harming people and torturing animals as a means of producing meat.

I want companies to be forced to stop pretending that the only choice is between affordable, torture-related meat or too-expensive-for-regular-families-to-afford meat. Less wealth for those at the top is actually another choice. You don't always have to raise prices.

elle said...

joan, i'm reading your comment just as BfP's follow-up post is sinking into my head. i think i'll post again...

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...