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Guilt-Free Food

In defense of factory farms and Dippin' Dots


Published July 25, 2007 at 8:11 p.m.


I wouldn't call myself a foodie. That term smacks of an effete, goblet-toting Kelsey Grammer type. Good-taste guys like him wouldn't be caught dead at a Lake Monsters game, let alone go for the sole purpose of eating the food there, like I do. Chicken bites don't pair that well with wine, and anything as vibrantly artificial as a bowl of Dippin' Dots ice cream sure doesn't qualify as "artisan dairy."

I am, however, consumed by food. I live each day as if I were on a cruise ship, wandering from meal to meal. Throughout sixth grade, I kept The Frugal Gourmet on Our Immigrant Ancestors in my backpack, and nowadays I watch the Food Network for fun, lasciviously as porn. When my boyfriend works late, I've been known to cook risotto and filet mignon with a balsamic reduction — just so he can come home and have a hot dog instead.

But I believe that the current climate of rampant food pretension has led to many unfortunate side effects — not least, the dead-serious, political food coverage that we've come to expect from Seven Days. Food culture, localvore food culture especially, has taken on a near-religious gravitas. At any moment, I expect Alice Waters or Carlo Petrini of Slow Food to arrive with instructions on "keeping Vermont food pure." Before they get to you, I present my own brief manifesto on what should matter in food. The two major rules are:

1) The source does not trump the product in importance.

There's nothing actually wrong with organic food. There are few greater pleasures than the juicy burst of a fresh-picked, sun-warmed strawberry. I grew up on a farm and have many fond memories of gathering eggs and cutting mint. The stringy free-range chicken . . . not so much. While I admit that the quality of organic produce has improved in recent years, eating it can still seem like chowing down on a sweater with which the moths have already had their way. The fact that it's "earth friendly" doesn't improve the experience. So if the environment is your priority when you make food choices, please don't try to convince anyone that you "like food."

I've got other news for you: You can get a chemical-free apple, most likely bigger and tastier than its organic counterpart, if you wash a conventional one before you eat it. You don't need to spend three times the price. Problem solved.

For people who claim truly to care about the flavor of the food they eat, how it got to them should be a secondary concern at best. Vermont Smoke & Cure bacon is unquestionably the best I've ever had. That's not because it's from Vermont; it's because their bacon reminds me of eating braised short ribs in bacon form. Gerard's bread is the best around. I'm much happier to go to Underhill or Jericho than pay big euros to have the same thing, albeit a little more stale, shipped to me from France. Local food can be the tastiest choice. But unless we're trying to create a Maoist state, we should go elsewhere when it's not.

We live in a global market. I can buy anything, from meaty strips of South African biltong to hamburger-shaped chocolate candy from Japan, and I do. When resources abound, as they do in our wired world, insistence on local eating is just plain silly. Even if you don't shop for food online, I wager you like to eat vegetables out of season. Big, sexy blueberries in the winter? They didn't grow those in Windsor. Unless you want to be stuck with rutabaga and kohlrabi, or something grown under a heat lamp in Grandma's basement, opt for produce from California or Argentina come the cold season. Even today, in balmy August, I challenge you to find a worthwhile citrus fruit grown in Vermont. As growers, we are limited by our climate; as consumers, we need not be.

2) Cry for the honor student before the hooker.

That's right, meat is murder. That counterfeit "Kobe" burger on your plate? You petted him in the 4-H tent at the fair last year. As meat eaters, we've got to be honest with ourselves. Every delicious, tender pork chop was once Babe.

Much has been made in recent years of the conditions in which KFC chickens are kept. Supposedly their cages are inhumanely small. As far as I'm concerned, that's finger-lickin' good. I prefer to eat creatures that never truly lived, not ones plucked from happy and carefree lives and sent to the slaughterhouse. Food should not have an identity: That is when meat eating becomes cruel. When my poultry, beef or pork comes from a factory farm, at least I'm sparing an animal the abuse.

I'm sure there's a self-congratulatory vegetarian reading this and patting himself on his guilt-free back. He would never order a burger: That's meat. Now, a Fishwich . . . Nope, I'm not letting you get away with that. I'd never push for all vegetarians to become vegans, because that would be too cruel a fate. I once partook of a 20-course vegan feast. The most-used item: Irish moss. It wasn't that bad. Actually it was, but the open-faced brisket sandwich that I had afterward was awesome. So all I ask is that meat-eating "vegetarians" stop muddling their morals: chicken, turkey, sharks, clams, alligators? All meat. End of story.

In an industrialized nation, food oughta be for enjoyment. Sure, there are times when pouring a bowl of cereal is all one can manage. But our access to ingredients and what we're able to do with them separate us from those in less fortunate countries. Meat was once a special-occasion food: Dig in and feel privileged. We're very lucky to live in an agriculturally rich state, and without question, we should take advantage. That said, keep your politics off my plate.

COMMENT on this essay on Suzanne Podhaizer's blog, Omnivore.