in which I respectfully disagree

could you eat this chicken?

At the third annual Eat Drink Blog conference this year, blogger Tammi Jonas and chef Simon Bryant ran a panel discussion on local and seasonal food which quickly became a discussion of food ethics. Controversially, both agreed that they would not refuse a meal served to them by their host, even if it clashed with their principles.

I want to briefly examine the line of argument that says if someone serves you up a platter of something you can’t stomach or have an objection to, it is more disrespectful not to eat it than to eat it. Please note I mean no disrespect to either Tammi Jonas or Simon Bryant. The decisions they choose to make regarding food are up to them.

“Refusing hospitality is rude/ungrateful/inconvenient/impolite/makes people uncomfortable.”

This argument holds that basically, you should eat what you are given. It was the way I was brought up myself – the idea that it is rude to be picky, it is impolite to make people feel uncomfortable and ungracious to refuse their hospitality. I don’t agree. I see no reason why a vegetarian refusing a slaved-over meat dish at a dinner party is any more offensive than someone telling a vego or vegan that their much agonised-over food ethics are ‘inconvenient’ or ‘ungrateful’.

There seems to be an assumption here that somehow, your host’s comfort outweighs your comfort as their guest. The whole thing is totally backwards. The idea of hospitality is that as a host, you do not want your guest uncomfortable, unhappy, or traumatised by the food you serve them. If a vego or a vegan or a ceoliac or a picky bastard shows up unannounced, you do your best to do what you can so that they don’t starve. (Mind you, if guests have zany last minute dietary requirements, they may have to go hungry, as it is completely rude to storm in and demand to be catered for).

And there are times when politeness is actually inappropriate. When someone makes disgusting remarks, or racist jokes for example, or when someone threatens you or someone you love, politeness goes out the window, and it is time to say ‘Fuck you, mate,’ or words to that effect.

This is not to say your friends’ bbq presents you, the vego, with a chance to lecture them for supporting factory farming. But the mere fact that your vegetarianism may be an inconvenience doesn’t in any way mean that you’re wrong for not chowing down on that homebrand sausage in its blanket of cheap white bread, marge and super-sweet tomato sauce, any more than you would be wrong for not laughing at someone’s racist joke. Politeness doesn’t trump all.

Cultural Relativism – “When in Rome…”

I once met a vego who stopped being one after travelling through South America. To a tourist, the Argentinean streets seem lined with steak and vegetables are often hard to come by. In some parts of the world, vegetarianism is something they just won’t get. Don’t want to offend a whole Colombian village? I get it. Suspending your ethics temporarily because all you’ve had to eat for the past month is mashed potato? Understood.

However, I disagree with the idea that it is intrinsically wrong to upset a group of people because they all believe the same thing. Yes, you should always be respectful of other cultures. You shouldn’t mock or ridicule people for not behaving the same way as you, if only for your own safety. But you do not have to agree with every cultural practice of every cultural group, simply because you are not from that culture. Furthermore, you should not have to participate in activities that completely undermine your own values.

What if one of their cultural practices is slowly and agonisingly killing a goat and drinking its blood? Or greeting people by punching them in the face? If you’re not allowed to disagree with those practices, or if you cannot choose non-participation, then neither can anyone within that culture, and thus the culture cannot change and evolve. If someone believes very strongly that eating meat is the wrong thing to do, I see little point in guilting them for not eating that guinea pig their host offered them in Peru.

“It’s already dead, so why waste it?”

This is by far the most ridiculous argument of all. For someone to choke down the scraps of meat left on the table simply because they are there makes no sense. No one should eat something they don’t want or need. That is a different kind of wasteful. That is gluttony.

And to argue that throwing away meat is disrespectful to the animal that ‘gave its life for you’? Ok, maybe it is disrespectful in some sense. Maybe it is wasteful. But let me tell you that animal did not ‘give its life for you’. It did not die for your sins. Someone killed that chicken/pig/goat/sheep, whether cruelly or kindly, and you are about to eat it. The animal is dead. It doesn’t give a flying fuck whether you gobble up its carcass or throw it in the bin. Sorry to be harsh, but there you go. There is only one sense in which ‘honouring’ the dead animal is of benefit; that the community attitude towards animal cruelty can be changed for the better. Other than that, it is pure speculation.

Why not just be flexible? It’s not black and white.

Of course it is not black and white. You are free, if you like, to never eat pork, except on Tuesdays, be wheat sensitive only 27 days out of the month and only drink milk ‘when you feel like it’. I’m sure people do it.

But for many people, being vego or vegan boils down to making a black and white decision to save themselves from making a zillion tiny grey decisions each day. ‘No meat’ for example or ‘No meat and eggs’ or ‘No animal products.’ This is a simple way for them to guide their daily eating.

A vegetarian may acknowledge that there are well treated pigs out there, that some crops could be harder on the planet than some herds of animals and that there are better and worse ways to kill and pluck a chicken. But they make the choice not to eat meat/dairy/whatever and they live by that choice.

So, where to from here?

To my mind, the kindest thing you can do for your host is be clear. Ethical eating is evolving. But to your host, ‘Sorry, I don’t eat meat’ is a hell of a more simple/kind/polite/straightforward/easy to digest message than. ‘Sorry, I don’t eat factory farmed pork, food from any of the major supermarkets, non-organic vegetables, and milk makes me feel slightly queasy.’

Just by having an ethical stance on food, it is expected that yours will be perfect. But it doesn’t have to be. If Simon Bryant is on a road trip in the middle of woop woop and buys a mars bar from the 7 11 , he is no less of an ethical eater. If Tammi Jonas comes to my place and eats the factory farmed pork roast I serve her, she is no less of an ethical eater. They are in environments where they have little control over their food choices and they are doing their best.

By the same token, if Tammi refuses my pork roast, sure, I’m kinda embarrassed, but so what? I’ll get over it. If eating that pork roast was going to totally compromise her values and break her heart, I can honestly say I’d rather be mortified than have her eat it.

And when in doubt, you can always just say ‘I’m allergic.’

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22 Responses to “The kindest thing you can do is eat it”

  1. vegeTARAian says:

    Bravo, well said! I believe that while you can’t always (and nor would you want to) control the situation, you always ALWAYS have control over what you put in your mouth.
    vegeTARAian recently posted…A moral dilemma

  2. Interesting discussion – I’m sure it would have led to some controversial (and hopefully respectful) commentary afterward! It is quite a touchy subject for many.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly that being clear to your host is the best avenue to take, for both of you. It gives the host plenty of time to prepare something suitable to everyone’s palate and dietary needs, and reduces the chances of awkwardness of having to refuse or suffer through something someone can’t/won’t eat.

    There’s nothing worse than a host who shoves something down your throat (whether it be food or political/religious views) AND a my-diet-is-holier-than-thou guest. Imagine if no one says anything, and the two meet at the table? No point in risking it.
    Yasmeen @ Wandering Spice recently posted…Spring on the Farm

  3. I agree that a vego or vegan should never feel like they must eat meat. And people with genuine food allergies should not have to risk their health to protect the feelings of their host. But, I do think that’s where it ends. These days people are on so many incredibly strict and self-imposed diets. Must we cater to every person who’s invited over for family lasagne night but only wants to have alkalised water and activated almonds? I HATE eggs, but since that’s a personal preference and not a moral or health issue for me, I almost always eat eggs of they’re served to me. It’s about the joy of sharing food… and there’s no joy in a table full of people complaining.
    SarahKate (Mi Casa-Su Casa) recently posted…Opening night!

    • Lau says:

      I agree, although if I know someone absolutely hates mushrooms or spicy food or…something, I won’t cook that for them.

      I think if you’re at the alkalised water/active almonds phase, you’re likely only eating with people that share your views.

      But yes, people can be insanely picky and that can be annoying.

      If I ever have you round, remind me no eggs!

  4. Hi, it was great to meet you. I find it interesting to hear different perspectives, so thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    Lizzy (Good Things) recently posted…The Human Brochure – Postcards and Morsels

  5. And as a post script, I have at times said no to food offered to me by a kind and generous host, for a number of reasons. I care about what I put in my mouth and there are some occasions when a gentle no thank you was more appropriate than eating something I did not want to eat.
    Lizzy (Good Things) recently posted…The Human Brochure – Postcards and Morsels

  6. Miss Piggy says:

    I do believe that if somebody invites guests to their table they should be mindful of those guests dietary requirements…I think vegan/vegetarianism is a way of life & a belief system and should be respected. But like Simon said it’s difficult if you go somewhere overseas where the concept of not eating meat is just simply not understood – their not being rude, they just “don’t get it”. As you know I don’t like to eat factory farmed meat…I don’t buy it for my home cooking & try to avoid it when eating out at restaurants. If it’s put in front of me in somebody’s home I eat it…I don’t want to…but I do as I don’t want to make a fuss…
    Miss Piggy recently posted…Biku, Bali

    • Lau says:

      @Miss Piggy I think that you’re completely entitled to ‘not make a fuss’. At the same time if you said to your host pre-dinner that you don’t eat factory farmed meat then no worries, that’s ok too. Or if you chose not to eat the meat and just eat everything else they served.

      For someone who doesn’t eat meat at all, I think there are all kinds of reasons ‘sucking it it up’ would be a completely bizarre/impossible thing to do. I remember the first time I ate meat after 10 years as a vego, the texture was just…my mouth couldn’t understand it, you know?

      @Lizzy I think you’re right about the ‘gentle no thank you’. I disagree with the idea that turning down food is intrinsically an impolite thing to do.

      And if you are in a culture where the norm is that turning down food is seen as morally reprehensible, I guess all you can really do is apologise, try to explain and be prepared for the fact that people will be upset.

  7. […] discussion did not go as in-depth as I would’ve liked, but delegates Tara of vegeTARAian and Lauren of Corridor Kitchen have explored some of the arguments presented in their recent […]

  8. Yeah, the “I only eat ethical meat” thing is hard to live by, and hard to get across to others. And it’s easier to say “I don’t eat meat”.

    Here’s the next dilemma, though: do you explain why? Or does that become evangelising?
    Detective Chow recently posted…Young Henry’s at Blancmange — or — Inner West beer degustation dinner (a food cycle)

    • Lau says:

      I think if people ask you why you’re doing what you’re doing, you should explain. In my experience, people are generally curious about this kind of thing. Just don’t let them interrogate you I guess.

  9. Lau you make one hell of a good point. I went away from that discussion incredibly confused by Tammi and Simon’s views. I believe that it is the duty of the host to check in advance of any dietary requirements of their guest (whether it is a choice or a medical reason) and cater accordingly. I also think that people should not feel that they have to finish everything on their plate. If you are full, you are full and the host should not feel insulted by this. To me, the meal is a way to bring people together- but the atmosphere, conversation and comfort of your guest is much more important. Why make people feel awkward in your house? Excellent post, as always!

  10. Well put! I was also quite surprised at the position that both Tammi and Simon took. But then, I don’t know how a vegetarian could ever become a pork farmer, so I guess each to their own. I also agree, that actually the most important thing in this situation is for the host to cater to your dietary needs. It’s not like it’s difficult – there are a million vegan/vegetarian/gluten free/any other diet blogs out there which have hundreds of recipes on them.
    K-bobo @ Gormandize with A-dizzle & K-bobo recently posted…Broad Bean Pesto Pasta with Spring Vegetables

  11. Winston says:

    Hi Lau! I think the conversation that Tammi and Simon started really stuck with me even after the conference too. Must be honest that it’s definitely an issue that I’ve never given much thought about until then. I can’t say I am fully ready to make a major lifestyle choice yet but I’m happy to say it’s slowly making me aware of a lot of the things I eat, which, I guess isn’t a bad place to start right? Anyway, very interesting to hear about their views on culture and respect to hosts as well, and definitely something I resonate completely with. Gawd knows the number of times I scoffed down doughy, uncooked pizza that my mate’s Mum used to make everytime we go over (without saying a word, of course)…
    Winston recently posted…Eat Drink Blog 2012 Conference — Day 1 (in pictures)

  12. Really great post and very well written! I’m with you – I think the kindest thing to do for everyone is to be clear with your hosts whenever possible. I guess this is always going to be a slightly controversial topic but I love reading everyone’s opinions on it :)
    Christine @ Cooking Crusade recently posted…A Very Spooky Halloween at N2 Extreme Gelato

  13. Really well written Lau, I’m unsure where I stand on the issue right now, but reading your thoughts really solidified some of mine. Thank you.
    Christie @ Fig & Cherry recently posted…Win! Oyster Tasting & Master Class at Sydney Opera Kitchen

  14. “What if one of their cultural practices is slowly and agonisingly killing a goat and drinking its blood?”

    I think this really clarifies the discussion. We believe that we should be flexible, but only to a point. It shows great weakness in people, me included. The same of dog or whale. In the west we constantly screw up our noses at people who eat these species. Yet, we’ll quite happily play along with cultural relativism until it gets a little too uncomfortable.

    I’m a vegan for ethical reasons. I have taken food that has contained animal products for the reason of not wanting it to go to waste. I agree that it is flawed logic, because I wouldn’t do the same with meat–I couldn’t go that far. Thanks for allowing me to adjust my position.
    Paul – The Kind Little Blogger recently posted…Copenhagenize: The Parking Norm

  15. Tammi Jonas says:

    Hi Lau – first, thank you for taking time to contribute to what I think is a really important discussion, even if we respectfully disagree on some points. :-)

    I’ve already written at length on this over the past few years on my blog, and I’ve just made a comment on Erin’s post over on She Cooks, She Gardens, which may respond to some of your points. I’ll try to follow along as the discussion continues, but I fly in a couple hours to Oregon, so will be out of touch for a bit!
    Tammi Jonas recently posted…42: The Meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything

  16. […] Corridor Kitchen “The kindest thing you can do is eat it” […]

  17. […] This session moved very quickly from seasonal, into sustainability and ethical eating. It spurred quite a bit of conversation and controversy during the conference, as well as some posts after the fact. You can join the discussion over at VegeTARAian, She Cooks, She Gardens and Corridor Kitchen. […]

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