The barbarian within

Peter
Peter Jackson
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The menu offered foie gras as a pairing of two popular preparations: a cold parfait, and hot, glazed livers on a pastry shell.

I was dining with family at a high-end restaurant in the Hudson Valley north of New York City. It's the kind of place where food comes perfectly presented on big white plates, and serving staff dart quickly and quietly around you, catering to your every need.

The menu offered foie gras as a pairing of two popular preparations: a cold parfait, and hot, glazed livers on a pastry shell.

I was dining with family at a high-end restaurant in the Hudson Valley north of New York City. It's the kind of place where food comes perfectly presented on big white plates, and serving staff dart quickly and quietly around you, catering to your every need.

Alluding to the controversy surrounding foie gras ("fat liver" obtained by force-feeding ducks or geese), I asked our server if she would ever consider eating seal meat. She thought for a second before answering.

"Yes, I probably would," she said.

When you work in a fancy restaurant, she explained, you develop an adventurous palate.

At that point, I realized I had been foolishly naive to generalize about people's hypocrisy over animal cruelty. Not everyone abroad opposes the seal hunt, and those who do might not feel particularly militant about it.

The seal hunt, of course, is only cruel in the narrowest sense. Few people want to see an animal shot or bashed in the head. And few want to watch a duck getting a pipe rammed down its throat. Nor do we want to see pigs or chickens being corralled toward their inevitable demise.

It's an ugly sight.

But eating meat is like that. It's "nature, red in tooth and claw," whether it's in the wilderness or in a barn. Most of us have simply become alienated from the reality.

There is some debate, in fact, about how cruel the foie gras process is. The ducks don't gag because their windpipe openings are further up in their beaks, and the feeding is over in seconds. Apart from feeling perpetually stuffed, the ducks are hardly worse off than any other farmed animal.

True, maintaining some standards of mercy is important. No one wants animals to suffer needlessly. In that sense, overfeeding a duck or goose just to fatten up its liver may be a little uncalled for. As such, demand for foie gras is hardly on the rise.

But animal-rights groups usually have an agenda that goes beyond maintaining standards. In many cases, its their own religious brand of vegetarianism that they're ramming down our throats. Instead of corn, however, we are being force-fed a morality based on hysteria and misconceptions.

In his book "Kitchen Confidential," chef Anthony Bourdain takes a dim view of such animal worshippers.

"Vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit, and an affront to all I stand for."

Vegetarians aren't really that bad. What Bourdain dislikes about the more radical proponents is their lack of respect for other cultures and cuisines, very few of which are bereft of meat.

Vegetarianism is, after all, a lifestyle choice. As such, it should not be preached or imposed on others. Humans are naturally equipped to be omnivores. You eat your tofu. I'll have the rack of lamb. Everyone's happy.

I ordered the foie gras, by the way, to the chagrin of my dinner companions. It was quite buttery and delicious, but I'm not sure if I'll have it again.

The next day, the New York Times ran a story by Micheline Maynard on how chefs in Quebec are experimenting with seal meat. Maynard included a token quote from Rebecca Aldworth, self-appointed Holy Saviour of Seals Everywhere, but the bulk of the story focused on cuisine.

It turns out some Quebec chefs have made seal a regular feature on their menus, and tourists are even starting to bite.

"The French are against seal hunting," noted chef AndrÉe Garcia, "but when they come here, they want to eat it."

Who knew the simple act of eating a meal could be so fraught with moral dilemma?

Peter Jackson is the editorial page editor of The Telegram. He can be contacted by e-mail at pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: New York Times, The Telegram

Geographic location: Hudson Valley, New York City, Quebec

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  • Ozge
    July 02, 2010 - 13:25

    Man is the only animal that can remain on friendly terms with the victims he intends to eat until he eats them.

    ~Samuel Butler

    I totally agree with your alienation point. A child at the age of five comprehends that what is presented with chips and ketchup is actually the lamb he draws as happily out in green pastures. During their socialization into meat-eaters people develop ways to defend their diet against vegetarians.

    And most meat eaters ignore that the animals are not the ultimate other of the Carthesian dichotomy; it is a matter of degree.

    http://ecofuture.net/osquee/2009/07/01/animals-as-moral-agents/

  • My3Cents
    July 02, 2010 - 13:15

    I recently had rabbit at a high end buffet restaurant in Quebec City. It was quite popular too, much to my surprise. I also seen horse fondue meat at the supermarket. So why not seal?

  • Ozge
    July 01, 2010 - 20:11

    Man is the only animal that can remain on friendly terms with the victims he intends to eat until he eats them.

    ~Samuel Butler

    I totally agree with your alienation point. A child at the age of five comprehends that what is presented with chips and ketchup is actually the lamb he draws as happily out in green pastures. During their socialization into meat-eaters people develop ways to defend their diet against vegetarians.

    And most meat eaters ignore that the animals are not the ultimate other of the Carthesian dichotomy; it is a matter of degree.

    http://ecofuture.net/osquee/2009/07/01/animals-as-moral-agents/

  • My3Cents
    July 01, 2010 - 19:54

    I recently had rabbit at a high end buffet restaurant in Quebec City. It was quite popular too, much to my surprise. I also seen horse fondue meat at the supermarket. So why not seal?