Tuesday, May 14, 2013
The Ethical Butcher: How To Eat Responsibly
Berlin Reed stopped eating meat when he was 12 years old. By the time he was 21, he was a vegan and even got a tattoo of the word "vegan" on his neck. Several years later, he ended up working as a butcher. A vegan butcher? Yes, that is how he started but soon enough, he heard the siren call of meat, and was vegan no more.
You can read about Reed's journey in his new book, The Ethical Butcher: How Thoughtful Eating Can Change Your World (Soft Skull Press, April 2013, $26). This is a hardcover book of 290 pages, divided into two main parts and with 12 pages of photos dividing the two parts. The first part is more biographical, describing Berlin's journey into becoming a butcher and meat eater. The second part provides information for consumers to take control of their own food decisions. Berlin describes himself as a former militant vegan punk, and there is a bit of edge to his words, though he offers a balanced approach in most respects.
"I have zero interest in telling people what and how to eat. I have astronomical interest in showing people where their food comes from, explaining government and corporate manipulation of information, and in making the 'sustainability' conversation more accessible and relevant to people of all backgrounds." (p.xxi)
Berlin's vegetarianism was of more political origin, as in 1994 in Seattle, "..everyone who was counterculture was vegetarian." He never felt that meat consumption was wrong for everyone. In 2006, he moved to New York City and got a job working in a wine store. That led to the revelation that he wanted to work in the food industry, though not in the wine industry. He eventually got a job at The Green Grape Provisions, ending up at the butcher and fish counter rather than as a cheesemonger as he had desired. His mentor in butchery, Bryan Mayer, became very important in his life.
"Meat is not meant to be eaten several times a day, every day. It is meant to be a hard-won prize." (p.52)
Though he learned much about butchering meat, the techniques and anatomy, he still knew little about how the meat actually tasted, making it more difficult to give recommendations to customers. He became contemplative, reconsidering his reasons for veganism, why he had opposed meat. The more he learned where his food came, he started to realize that his opposition was more with the corporate meat industry, and not meat itself. He started eating meat again and also saw a need to share his revelations with others, thus starting the The Ethical Butcher blog.
"I started the blog with the goal of helping people understand their choices when it comes to buying and eating meat." (p.40)
Along with the blog, Berlin created three different projects, to help educate and feed people. These projects, essentially a community chef model, included Heritage Breed Supper Club, the Bacon Gospel, and the Farm & Table Project. Berlin describes these projects as well as providing the five main tenets under which he operates, from seeking out the most responsibly produced sources available to supporting fair labor and environmental practices.
"Love of food must be at the root of food justice and food politics. To change the food world, one must be of the food world." (p.90)
During the course of these project passages, there are some detailed descriptions of butchery which could bother the squeamish, though those are probably the people who would most benefit from these sections. One of the things Berlin complains about is the disconnect of many people to the source of their food. Not enough people visit farms and sees animals being raised. The closer you get to the source of your food, the better you will appreciate it.
"The following chapters ask you to delve deep into your own experiences and define yourself in this discussion. They will help you understand your food choices, the impact they make, and how to create a shopping list you can feel good about--and help you learn to argue down any food fascist who tries to make you feel bad about it." (p.164)
The second part of this book is more philosophical as well as practical. Berlin is against absolutism, especially vegans who wish to dictate how everyone should eat. He provides a number of arguments against these types of vegans, pointing out that meat is not necessarily the enemy of the food system. It is a far more complicated issue, and the corporate industry is the greatest villain in this matter. Berlin provides a balanced and reasonable explanation of these issues, and his arguments are persuasive.
"Let's face it, people go for fake meat and meatless versions of traditional meat dishes because meat is GOOD. It just is." (p.176)
Besides meat, Berlin also spends some time discussing seafood sustainability, noting its complexity as well as the severity of the dangers many species face. His warnings are strongest against the consumption of shrimp and salmon. "We MUST stop eating shrimp and salmon." (p.193). I disagree with his choice of these two species, as I feel there are other species that need far more protection, such as bluefin tuna. There is sustainable shrimp and salmon, and consumers should select those choices, rather than avoid all such shrimp and salmon. It would be good for consumers to also eat different species, those not as popular, but I would much rather they avoid bluefin than salmon.
"...keep in mind that it is up to you to decide what eating responsibly means." (p.202)
Though he doesn't really want to tell people how to eat, he provides a series of five suggestions, an almost "How To Eat Meat" guide. These suggestions are well worth considering in your own life, with the caveat that it is ultimately up to you what you do.
1. Eat a plant-based diet with minimal to no animal products. Learn best how much meat your body will tolerate, for your health.
2. Seek the smallest impact on the environment and push for positive changes in the industry.
3. Be interested in staying connected to sources of both animal and plant based foods.
4. Respects all life and is not arbitrary or wasteful in consumption of animal products. That includes eating offal and the meat of different animals.
5. Stay educated and be more concerned with verifiable standards than labels.
"Making the best food choices you can is all it takes to be a responsible eater. No one diet or eating style fits everyone in all situations in all regions." (p.210)
After those personal suggestions, Berlin describes the larger problems of the corporate food industry, from GMO food to USDA labeling. It is important to understand these matters, as they are areas which truly need change. This is an informative section, explaining food labels and praising heritage breeds.
"It is not about agreeing on a method of action. It is about being engaged with the search for solutions. There are so many little steps that will help you escape the current. It doesn't matter which ones you take. It only matters that you keep moving." (p.278)
The Ethical Butcher is a fascinating book that well handles complex issues and avoids being preachy or dogmatic. It is also an easy read, that will not overwhelm the reader with overly technical details yet it still finds a way to reference the important aspects of these debates. If you are concerned about the food you eat, then I strongly recommend this book. If you are not concerned, read this book anyways and you might become concerned.
*I received a review copy of this book.