In this somewhat meat-centric issue of Edible SWC, I have been thinking about my uber-ethical foodie friend who refuses to eat so much as a cheese puff if it contains one thoughtless ingredient. It goes something like this: “Yes, can you tell me if the goat in the barbacoa is locally sourced?” “Please,” I always think, “please just order” – giving strong consideration to faking a sudden case of acute appendicitis. But it’s too late, the wheels are in motion. The slammed server is now checking with the buried chef. The chef is tossing a frying pan at said server. And with this, I have unwittingly become a stowaway on the ship of difficult diners.
My ethics are based on a combination of hunger, hope and a blindfold. For example, I always hope that my chicken once clucked and roamed and sang little mother chicken songs before gently passing away in her sleep only then to become my entree. Hope, being the operative, yet empty, word. My fallback position simply involves closing my eyes and eating what is on the menu. I want everybody to like me, including an anonymous server. Also, eating only what has been produced ethically leaves little in the way of options and heaven forbid I make a sacrifice when it comes to my taste buds. My friend, meanwhile, offers up zero tolerance. Not even for sour cream.
On the other side of Colorado, just over the Kansas border, the August air drapes like a steamy wool blanket. Towering steel silos sprout from vast fields like rockets waiting for countdown. Narrow rural roads are buffeted by perfect 300-acre corn-producing circles created by gargantuan self-navigating 12-tire tractors. The same perfect circles you see from 35,000 feet on the way to the beach.
In a Love’s Country Store in Bucklin, Kansas, I covertly try to read a label on a bottle of coconut water to determine whether it has added sugar (it does). For the uninitiated, Love’s specializes in gasoline, Gatorade and delicious-looking unethical chicken fingers. In rural Anywhere, it can be the local gathering place. In Bucklin, it apparently is the hot spot. If I were a farmer hanging at the Bucklin Love’s and I saw me, in flip flops, capris (mind you, the masculine kind) and a sleeveless T-shirt studying the label on a container of coconut water, I would strongly consider beating me up.
Kansas corn is primarily grown for livestock. Its second biggest market is ethanol. In 400-plus miles, I didn’t see a single sweet corn stand. When you consider that growing that kind of corn in Kansas is a $2.3 billion a year enterprise, and 98 percent of these farms are family owned according to the Kansas Corn Growers Association, “keep it local” tends to mean something entirely different in these parts.
Across US Route 56 and up to Topeka, feedlots the size of Ridgway saturate the clammy air with a pinching stench. Shiny early-model Kenworths lugging feces-stained rattling cattle haulers own the road. I see eyes through the silver slots. And I think, and feel, you poor souls – then I go to a restaurant that night and order a steak knowing full well its dismal source. In the rural Great Plains, free-range, grass-fed, organic anything is just not on the menu. But I was hungry and that is apparently all that mattered.
It’s then, sitting by myself at this semi-sports bar watching the same Royals game on all eight flat screens, eating this sad-eyed steak and a droopy iceberg salad, that I cherish my friend and her conviction. In an instant, she becomes admirable. She is a consumer on the front lines demanding, albeit gently, something different, and willing to sacrifice her own palate for her beliefs. In my case, at this particular restaurant, sticking to ethics would have meant settling for a glass of water. And maybe that is precisely what needs to happen because my lily-livered values are starting to wear on me.
So what do we do, we brethren suffering with the omnivore’s dilemma when the people mingling at the Love’s – truly America’s food growers – have no dilemma. In fact, their only quandary could be us and what they perceive as our label-reading self-righteousness. I can’t really blame them. We can bug me. People are influenced by other people but only if those people seem similar to them. So then, how to influence the unfimiliar? I guess you simply hold true to your values with a healthy helping of empathy. After all, what can you possibly say to the Great Plains farmer who still lives on their great-great-grandfather’s centuries-old homestead? The same family farmer who on the surface may seem entirely unfamiliar but at his or her core has the same needs as you? “Um … excuse me … but I think you have it all wrong”?
Word to the wise, if you choose to do this, don’t be wearing capris.