Sun Ra - Column for 9/2

Moral Meat

When was the last time you very deliberately changed your habits?

Most people have. Usually they do in response to some socially indicated time of change, such as Lent or New Year's. The time comes when you can get the moral weight of the change bandwagon behind you, so you quit smoking or you diet or you exercise. I imagine those are the top three. You give up chocolate or thong underwear or cranberry kamikazes. You start doing something that you should do, generally for your health, but that you just haven't, yet, somehow.

However, putting aside those times when you are led by the calendar to consider change, and putting aside changes that will benefit you, when was the last time you carefully considered a particular issue and as a result, thereafter changed the way you led your life? I don't mean necessarily joining the Peace Corps, just some little thing that was different than the way you behaved before. Something that you did because, intellectually or morally, you felt that you needed to address something. To deal with a certain issue in an active, personal way.

Literary structure to the contrary, I don't mean to imply that you haven't done this. I imagine many of you have. But something that one doesn't run into all that often. (At least, outside of Santa Cruz, or Berkeley, or their zany leftist D.C. equivalent, Takoma Park.) Some people are more likely to adopt moral stances that involve personal lifestyle changes than others; I have an aunt who, among several other unrelated decisions, will not watch movies that star Matthew Broderick. At some point, he hit a woman with a car, and afterwards avoided responsibility for her death - I confess I am fuzzy on the particulars at this moment. But my aunt decided, because of that incident, not to support him by seeing any of his movies. It's just a little alteration of her habits. It's not a daily thing, like avoiding chocolate, but it comes up every now and then. But she isn't behaving this way because it's good for her, she's doing it because she thought about the entire situation and decided that this was how she should behave, it being what it was and she being who she was. And I salute her for it.

Naturally, this topic arises because I have recently changed my habits. In fact, not just mine, but my wife's as well. And it's actually rather an odd story.

During the relaxing portion of our honeymoon, I read the book Fast Food Nation. Perhaps the most immediate and obvious comparison I can make as regards this book is with Upton Sinclair's famous The Jungle, about the turn of the century American meat packing industry. In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser attempts to relate how the rise and predominance of the fast food industry has shaped, and continues to shape, our nation. The social, political, biological, environmental, lexicographical, and even geographical consequences of the development of the fast-food industry are immense. I very highly recommend the book, particularly as an eye-opener for those who don't believe that corporate power governs a huge percentage of everyone's daily life - even on weekends.

However, good as the book is, this column is not a book review. Among the topics covered in some detail in Fast Food Nation is the transformation of the meat packing industry which took place in the last few decades; a transformation that was horrendously negative in almost every aspect save for making meat as cheap as possible. The sanitary conditions, environmental ramifications, and most particularly the effects on the workers in the industry have been nothing short of cataclysmic. And yes, the changes have basically been driven by greed.

Without summarizing the book, let me observe simply that when I finished I was aghast enough to decide to change my behavior. No, I didn't swear off fast food. To be honest, the inconvenience which that would pose is simply too much for my feeble attempts at moral rectitude. (Although I will observe that since reading the book I have eaten at precisely two fast-food restaurants, a KFC and a Quizno's. Which means essentially two fast food meals in a month, wheras on average before that I indulged in perhaps a dozen or more. So the times, they may be a'changin, after all.)

But what I did decide to change was my meat purchasing. We eat at home five of seven nights, and I cook the majority of those times (although not by a whole lot). So, sickened by the sanitary practices (or rather, the assaults thereon) of the large meat packers, I decided to no longer purchase my meat at our local Giant supermarket, but rather at a smaller local butcher, who would at the very least be purchasing their own whole carcasses and doing the butchering themselves, rather than buying pre-cut pieces parts and ground meat from such arch-fiend meat packing companies as IBP.

It actually wasn't that easy to do. There aren't all that many actual butcher shops left, the majority having disappeared as the supermarket meat counters edged them out. After some searching, we discovered that the town of Laurel, perhaps twenty minutes away, still has a meat market (in the old downtown section, naturally), and it seems to be closest, so that's where we go. It is certainly less convenient - rather than just buying our meat at Giant (where we get our packaged goods), we spend another forty-five minutes driving out to Laurel, buying our meat, and driving back. I haven't noticed it being more expensive. And, since we purchase our vegetables at the farmer's market, it wasn't a violent transition away from one-stop shopping for groceries. But it's definitely different.

But I do feel better. (I only hope that, when I finally ask them where they buy their carcasses from, they don't tell me "IBP".) And, oddly enough, a side benefit is that the meat tastes better. A lot better. I have used ground beef from the Laurel Meat Market in the exact same recipe as beef from Giant, and the goulash with the Giant beef was a pale shadow of the goulash with the Laurel Meat Market beef. It was certainly edible, but it wasn't good. The Laurel Meat Market based goulash made bells ring in heaven. The selection is also superior, and some of the cuts we've had on the grill... divine. So that's certainly a plus. But it is a side benefit, nonetheless.

My wife has gone along with this, bless her soul. I'm not sure if I sold her on the moral argument, or if she's just indulging me. Probably both. But when the next big E. Coli beef scare comes along and fifty people die, we won't be worried about our burgers. Nor is our kitchen sink less sanitary than our toilet bowl, the way it is in most American homes because one in five beef carcasses at a major packing house is processed still covered in its own shit. Yeah, direct to your table, friend.

And, more importantly, whatever time and money extra I'm paying to get better food is also employing skilled, professional workers who can thereby afford to feed their own families, rather than squeezing into the pockets of oligopolists employing non-unionized minimum-wage twenty-first century slaves, most of whom don't speak English, and who will be painfully crippled by the age of fifty due to the hazards they are forced to work with.

Don't buy packing plant meat.

Yeah, I have an MBA. With honors. Why do you ask?

- Sun Ra

P.S. You know what I'd like? A food mall. Like a supermarket, only the butcher, the baker, the vegetable sellers and the fishmongers etc. etc. are all independent vendors. So you could buy your groceries in one place, from people who knew (and cared about) what they were doing rather than a single entity trying to squeeze every last grocery buck into their pocket and no one else's. In Europe, they don't think enough of consumer convenience. In America, we don't think enough of the intangible benefits we get buying from the actual producers.

P.P.S. Doesn't that sound great? You'd get whatever kind of bread you wanted, you could ask about the meat, get seasonal vegetables from local farmers or exotics from food importers... yeah, it's a pipe dream. Freaking American Corpitalism.

P.P.P.S. You may have anticipated some sort of PETA-like pitch from the title of this column. No dice. Animals are food. Sorry, that's the way it is. Nature is an incredibly harsh bitch, and although there's no call to unnecessarily harm animals, food animals are there to be slain and eaten. If they weren't, they'd be damn near extinct.

Columns by Sun Ra