Wednesday, February 4

A Crisis of Conscience, Part 1

Hello ladies and gents, here's the personal essay I wrote last weekend for tonight's nonfiction writing class. This will be my second workshop with a bunch of MFA students (you know, whose THING is creative writing). Last week's workshop session went well, so hopefully this week's will too. So here's your assignment: read this, then come back tomorrow for part two!
I have always maintained an intimate relationship with vittles. Growing up, my family would tease me because I regularly withdrew from dinnertime conversation to instead undertake a thorough inspection of my food. To this day, every bite that passes from fork to mouth must be scrupulously assessed for both quality (Is this portion of steak overcooked? Is that a celery string or a hair?) and perfection of ratio (one piece of potato : one piece of carrot : a light glaze of gravy). Oh, I also ferret out the weird bits. A stray piece of gristle or a rubbery strand of fat inevitably triggers my gag reflex, and thus endeth the meal.

My discriminating palate is an unlikely partner for my undiscriminating love of food in general. In regard to cuisine, “unsophisticated” means nothing to me if “tastes good” accompanies it. Case in point: I firmly believe that a greasy spoon called The Dill Pickle slings the best burgers in town, and it doesn’t hurt that the owner/cook is an intimidating old Greek whose attitude rivals that of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi.

There is a darker side to my reckless love of food, one that has led me to make a number of bad choices throughout life. As a kid I would sleep through breakfast on Sundays in order to be good and hungry for my family’s scriptural lunch at the Sizzler. As I teetered on the precipice of fainting, my little heart quivered in time with the jewel-colored Jell-O piled high on the buffet. During recent bad weather, most folks were stocking up on bread and milk; I was buying out Food Lion’s supply of Pillsbury cinnamon rolls with cream cheese frosting and real Cinnabon cinnamon.

But meat. The origin and constitution of meats have always been serious issues. In order to skirt ethically induced indigestion, I have created for myself a set of rules regarding animal protein—actually, just one rule: Don’t ask; don’t tell. Until recently I had successfully avoided rule-challenging texts, such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, in an effort not to repeat The Babe, the Gallant Pig Incident. The makers of that film caused a paradigm shift in my young mind and successfully turned a pig into a dog. Only symbolically, of course, but still. A dog! Honest to goodness, that movie inspired me to swear off pork for thirteen years. I have yet to be convinced that a chicken or a cow could display heroism, affection and charming self-effacement, so at least eating beef and poultry can’t be equated to eating the family pet.

But some higher power exploited a crack in my anti–Babe Incident vigilance a few months ago. Deep down I knew that reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma would be a mistake, but I picked it up in an irresponsible moment of unchecked liberalism (it was election season). I had successfully navigated Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and I got cocky. The difference between those two excellent books, I found, is that Kingsolver’s focuses on producing food the right way and Pollan’s…well, his book raises a lot of disturbing questions without offering an equal number of soothing answers. Now when I enter the grocery store I am haunted by angsty moos and shrill swine songs emanating from the general direction of the meat fridges.
To be continued... You're on the edge of your seat, aren't you?

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