Filed under: Food
Living about a kilometer from a row of dog meat restaurants, I take Jonathan Safran Foer’s point that if we’re not going to eat dog, we probably shouldn’t eat anything else that has feelings. But I also believe that one’s arguments are formed in an implicit dialogue with one’s audience, and Foer is clearly speaking exclusively to a Euro-American and South Asian audience when he makes this point. There’s just no way this argument is gonna fly in East Asia or Africa. The philosophical underpinnings needed for the argument don’t exist here; they’re not present in people’s brains. I think we need to start out with the “humane practices” argument, first in the developed world — stop torturing pigs in our own slaughterhouses, etc. Then we can start making the case to East Asian farmers that you shouldn’t stuff 12 dogs into a wire cage, put it on the back of a motorbike and drive down to the market to sell them off, with the wires slamming into their paws and chests at every pothole; that you shouldn’t tie two ducks together by their feet and drape them over the handle of your motorbike, then drive along as they flap to try to keep their heads out of the spokes of the wheel; that you shouldn’t splay a pig upside-down, feet trussed, across the metal carrying rack of your motorbike; and so on. (In some places you may also need to make a similar case regarding treatment of humans. And the most effective grounds on which to make these arguments, in many places, may be religious.)
I was scanning this interview with an interesting guy,Qi Hanting, who founded the “Anti-CNN” website in China back during the Olympic Torch protests in March, and here’s how he describes his current political involvement:
I care about facts and further care about some fundamental problems such as energy and food.
Refreshingly, the issues people in East Asia care about these days aren’t so far removed from those people in the US care about. The food issue in particular — I keep telling people what a huge opportunity food safety represents for international action and US public diplomacy. But they won’t listen!
A lot of progressives and healthier-food supporters have come out against South LA’s new zoning regulations excluding new fast food outlets on the grounds that requiring restaurants to label their food with calorie counts would be more likely to bring healthier food. (See Ezra Klein here.) I think this is a deeply misguided form of naive development thinking that health NGOs have spent the last 20 years moving away from.
Here’s the deal: NGOs used to call the materials and programs they produced to convince people to live healthier lives “Information, Education, and Communication”, or IEC for short. Beginning in the late 1990s, that all changed. Now they call it “Behavior Change Communication,” or BCC. Why? Because over the ’90s, a clear scientific consensus developed that having more information about your health had very little to do with changing your behavior regarding your health. The most important influence was the campaign against HIV. Preventing HIV is the easiest thing in the world: wear a condom when you have sex, and you’re safe. Period. And it was incredibly easy to communicate this fact. By the mid-1990s, there were African countries in which 98% of the population knew that AIDS was transmitted via sex and that if you wore a condom, you wouldn’t get it. But they didn’t wear condoms. They knew the disease would kill them, they knew how to avoid it, but they didn’t do the thing they had to do to protect themselves.
Similarly, heroin users possess lots of information about the negative consequences of their habits, none of which has much influence on their behavior. And most similarly, every smoker in America knew by the early 1980s that smoking caused lung cancer. It was right there on the pack. But that information wasn’t what cause smoking rates to decline. Smoking rates plummeted in the United States because of the secondhand smoke issue, which led first airlines, then workplaces, and finally municipalities to pass ordinances banning public smoking. Legislative action stigmatized smoking and has by now almost vanquished it as a public health issue.
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as secondhand grease. The negative externalities of fast food are harder to visualize and threaten to run up against individual rights and economic freedoms. But I think it’s incredibly naive to think that putting calorie information on a McDLT is going to lead teenagers to order something healthier or patronize another establishment. They say you can’t legislate morality. The history of the US in the 20th century shows this to be false. I don’t know whether zoning against fast food restaurants will prove to be an effective way of legislating morality, but I am pretty sure that putting calorie information on fast food will accomplish very little. Soft drinks and breakfast cereals have had calorie info on the side since I was a kid; how much good has that done us?
My friend and natural-born journalist Kay Johnson is in town for a few days and this provided an excuse for the whole former DPA/Time gang which Kay headed up when she was based in Hanoi to go out for some fine bun cha for lunch. Bun cha is probably the world’s finest and freshest pork meatball dish. Here’s a video shot by a tourist at the seminal Hanoi bun cha restaurant, Bun Cha Hanh Manh:
Basically, you get a bowl of pepper-spiced grilled ground-pork patties and sliced bacon in a broth flavored with vinegar and fish sauce. You add thin rice noodles (bun), and sliced chili and garlic to taste. You put a bunch of fresh herbs and greens on top; generally you’ve got a heaping plate of basil, lettuce, and a series of Vietnamese herbs that don’t have names in English (one is a fuzzy purple lemony leaf, one is a twisted green coil like a baby vine pulled off a twig, and so forth). You take a pork patty with some bun and fresh greens between your chopsticks and pop it in your mouth. It’s delicious. Bun Cha Hanh Manh is particularly spectacular and was written up in ecstatic terms in a culinary piece on Vietnam by the NY Times’s R.W. Apple shortly before his death.
Now, however, every time I eat bun cha, I’m thinking about carbon footprints. A bowl of bun cha is an extremely concentrated dose of meat. Afterwards, you feel a mild drowsy buzzing sensation for up to two hours as your guts try to work through all that pork. And that kind of heavy meat dish is starting to have very negative connotations for me — fatness, sweating (particularly in Vietnam’s 35-degree heat and relentless humidity), and pointless environmental waste. The last few times I’ve eaten bun cha, I’ve actually felt the taste weighing more heavily on my tongue. It no longer seems like a fresh, exotic treat; it seems like an exercise in accelerating climate change, and instead of falling into the category “charming Vietnamese tradition,” it’s starting to fall with swarms of motorbikes, SUVs, and ugly billion-dollar resort complexes into the category “misguided visions of prosperity which Vietnam aspires to as part of modernity but which are actually destroying the country”.
So I’m wondering: is my superego actually penetrating my tastebuds and souring them with guilt? What is the neural pathway here? And if I cut back to sustainable bun cha consumption — say, once every three weeks — will the taste come back in all its former glory?