It's Day 4 of my resolution to not eat cheap chicken and ... my honor is questionable. Last night, I had dinner at a Japanese noodle shop and had a great bowl of ramen, sniffling-hot with chile oil, lounging in a bowl of meaty, satisfying pork broth. And yet, as I walked out, I peeked into the vat of soup bubbling away, and saw a wing. A chicken wing. It never occurred to me to ask if there was bird involved at all, let alone the kind of sustainable, humanely raised bird I've promised myself I'd only be eating. Oy.
Maybe I could let myself off the hook by saying something about how the culture of ramen in Japan -- fresh noodles in from-scratch broths, not the pre-hangover treat -- is one of the great Japanese culinary traditions, an object of Everyman devotion that's inspired at least one classic movie and is just now making its way to my town in a serious way. And while all that would be technically true, the fact is that I wasn't mindful and vigilant of what I was eating, which is really what this whole challenge is about: learning to value my food more.
And, of course, talking about our choices and why we make them is important too. When Salon published my resolution a few days ago, I marveled at the intelligence, sensitivity, sense and, yes, intensity of many of the conversations in the comments, and wanted to share some thought-provoking highlights with you.
What about the people who can't afford the sustainable stuff?
What is troubling is this "let 'em eat cake" attitude -- that everyone can eat like a wealthy yuppie in Park Slope or Berkeley, that everyone is a singleton or a couple (but not having to deal with children, teens or elderly family), that EVERYONE must have the same "foodie" ideals of perfection -- organic, heirloom, regional, locavore, sustainable, ethical -- when for most people, food is just food and they don't want to turn it into a religion.
Food prices have already doubled or tripled for most people in most parts of the country, while wages have stayed flat or fallen -- buying food now takes a bigger part of most people's income than it did 10 or 15 years ago. Yet Salon (and Mr. Lam) remain clueless and tone-deaf, choosing instead to hector people to eat MORE expensive, more trendy and more exclusive foods -- to prove they are "correct thinking" and that they belong in this "exclusive club."
Hint: Not everyone is a childless, white, vegan, atheist freelance writer living in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
In the middle of the worst jobless slump since Reaganomics was first forced on us, I'm thinking a lot of people will find it awfully hard to avoid "cheap chicken." Or indeed cheap anything. Just saying.
-- Douglas Moran
But maybe you can both buy more expensive chicken and be more economical about it:
My income is below median and I'm feeding a teenaged boy. We eat free-range, cage-free and/or organic, depending on what's available.
Cut meat consumption in half, and the better stuff becomes a lateral move, if not savings. How do you get a teenaged boy to eat beans and whole grains? Serve him chili. Navy bean soup goes over well, too, as do curries. Tonight's main dish, a few chicken legs cooked with brown rice, Adzuki beans and some Asian-ish spicing, went over great. A lot of this stuff heats up well, so he can eat it the next day for lunch or a snack.
Factory meat isn't high-quality protein. It's the meat equivalent of refined carbs. You just don't get nutritious results from low-quality feed, inadequate exercise and disease-breeding living conditions.
Which brings me to another reason why this worked. Good meat has a stronger flavor. Even if I use half the ground beef in a chili recipe, I can still taste it in every bite. If you start with a recipe that relies on meat mostly for flavor, you can get away with using a lot less if you go pastured.
Cutting back on meat doesn't have to mean radical alterations in diet. Mostly it means giving some classics, like red beans and rice, pride of place on the dinner plate.
One properly raised chicken meal may cost $20, so, next day have beans. Humans at no time were entitled to meat, chicken or fish every day. Cherish the chicken.
Which is more effective, boycotting or buying in?
The fact is that opting out does not spur change. Opting in to the practices you approve of, at a fair price, does.
I rarely eat meat still, but when I do, I happily pay $24 for a chicken and appreciate what it took to get it to our plates.
Balancing your choices with the generosity of others
Visiting [my family] definitely raises cultural and class issues regarding food. In my family, food (no matter the origin) is never wasted and must always be appreciated. My mother occasionally sends me (via USPS), from Los Angeles to Los Alamos, New Mexico, containers of chicken adobo. I know she's not paying for the organic, free-range stuff. She scours Los Angeles' Asian neighborhood stores for chicken cheaper than 49 cents/lb. I do the mental gymnastics of rationalization: The factory chicken is dead. My mother has lovingly triple-wrapped the plastic container in foil, Ziploc, and grocery plastic bag; stuffed it in a box with styrofoam popcorn; then spent more than the cost of chicken on mailing the package. The postal worker has trudged through snow to make her delivery. So, I cook a pot of rice after a long day at work and eat. I enjoy and am repelled at the same time.
-- e-mailed from reader Luce
If we're concerned about meat eating's ethical impact, should we consider how many individual animals we eat per meal? And which farmed animals have more or less environmental impact?
As a carnivore who is nonetheless compelled by concerns about animal suffering, I wind up performing all kinds of odd calculations about the food I eat. I'm convinced that factory-farmed chickens suffer a uniquely horrible fate -- my response to that is peculiar: In restaurants I generally eat pork instead.
This is based on two pieces of half-baked justification, and one solid one: A friend who worked in the field of farm-animal health convinced me that the feedlot pigs she worked with seemed consistently "happy and healthy." And, if I make a cruel calculation of deaths per meal, it's clear that I would be killing dozens of chickens in exchange for the one biannual pig that makes up my bacon-heavy diet.
Environmentally speaking, pork has a bad rap since it's generally lumped in with other "red meats." I've done the math, and my meat-heavy diet that trades pork for both beef and chicken winds up having a very small footprint compared to the average burger-heavy diet. I've got data: http://bogott.net/unspecified/2009/09/13/meaty/ [Editor's note: We haven't verified this data.]
On the conflict between only buying sustainable, humane chicken and supporting working-class restaurants and cuisines
As for prepared chicken, at least I stick with local vendors. I worry less about where the taqueria cart got its meat and more about supporting the local economy.
Remember the key word: Local. Stay away from mass-market, and you are ahead.
And don't forget a little activism. Costco, for example, is touting the healthy raising of the chickens in at least some of its products. Low-cost and environmentally better, thanks to input from its members.
I wouldn't count Charles' fried chicken in my list of what "cheap" chicken means. Grow your own sustainably if you can, buy from a farmer who's not afraid to show you how she does things where raising animals for food is concerned. But remember that the fried chicken being made by someone who is cooking food he's learned how to cook via tradition has to be sustained, too. We have so little valid, true food culture here in North America that losing any of it means we lose it to fast food.
Even if he uses the same stuff sold in every supermarket in the world, make sure you keep that fried chicken master employed and busy.
And finally, the best suggestion yet on how to deal with the times I go ahead and eat that chicken from a taco cart:
On cheap chicken ... you could vow to donate $20 to a sustainable chicken farm/cause every time you cheat ...
-- Tweet from reader Macheesmo