The Taste of a Place

Here's the bad thing about being a vegetarian: if you don't consume animal products, you miss out on some of the experience of "place." If you are in Alaska and won't eat the salmon, you miss out on a certain amount of Alaska-ness. In fact, I think seafood is the hardest type of meat to give up, because there are so many varieties, and they are so powerfully evocative. Lobster takes you back to Bar Harbor, Maine. Raw oysters make you feel like you're out in the middle of the ocean. Eating a hamburger takes you exactly nowhere, but eating things from the sea can take you to the sea. (Well, a hotdog will take you to a ballpark--but a tofu dog smothered in onions and mustard works pretty well.)

When I'm in Hawaii this summer, there's going to be all sorts of seafood to resist. Of course, all kinds of food evokes place. We will be staying at an organic vegetable and fruit farm on Kauai for a couple of days, a place that brags about growing pinapple and banana trees, avocados, kale, seven kinds of lettuce, etc. etc. But the more taste, the more place. I still remember a salmon plus lychee concoction I had in Kauai 15 years ago, back when I first gave up meat, but hadn't started worrying about fish yet. Now I'm worried. In fact, I'm particularly worried about salmon.

Wait, is salmon actually local to Hawaii? Hmm.

I wish animal authors wouldn't trivialize taste issues so much. They make themselves look like puritans, or like they suffer from some sensory deprivation syndrome. Of course there's something significant lost if you give up whole categories of food, and of course you can't fabricate perfect duplicates out of soy products. I like a veggie burger now and again, but what a veggie burger evokes is a food laboratory. Alaskan salmon really grabs you and takes you somewhere.

Of course, if the seafood experience is really great, there's still the question of costs. If very bad things have to happen to salmon for me to get that food high, then I might have to give it up. But why pretend there's nothing to be given up? It's not "mere taste" that's at stake, but taste in a big sense--the taste of a place.


Tom said...


This might be too big a question to ask here, but why do you not eat, say, oysters and shrimp?


Jean Kazez said...

Actually, I do eat seafood (not a good term, really), but less and less often. I've read things that make me worry, plus my daughter makes me feel guilty about it.

I think oysters and all other bivalves are OK. No real brain there, no reason to stop.

Shrimp and other crustaceans are are more worrisome. Lobsters have pretty sophisticated lives. I don't know that much about shrimp, but they look much more impressive alive than dead (duh). We saw live shrimp in an aquarium in Alaska, and were highly disconcerted. Another problem about shrimp is that there's a huge amount of bycatch involved in catching them, because of their small size. So eating shrimp actually requires killing a lot of other creatures.

Tom said...

Fair enough. These matters are all terribly complicated. And I grant that my perspective is that of a guilt-ridden omnivore. I wonder, though, if outside of those folks who grow their own food (and I take it that with the current population of the earth, this is not a universalizable goal), all of us end up being compromised. Even a vegan will likely end up eating food grown on land that was once a habitat for wildlife but is now free of anything but plants and bugs. Maybe eating shrimp that have cost the lives of a some other sea life is still a lesser evil than eating corn grown on a farm that once was a habitat for countless rodents, birds, etc.

I honestly don't mean to be a naysaying, rationalizing, pain-in-the-butt here. Maybe we should just all feel bad about what our continued existence costs the universe.

Jean Kazez said...

I'll go for that--yes, everyone ends up being compromised. I like what Michael Pollan says in the Omnivore's Dilemma about how everything has an ethical price-tag. You just want to choose things with a relatively low ethical cost. It might be true that eating shrimp is overall fairly low-cost, ethically speaking, compared to eating...well, tofu. About a year ago I attempted to create a vegetable garden because Pollan said I should. Turns out I'm a really bad gardener. So I'm definitely not going to food-ethics heaven.

Tom said...

It's at times like this that I'm grateful for being the kind of liberal Christian who stresses grace. So maybe there is hope for your entry to food-ethics heaven yet!

When you give a talk here next semester, I'll try to make sure we take you to the restaurant in town that does best in the ethics department. Do you want cheese with that burger?

Jean Kazez said...

The question about the cheese has left me speechless! I'll just say: I think it would be very good if I didn't want the cheese. I'm looking forward to visiting the ethical restaurant.