In their Mixed Media section of the November-December 2010 issue of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery interviewed Anthony Bourdain in an article entitled, The Omnivore’s Agenda. Mr. Bourdain is seen in a photo holding a chicken by the side of his face, eyes closed as if in rapture — probably imagining some future meal that the bird might become. Bourdain is known for his book Kitchen Confidential and his Travel Channel foodie show, No Reservations. In the interview, he makes no apology for fetishizing food but does take issue with chef Alice Waters, reporting that when recently asked what her death-row final meal would be, Ms. Waters replied Shark Fin Soup — hardly an ethical or sustainable choice. Ms. Waters, a chef at a Berkeley, California restaurant known for promoting locavorism, has since suffered chagrin and has pledged to never eat the stuff again. Shark Fin Soup is one of the cruelest meals possible, wherein an entire shark is hoisted onto a fishing vessel, their dorsal/pectoral fin is excised, and they are tossed back into the drink to die a slow and torturous death, slowly sinking to the bottom of the ocean, unable to swim. It has been estimated that over 90% of the world’s sharks have been depleted, in part due to the popularity of this dish, with millions of sharks callously killed every year.
Bourdain Attacks Vegetarians
After learning of this disheartening bit of news, the interviewer, Ms. Jeffery, asks Bourdain the following;
MJ: It seems like your unhappiness with vegetarians comes from a few different beliefs: that you kind of fear the nanny-state concept; that it’s often a luxury of the affluent; that they prioritize animal rights over human misery..
AB: Yeah, or human joy, for that matter.
MJ: …And that they either try to force their views on others or rend the social fabric when they refuse the hospitality of carnivores.
Bourdain then goes on to extoll the virtues of vegetarians who “put aside those principles” when they travel. (He should just love Jane Goodall, then.*) Mind you, we are not even talking about vegans, just vegetarians. He then speculates the problem with avoiding meat:
AB: It’s inconceivable why anyone would want to not experience as many colors in the spectrum as possible with our limited time on Earth.
Experiencing the Full Spectrum
This brought to mind an incident from my earlier days, when I was traveling across Baja California and then down through Mainland Mexico along with three Hispanic friends. These friends has assured me that people would throw rotten tomatoes at me, with my long sun-bleached blond curly hair and my blue eyes. The truth was much, much brighter – I was a curiosity and was treated hospitably by all those I encountered. While riding on a bus, a little girl pulled at her mother’s arm and pointed to me — I was different and worth noting. At one point in our travels, we met some people from a small rural fishing village who invited us to spend a few days. When we arrived in the village, many children came out and touched my hair – with the humidity, it was floating and quite full. With our friends was a full sized untrimmed poodle, and they found both of us to be enormously intriguing and worthy of much laughter, asking if the dog was a lamb. It also happened that a wedding was going to take place the following day and we were to be honored guests.
The wedding was amazing. Fortunately, we had a polaroid type camera with us (this was pre-digital), and one of the men took photos of the bride and presented them to the proud papa. It was unforgettable that these kind people, who had only occasional electricity from a generator and dirt-floor homes, could prepare wonderful food such as fresh fruit and home made tortillas, as well as elaborate hair styles for the wedding. When the photos were presented, the father grew teary-eyed and accepted with thanksgiving. Everyone thought it quite funny that my Hispanic friend had to ask me to speak for him as I knew more Spanish than he did. When it came time for the wedding feast, I was told at the last minute that the people had butchered a pig, something very rare for them, and they were going to share with us — a gesture of great generosity. Today as a vegan I might have handled it differently, but I turned to my then boyfriend and asked for help. There was no way I was going to touch that poor dead animal even if they ran me out of the village, but I also wanted to accept their graciousness without offending.
Here is where I disagree with Bourdain – I feel like I did try all the colors of the spectrum while I was in Mexico. I ate fresh fruit and ripe avocados right off the carts in the town. I tried their soda and their tea — in fact it was Manzanilla tea that save me from the normal digestive problems that accompany many tourist visits, something prepared just for me in one of the lovely homes I visited. I tried the soft coconuts that had the texture of a peach. I danced with the children and played with their little Chihuahuas and only regretted I did not bring more things to give to them all. I chatted with the women as to the best way to prepare tortillas and made my own when I returned home. I was invited into many homes and we emptied out the van with our belongings to leave in that village. I will never forget the gracious spirit of those people, how they shared their stories of brief times spent in the US working, of their offers to give of their few belongings to us, or their willingness to listen to us with such rapt attention as if we were from another, more interesting place.
Bourdain is Wrong About Vegans
Here is where Bourdain has it wrong: most of the food I ate in Mexico was vegan; there was very little in the way of dairy products or animal products that was affordable to most of the people there — making his statement that vegetarianism is the bastion of the affluent ridiculous. Of course, I was not dining in expensive restaurants, but was off the beaten path. I spent one night in a coconut grove on the ocean, another on an abandoned beach. I was certainly not affluent, nor are most of the vegans I know. There are many friends I have had that are Hindu and eat no animal products for religious reasons. So much for anti-vegetarian point number one.
Next, Bourdain criticizes that vegetarians prioritize animal rights over human rights. He is dead wrong again. Many animal rights people are also simultaneously involved in other social justice causes. The claim that they do not care about human rights is usually a defense from someone who is not working on either. Vegans see the correlation between all forms of exploitation. Bourdain is focused on his own pleasure and rails when anyone suggests he might consider how his behavior impacts others. Of course, that is his choice.
Last, he agrees that vegetarians try to force their views on him or rend the social fabric when they refuse to eat dead animal bits. Force? The only force in this equation is what is being done to the animals — that is force. While I cannot speak for all vegans, most of those I know work very hard to educate the public about what is going on with animals and how our choices are impacting innocent others, the earth, health, the economy, wars, exploitation and other such issues. They believe in the inherent goodness of mankind to rise to the challenges that are presented to them. Perhaps someone disagreeing with Mr. Bourdain feels like force to him and threatens the life he finds so satisfying. Unfortunately, he remains totally free to roam the earth in search of an ever better way to prepare and enjoy eating dead flesh. As to rending the social fabric — it is not much of a fabric if it requires the dismemberment of an innocent animal. I came through my dilemma with my principles and my relationships in the village intact. Most of the time, taking such a stand gives people pause and causes at least momentary consideration for their eating choices. I wonder, really, what entire parts of the spectrum Mr. Bourdain is missing by insisting on only eating with omnivores and focusing on gustatory pleasures to the exclusion of relationships with other beings.
Clara Jeffery never became a journalist throughout the interview, never challenged these assumptions or tried to dig deeper to see why he held such beliefs. Mother Jones, a supposedly progressive publication, is not very progressive when it comes to veganism or animal rights. (See my prior article, Progressive Disappointments.) Bourdain even goes so far as to defend foie gras, to which point Ms. Jeffery states, “Watch his segment on it and you might change your mind.” Hardly, Ms. Jeffery – it is exploitation of scores of animals for the palates of a few very spoiled individuals. In the end, the animals are killed for another being’s momentary pleasure.
Mother Jones (Clara Jeffery) and Anothony Bourdain seem to be totally unaware of the immense suffering and death that goes into pleasing their palates. For adults of this stature to be so self-absorbed is nothing less than disturbing. While we have come to expect a lack of journalistic integrity these days, it is always alarming to see a publication that calls itself “smart and fearless” become so mainstream and passive. One might expect a professional foodie to be hedonistic and self-absorbed; one expects better from someone who calls herself a journalist. As to Bourdain’s suggestion that we “put aside those principles” when we travel, I would say he lacks even the most fundamental understanding of what being principled means. A life versus a social engagement? No contest. I would choose dancing with those children and Chihuahuas over any meal.
*Jane Goodall article which relates she is not vegan when traveling