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Thursday, October 23, 2008

The care and feeding of an ethical omnivore

I'm sure a few of you out there are already reaching for the mouse in order to leave a scathing comment saying something like, "There is no such thing as an 'ethical' omnivore!".  Give me a second to try to explain before firing both barrels, mmkay?

A few days ago our 14-year-old daughter, Ariella, asked me if she could take a day trip with a friend to a farm not far from where we live.  The reason for the trip was to see a lamb being slaughtered, inspected for kosher certification... and then, roasted so those in attendance could enjoy a nice meal.

I have to admit I was conflicted.

On the one hand I have a big problem with the fact that most urban and suburban kids grow up these days almost entirely detached from the source of the food they eat.  Some kids simply can't imagine fruit hanging on trees, vegetables growing in the ground or meat/poultry that isn't tastefully displayed under cellophane.

I've taken Gilad along with me a few times when a friend of ours has needed help killing and cleaning a turkey... and that hasn't seemed to affect his enjoyment of poultry.  So a big part of me really wanted Ariella to go and see where one of her favorite foods (lamb chops) actually comes from.

But on the other hand, I have known many vegetarians over the years (including my wife, when we first met) and I didn't relish the idea of Ariella potentially being so disturbed by what she would see that she would swear off meat. 

I have nothing against vegetarians, mind you.  But in addition to the small logistical hassle of always having to have a non-meat option on hand for the veggie in your life (something we have done countless times with pleasure for friends and family), there are the very real health issues for a young adult when they are denied regular access to all the beneficial stuff one gets from eating protein 'on the hoof'.

In the end, I told Ariella she could go to the farm... but I have to admit I was holding my breath all afternoon.

When I saw her that evening, I asked (as casually as I could manage) how her trip to the farm had been, and was relieved to hear her immediately launch into a detailed and enthusiastic description of what she'd seen.

It turns out they'd gotten there just after the lamb had been slaughtered, but before it had been fully dismembered.  This may seem a small detail to some people reading this, but I think the fact that she never saw the thing actually walking around before it was killed was probably a good thing for her first time around.

While she related the process of checking the animal for evidence of disease and/or internal injuries (to make sure it was both healthy and kosher), she admitted that it was 'kinda gross' seeing the animal's head 'staring at her' from a few feet away.  And she also admitted that she could have done without seeing the lamb's lungs being inflated (to check for holes that would indicate a particular type of disqualifying internal injury that would render it non-kosher). 

But apparently when they started roasting the tender, fatty meat over an open fire... all squeemishness seems to have vanished.  In short, Ariella enjoyed herself immensely.

I'm sure that some of the vegetarians out there - especially those who avoid meat for ethical reasons - are cringing at this point and preparing to delete me from their blogrolls and favorites.  But please hear me out.

I'm one of those people who believes that just as we were given a world filled with yummy fruits and vegetables for our enjoyment and health... we were also given the privilege (not right!) of eating meat.  But as with any privilege, there come responsibilities.  Sadly, any time most children encounter meat and other animal products, they are so far removed from the original form that they aren't really aware of what they are eating.

I've milked cows and helped slaughter and prepare both birds and large animals for their trip to the dinner table... and I think those experiences have made me more, not less, sensitive to how meat and animal products arrive at our end of the food chain.  While I'm certainly no PETA member, I do think it is important to have a clear sense of where food comes from... and to be fully aware that it comes at a cost beyond the mere money one pays for it.

I know that by exposing my kids to the 'messy' part of the food chain, I run the risk of  turning them away from meat and poultry entirely.  That isn't my goal, of course... but it is certainly a risk I am willing to take.  What I hope to achieve by letting them see where their food comes from is to give them a clear idea of what happens before their delicious food arrives at the supermarket. 

By showing them that picking fruits and vegetables is back-breaking labor, I hope I will cause them to make ethical decisions in the future about obtaining produce from sources that treat their workers fairly.  So too, I sincerely hope that seeing meat before it is tastefully displayed under cellophane will encourage them to make thoughtful, informed... and above all ethical choices regarding where they obtain the steaks, chops, roasts and poultry they'll serve to their own families someday.

Posted by David Bogner on October 23, 2008 | Permalink


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If you haven't yet, you MUST read The Omnivore's Dilemma:


I even have a copy I can lend you...

Posted by: Dave (Balashon) | Oct 23, 2008 12:13:51 PM

waht about?? designig aNIMals for GOD!!

Posted by: lars rabbi | Oct 23, 2008 12:15:21 PM

They had an article in last week's Washington Jewish Week that was similar to your situation. "Eco-activists turn slaughterers." (took place in Connecticut, but with goats, not lambs)

(Hope the link works, if not, go to www.washingtonjewishweek.com and search for "slaughter")


I've never seen an animal being slaughtered, but you bring up some good points about watching it and how it helps understand where our food comes from. Some day I'd like to see it. I just hope I don't become like my friend who saw some animals slaughtered on a video and became a vegetarian for 5 years before shaking it off.

Posted by: JDMDad | Oct 23, 2008 1:57:27 PM

I watched with amusement the expression on my son's face when he suddenly realized that the name for the chicken that runs around going cluck-cluck, and the name for food on his plate were not only one and the same, but that both were referring to the same animal.

It was pure astonishment and wonder, and perhaps a bit of shock.

My wife thought I traumatized him, but after he finished the BBQ wings and legs, I had no concerns at all.

Posted by: JoeSettler | Oct 23, 2008 3:03:41 PM

About 15 years ago, I spent six weeks living on a kibbutz. One evening, my program had us volunteers work in the lool (barn area?) gathering chickens and throwing them in cages before they were driven off to...somewhere I wasn't dying to think about. Having to pick up these squawking things and watching some of the kibbutz members grab them and throw them without batting an eyelash, I really had visions of Nazi Germany. It was quite disturbing. Fortunately I quickly and easily disconnected immediately and returned to eating chicken and meat the next day.

We now return you to your uplifting day.


Posted by: What War Zone??? | Oct 23, 2008 3:13:44 PM

I agree with you. It's important to be involved in the whole food chain. I understood this a lot more after reading Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Posted by: Jendeis | Oct 23, 2008 3:14:17 PM

we were also given the privilege (not right!) of eating meat. But as with any privilege, there come responsibilities.
This is exactly what I think but you've phrased it nicely for us.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Oct 23, 2008 4:26:53 PM

I've never seen an animal slaughtered, though most of my kids have and it hasn't turned them off of meat. Maybe that's because my 25 years of vegetarianism was worse for them. Shechita isn't cruel, mindless hunting, and if the halachot are stressed, it should be seen in a more positive light, rather than disgusting. I ceased being vegetarian after subbing in the junior high depleted my B12.

Posted by: Batya | Oct 23, 2008 4:56:38 PM

Well said as usual Trep -
I am one of those mythical creatures known as the Vegetarian, have been since I was 14. I was even a Vegan for around 4 years (roughly until I became anemic...). I now eat small amounts of dairy(still allergic to american over-processed-hormone fed dairy products) and fish for brain power help(wait, what?)...
The point, no idea, just wanted to share!

Posted by: Jesse | Oct 23, 2008 5:39:07 PM

An excellent post.

I come from a very poor part of America. South East Ohio/West Virginia/North East Kentucky. The region famous for the ever feuding Hatfields and McCoys, as well as the term "hillbilly."

Shortly after I was about 3 (I'm 40 this year) my father joined the military and we moved away, but I returned every year or so to visit family. The slaughter of goats, steers, chicken, turkeys, ducks, and yes pigs (obviously I'm not Jewish,... Episcopalian actually) was always a common event. Hunting, especially in the lean years was also a very large part of our family life. Sometimes it was necessary to supplement the table with deer, rabbit, dove, quail, or whatever other fresh game we could trap, hunt, or fish for.

I literally grew up learning how to field dress/slaughter, skin, and butcher an animal. While not the kosher way, my grandfather and father took the pains to teach me how to do this ethically, humanely, and cleanly. (I was never a "trophy hunter" I always preferred a younger doe than a big old buck. The meat is much better.)

When I started my own family I continued to hunt and fish during our lean years, and passed this onto my own son. My son grew up learning everything I learned and it never hurt him. In fact I think it gave him a healthier respect for life and all of it's wonders.

Now we're in a position that we no longer have to stalk and kill an animal for food, and have been for many years. However we still enjoy the hunt, especially the father son time in the woods. It's just that we have traded in our rifles and shotguns for cameras.

Unfortunately, now that I'm confined to a wheelchair it makes it very difficult to get out. That coupled with the fact that my son is almost 16 and would rather (understandably) hang out with girlfriends. But, I know eventually as I did, he'll come back around to Dad once he gets past the teen years.

Again, Trep, a great post. I enjoyed it very much.


Posted by: Paul | Oct 23, 2008 6:32:30 PM

Your post reminded me of a conversation I had last year with my then-four-year-old. His kindergarten class had just taken a virtual "trip" to Israel. Among the many wonders of the "tour", my son described "a pizza store that doesn't have any pizza - only falafel and something called shar...shra..."

I gave him the proper (I hope) pronunciation for "shawarma", and I described it. I told him that most American shawarma is made from chicken or turkey, but real shawarma is made out of lamb.

"Lamb?" he asked, incredulous. "Like, in 'Mary Had a Little Lamb'?"

"Yup," I said.

He thought about that for a moment. Then his face furrowed. "That's just not right!" he said indignantly.

Note that he didn't seem to have a problem with chicken or turkey - maybe because he'd already eaten both many times. And, face it, they're just not as cute 'n' cuddly as lambs. We'll see what happens the first time we try to give him lamb chops. :-)

Posted by: psachya | Oct 23, 2008 7:17:48 PM

Dave (Balashon) beat me to it. That's a book you have to read.

I read it while in Japan, possibly one of the few places on Earth that is not part of the Corn Food Economy...so the message really hit home.

Posted by: Elisson | Oct 23, 2008 7:32:18 PM

good for ariella! your post reminds me of a city mouse/country mouse story: pre-aliya we visited kibbutz sa'ad with our then very young kids. over at the cowshed, we witnessed a calf being born. the children (and adults) were fascinated. deciding to give my son a lesson in the food chain, i pointed to another cow and (leaving out the hamburger part as he was only 4) said, "that's where milk comes from." my son looked at me like i was crazy and said, "no ma, milk comes from shoprite!" i knew that i had some work cut out for city kid and me.

Posted by: nikki | Oct 23, 2008 7:46:29 PM

Ooh! That could've been bad.... glad it went alright!

Lamb is not what I'd choose as a first exposure-- too cute, if you're not going to get beat up by said cute little animal first....

I'm a ranch kid, so I'm use to the whole shee-bang, but I can *easily* see why so many kids get turned off meat when all they see is cute animal walking around, then cute animal being killed!

Posted by: Foxfier | Oct 23, 2008 8:15:22 PM

You have more courage than I do!

My eldest daughter is grossed out by the smallest thing.

My son already has vegetarian leanings.

As a former vegetarian (one of those crazy, strict, Jewish ones, who wouldn't eat a potato if it touched a piece of chicken...), I feel guilty about not wanting my kids to become vegetarian....

It is just so easy to cook chicken for Shabbat!

I'm so impressed that Ariella was interested and watched the process!

Posted by: Rivka with a capital A | Oct 23, 2008 10:23:13 PM


You made me hungry! Now I crave lamb chops!

Posted by: The Back of the Hill | Oct 24, 2008 12:20:07 AM

I personally think no one who feels comfortable eating meat should have any qualms about watching said meat be slaughtered and prepared - or that they should shy away from such experiences. If they do have issues watching it, aren't they just lying to themselves if they say they have no trouble eating it? It's good to have a self-consistent moral compass.

Not to say that I'm a vegetarian - but my family is. Before I ever ate *any* meat I visited a slaughterhouse and followed a cow from before the shechita until the last bits were sent off to be hot dogs. I found it to be fascinating (albeit bloody and smelly), and concluded that I didn't have any fundamental moral issues with slaughter in and of itself provided it was done with every care lifnim mishurat hadin vis-a-vis the humane treatment of animals. (One reason why I do no eat Rubashkin's/Aarons and some other shechitas out there.)

But why try to shelter someone from it? Ariella is old enough to make her own decisions, and should be encouraged to do so. Good for you letting her go.

Lastly - if one isn't vegan, there really aren't any major health concerns associated with not eating meat or poultry (or even fish). Oh, one has to be careful to get an appropriately balanced diet, but you have that issue with any diet, and it's not terribly hard to get adequate protein and B12 and the like. For that matter, if one is careful to limit the amount of starches and cheeses that one eats (a common mistake for vegetarians), it can be *much* more healthy than eating a diet rich in red meat or even poultry. Even meat-eaters (inc. myself) should seriously restrict their meat intake to reduce the health effects.

...and I haven't even touched on the environmental impact of eating meat (bad), the bioenergy inefficiency of meat (worse), or the potential ethical issues with how much of the meat industry - including the kosher meat industry - works today (much worse).

That being said, I'll admit that a steak every now and then can be quite tasty.

Posted by: matlabfreak | Oct 24, 2008 6:55:15 AM

I've had extended correspondence with a semi-famous cartoonist, whose work I love, who is a flaming PETA member. I can tell ou are not a PETA member, because (a) you acknowledge G-d as G-d, and (b) you are intellectually consistent, or strive to be.

BTW, that doesn't stop me from still laughing at most of this guy's comics ("Bizarro," by Dan Piraro), and at least respecting his -- to him -- intelligent and solid convictions. But I've found PETA's stances to be reminiscent of the worst tyrants -- any argument for any effect, in service of the final goal, with no internal philosophical consistency.

Also, I am what might be termed a "semi-vegetarian," as I do not seek out meat to eat regularly, and tend to keep my consumption of the delicious stuff to a minimum.

My sis-in-law can hunt and field-dress a deer, but not for sport. Only for num-nums.

My daughter once watched a cow eye dissection at age 8 with pure fascination, as I gulped and stood off. She's pre-med now. :o) Glad your kiddo had a great time.

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Oct 24, 2008 8:47:08 AM


is a fascinating read

Posted by: asher | Oct 24, 2008 9:10:07 AM

What are the health issues you're worried about with a vegetarian diet? So far as I'm aware (and yes, full disclosure, twelve years as a vegetarian) there's nothing to prevent anyone from having a balanced and nutritious diet without meat. You can get everything you need from other sources, more cheaply and usually more healthfully.

Posted by: uberimma | Oct 24, 2008 5:03:22 PM

Been much too long since I was last here... sorry!

For those who've mentioned "The Omnivore's Dilemma:" Pollan wrote a lead article in the NY Times magazine a while before he published the book that I think sums up the "ethical omnivore" case quite nicely.

Long, but I think extremely well done.

Posted by: efrex | Oct 24, 2008 6:01:19 PM

"Have the lambs stop screaming, Clarice"?
My sister was a vegetarian for 20 years after watching my father shecht a lamb. (Yup, I'll bet I'm the only poster here who's father was a shochet!) She started eating meat again, voraciously, I must add, when Dr. Atkins told her she was a borderline diabetic. But I digress. Certainly there is a compromise between having kids witness shechita, which is really something only rabbinical students do when learning Mesechta Chullin, and having them think that hamburger just magically appears in the supermarket hermetically sealed in cellophane. I knew that meat had to be kashered when I was a child because my father would bring it home from that day's shechita. In the olden days, even though butchers kashered meat, no one who was really careful allowed the butcher to do the kashering - any ballebuste worth her salt (sorry for the pun) did her own kashering. Maybe that would be a good way for kids to begin to understand the process, let them learn the kashering process. The yeshiva I teach at, Yavneh Academy in Paramus NJ has a yearly "chicken kashering day" for the 7th grade. They actually do the kashering, then at a dinner for parents they give divrei Torah on the relevant halachot They do not serve the chickens that the kids kashered, however, much time lapses between the 2 events, though the chickens are very properly kashered.

Posted by: Marsha in Englewood | Oct 24, 2008 6:20:32 PM

There was a time, I believe, not so very long ago, that most Jews were ethical ominvores, well aware of what they were eating. My Aunt Shirley used to tell me how, as a teenager, she had the occasional chore of taking one of their chickens to the shochet on the other side of town. She had to schlep the live chicken for miles and then she had to walk all the way back, bringing its body to her mother to be feathered and prepared for cooking. This wasn't in some shtetl in Poland. This was in the north West of England in the 1930's and 1940's.

A lot of my problem with eating the flesh of dead animals is that, as you say, in this day and age we have become so cut off from the source of our food, that generally when we eat meat, we aren't aware (and I mean really AWARE) that an animal actually paid with its life for our satisfaction, well being and enjoyment. We are certainly not aware of how horrific are the short lives of most of these poor creatures 'manufactured' for us, when we chomp down on a nice juicy steak. We would rather just not think about it.

In this context, I think it is very important that young meat eaters are able to experience animal slaughter, and thus be aware of exactly what it is they are consuming. Aware and grateful.

Today we read in the weekly portion that Man was not originally designed to eat animals, but only to govern over them. Maybe some day, people will be able to live up to this. Until that day, may all creatures destined for human consumption be raised, kept and slaughtered ethically and compassionately.

Posted by: Imshin | Oct 25, 2008 7:54:09 PM

So, she's already for a Zevach Pesach next year? That is, the Paschal sacrifice.

Posted by: Yisrael Medad | Oct 26, 2008 12:35:56 AM


Gee. Bring your kids to Tapu'ah sometime.

There are only like 150 families here, but at least five shochtim and a few more in training.

Someone is always shechting something here.

A neighbor bought a pregnant buffalo a while back.

My mouth waters just thinking about it.

Posted by: Ben-Yehudah | Oct 26, 2008 11:32:42 AM

Howdy Trep. Great post. As you know, I'm a vegetarian - which is sad because I love meat. Hashem put the animals on earth for our use and I have no problem with that. My issue is that learning about shechitah in school, I was impressed with how many of the halachot dealt with minimizing the suffering of the animal. That in tandem with the brachot and everything else involved with the otherwise mundane task of eating, elevated the whole process into a thoughtful one where we are meant to be thankful, really thankful, for the food we eat and mindful to a certain extent of how it got to our plate. I find that we are less and less mindful of these things nowadays and this was brought home when I saw the shechitah that took place at Rubashkins. That food slaughtered that way could be considered kosher by all our Rabbinic authorities was something that did not sit well with me and that's when I gave up on meat.

Now I'm not saying that meat, even that produced by Rubashkins back in the day, is not Kosher! It's just that I won't eat meat that I don't know for a fact was shechted humanely. So theoretically, if I witnessed the shechting, I'd eat the meat. But that hasn't happened yet and I don't mind sticking to a vegetarian diet for now.

I'm glad you wrote this post and I'm glad your daughter saw at least part of what was involved in the production of her beloved lamb chops. Hopefully she'll take from this the lessons you enumerated in your post and will be a more thoughtful and thankful consumer of meat.

Posted by: ck | Nov 1, 2008 9:58:47 PM

You're famous Trep. You were featured in an article in the UK Jewish Chronicle which was issued today (2nd Nov) with the JPost in Israel. Great article! Reminds me of my son age 3 who wanted to know where chicken, meat and fish came from. When I explained to him that it came from animals which had to be killed, he turned a little green and gulped. Then he asked "what do we have to kill to get bread?"....

Posted by: annie | Nov 2, 2008 11:38:22 PM

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