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My great turkey dilemma

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My great turkey dilemma photo

In his new book  Eating Animals , Jonathan Safran Foer gives the following advice about having a Thanksgiving holiday that is truly reflective of one’s appreciation for health, happiness and loved ones.  His advice:  DON’T SERVE TURKEY! 

But, wait! I love eating turkey!!  It is so delicious, so juicy and so succulent.  Each bite of that soft and tender turkey meat is pure heaven!  Add to it stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and some cranberry sauce, and what on God’s earth could be better?!!!

Do I feel guilty about eating turkeys?  Mostly, no.  First of all turkeys don’t really look like real birds when you buy them at the supermarket.  How many birds have you seen walking around with a big open cavity to pack with stuffing?  None, I’m sure.  So— the turkey I am about to eat, is not, nor was it ever a real bird, right? By the way, have you ever had to reach your hand into the turkey’s rear-end to clean out all the guts?  I have, and it is disgusting!!  (Where they get all those guts and stuff them to make it seem like what are you cooking was once a living creature, I don’t know.)

Real life turkeys, as opposed to store-bought ones, are cute.  They have cute little gobbles.  They make adorable gobbling noises and they have a special way of waddling around.  Not everyone, however, thinks they’re cute.  When I lived on a kibbutz in Israel, my friend Marc got stuck working the turkey farm.  Each day after work he would tell me about how, “turkeys are the stupidest creatures on the planet.”  In a short time, Marc learned to hate turkeys and to feel GREAT about eating them.  “Turkeys,” he told me are, “so dumb that if they were outdoors and it started to rain, they would all lift up their beaks to the sky to collect rain water in their mouths—causing them to drown instantly and die.”  Once he told me that he got so mad at a turkey that he “punted it like a football.”

Jonathan Safran Foer would not have appreciated my “turkey-punting” friend.  He feels bad for turkeys—especially the 45 million, “unhealthy, unhappy, unloved turkeys” that find their way to our Thanksgiving tables.  As he describes in his book:

“Today’s turkeys are natural insectivores fed a grossly unnatural diet, which can include “meat, sawdust, leather tannery by-products,” and other things whose mention, while widely documented, would probably push your belief too far. Given their vulnerability to disease, turkeys are perhaps the worst fit of any animal for the factory model.  So they are given more antibiotics than any other farmed animal.  Which encourages antibiotic resistance. Which makes these indispensable drugs less effective for humans.  In a perfectly direct way, the turkeys on our tables are making it harder to cure human illness.”

Now, I ask you this—why did he have to go and say all that?  Is Jonathan Safran Foer trying to ruin our Thanksgivings?  I mean, isn’t life is so much more pleasurable when one simply didn’t think about such things?   Can’t we just enjoy our food without thinking about where it comes from?  Why should we care about factory farming which represents 99% of meat sold at supermarkets and restaurants and which carries with it the realities of unspeakable cruelties inflicted upon animals, unfair and unsafe working conditions, and terrible environmental and health problems?  Why should this be our concern?  (And why can’t we think about it AFTER Thanksgiving?)

Interestingly this discussion has already helped me to blunder into arguments with friends I care deeply about.  Apparently the food we eat and the ethics surrounding it are deeply personal and charged issues!  People don’t want to be told what to eat and what not to eat.  Many people would rather not think about it, and simply enjoy their meal.  (If that is you, please stop reading this, so you will still talk with me later.)

For me, however, as a human being who wants to do the right thing in this matter, I can no longer close my eyes to the issue.  As a Jew, this issue is especially relevant, as our tradition, and more specifically God, has always had something to say about the importance of our food choices.  What we eat matters.  So, while I love animals AND I love eating meat, I need to keep thinking about this.  I am not sure what will ultimately end up on my table this Thanksgiving, whether it will be juicy, succulent turkey or not quite as good, ToFurky, but from this point forward, thanks in part to Jonathan Safran Foer, I will consider the food I eat with a new level of mindfulness and a special consideration for the suffering of other creatures.

In the meantime, here are 10 questions for which I am still struggling. I wonder what you think about each.

1. With all of the terrible things happening to humans in the world is this a worthy cause to devote our energy and concern?

2. With so many food options at the supermarket and with each based on different priorities such as organic, hormone-free, free range, cage-free-grass-fed; cholesterol free, local or imported, and fair-trade food, how does one make the best choices about what is the best food that is ethically, spiritually sound and healthy?

3. Since factory farming represents 99% of the meat produced in the country and since it enables many low-income people to eat and not starve, is it reasonable to hope for the end of such practices?  Is it possible for the farm factory to improve?

4. What about all the cheap but unhealthy and fattening processed foods that are contributing to epidemic health problems?

5. Though I personally only eat kosher meat, does having a kosher stamp mean that the food I eat has meet high ethical standards?  (Apparently—not)

6. If I were to only shop at Whole Foods, could I wipe my conscience clean of the issue?  Does this solve the problems?

7. While I applaud the efforts of Rabbi Eric Yoffie  President of the Union for Reform Judaism who chose as his annual Shabbat Sermon to talk about the ethics of eating, as well as the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs who protested the conditions at Agriprocessors.  And while I am especially impressed by the Conservative Movement’s  Hechsher Tzedek program, I wonder if these directions go FAR ENOUGH to really challenge the system of factory farmed animals.

8. As a compassionate Jew who loves animals and also loves to eat them, sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t make more sense for me to change my eating habits to support the larger organic, ethical meat companies which have a chance to make more of a national and global impact on the meat industry.  (Though I recognize that these products are very limited and expensive.)

9. Apparently being a vegetarian who eats eggs and milk does not mean one’s hands are clean.  There is also extreme cruelty to animals associated with the production of these products.  But being a vegan seems so far out.  The only reason I can imagine becoming a vegan is to score a date with Natalie Portman.

10. Lastly, doesn’t it seem that almost EVERYTHING we do in our modern world, even writing or reading this blog (which consumes energy and puts more carbon in the air) is destructive?  Being a living being on the planet means consumption and waste, death and destruction.  At what point does one say, this is way too much and just do the best you can?

Well, however you celebrate Thanksgiving this year, and whatever you choose to eat… May this holiday be for you one filled with joy, gratitude and the love of family and friends.  Happy Thanksgiving!!

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