Wednesday, April 13, 2011

requisite biweekly shark post with a side of dog meat and ethical dilemmas

Kind of joking.  I never intended to post this frequently (now 3 times in 6 weeks?) about the cartilaged creatures, but here I am again (sort of... this post actually evolved to have almost nothing to do with sharks).

Galding posted an article yesterday using California's proposed ban on shark finning (a practice I previously mentioned here) as a launching point for a discussion of the global politics of culinary delicacies, which made me think a bit about my own experiences with food and culture abroad and at home.  The author raises the question of how to strike a balance between wildlife conservation/ethical food production and the preservation of culture.  While shark finning is a gruesome practice that for me is hard to justify with the argument that shark fin soup is integral to Chinese culture, there are other dishes that might not seem "ethical" to many "Westerners" that I have no problem with.  The author writes, "The Philippines has long been under fire for its mistreatment of dogs destined for the dinner table. I don't condone animal cruelty in any form (which is why I want to see gavage [sic]), yet we must also realize that pets are not a traditional part of that culture."  Just to clarify, the Philippines outlawed the eating of dog meat in 1998.  Though there is an underground market for it, most younger Filipinos did not grow up eating dog meat and think of dogs only as pets.  I'm really curious though as to what extent the doggie legislation came about through Western influences-- something that reminds me of a very similar issue in South Korea.

In Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, the sale of dog meat has been illegal since 1984, though the law is barely enforced and one doesn't have to look too hard to find dog meat in the city's traditional markets or in restaurants specializing in 개고기 (Gaegogi aka dog meat).  Hell, it took me less than a week of living in Korea to see my first frozen Fido.  Lindsey, my co-worker leaned in to warn me, you know some people here eat dog, right?  Moments later we passed a large dog in its entirety on ice-- and nowhere special, this was just the market closest to my home and workplace.  Many older Koreans continue to consume dog meat from time to time (especially men-- for stamina, of course!), but far fewer of the younger sect eat it with any regularity and many refuse to eat it at all on the same grounds as most Americans-- dogs are pets, not food.  But where did this shift in perception come from?  I'm willing to bet that most of the men that passed the law back in the mid-80's are part of the crowd that still visits their favorite gaegogi joint from time to time for "stamina soup."  If you remember correctly, Seoul played host to the Summer Olympic Games in 1988.  In talking to older Koreans (one of the distinct advantages of teaching English to adults), I learned a bit more about the historical state of dog meat affairs.  Apparently, in the years leading up to the Olympics, the government tried to phase out the selling of dog meat-- or at least run it underground-- in an attempt to appease the international (read: Western) community and shed the label of "backwards society that eats dogs."  At this point in time, South Korea was beginning to show significant signs of recovery from decades of poverty following the Korean War and was naturally eager to showcase its progress to the world during the upcoming Olympic Games.  They didn't need to be torn apart in the Western media for their culinary practices when their opportunity to become a bigger global player was on the line.  And so the visibility of dog meat quickly faded, and the practice has since steadily declined.

 Side note: I am Olympic Fanatic.

Is it fair?  What surprised me most upon seeing a full dog on ice in the market was its size and build  This clearly was not someone's pet; it was an animal bred specifically for one purpose: human consumption.  In Korean, these dogs are known as
누렁이 (Nureongi) and 황구 (Hwangu), clearly distinguishing them from the type of "dogs" that are considered pets.  For many, that still doesn't make it right, but I don't think you can point the finger at Asian communities for centuries of domesticating dogs as livestock while innocently consuming beef or chicken that comes from American slaughterhouses.  Cows are sacred to the Hindu community, and it is illegal to kill a cow in Nepal and most Indian states, yet Americans consume an average of 67 lbs of beef per year.  If the 1.4 billion people of India and Nepal got together and decided to vilify Americans for their consumption of cows, what would the response be?  Many people would probably laugh at the audacity of the two South Asian countries for suggesting such a thing.  So why does the West get to decide what is globally acceptable at the dinner table? (and I ask that with regard to food production only and issues of conservation aside-- as I do think it is important that global measures are being taken to protect threatened and endangered species)

So what is my personal philosophy on food, culture, and ethics?

I absolutely draw the line at threatened or endangered species, especially when many of them are killed not for survival, but for sale as delicacies, often wasting most of the edible parts of the animal and leaving them to die a cruel death, the way sharks are definned and then thrown back in the ocean to perish.  As a somewhat recent fish consumer, I'm working to become more knowledgeable about sustainable fishing, as I would like to get the occasional super dose of omega-3's without contributing to the destruction of our fragile ocean ecosystems. 

After that, the lines are hazy.  I have been trying to become a more conscious consumer.  For both health and ethical reasons, I eat significantly less meat than I did in the past, and when possible make more responsible decisions when it comes to the source of my food.  My personal decision not to become vegetarian or vegan has a lot to do with culture as well as the belief that one doesn't have to go to extremes to be more responsible or make a statement.  

First off, culture.  Anyone who tries to convince me that food is not an integral part of culture will ultimately fail.  We experience the world through our perception of sensory details, and what, other than the experience of eating and drinking truly uses all of our senses?  If you think back upon your childhood, how many memories feature food to some degree?  If you've traveled, can you honestly say that the experience yielded no culinary memories?  Travel has become a huge part of who I am and I would be remiss to claim that food is of no importance to my appreciation of different cultures.  Whether this means enjoying a buttery fresh baked croissant early in the morning while ambling through the streets of Paris or eating raw octopus on the Yeongmeori coastline of Jeju-do straight from the haenyeo (traditional female free-diver) who caught it, I don't want to limit my experience through a narrow definition of what constitutes acceptable food.  But there is also another, more direct cultural experience that concerns me.  At many times over the past year, I have been a guest at the dinner table, experiences that I am overwhelmingly grateful for and that rank as some of my fondest memories of time spent abroad.  Aside from wanting to be polite and try everything offered, there have been times when the meal I have been served as a guest is considerably more expensive than what the host would normally cook-- how can I possibly eschew the relatively expensive chicken that I am being served on ethical grounds knowing that my gracious host will go back to a diet of rice and lentils for weeks to compensate?  I just can't.  When my host has her husband go miles out of the way to pick up special curd from another town for dessert, how do I refuse it and explain that I do not eat any products that have in any way derived from animals?  I don't.  I can't.  Not only does it not translate to the majority of humans around the globe, but getting on my ethical high horse in that sort of situation just doesn't seem right.  

 eating octopus by the sea, straight from the woman who caught it, right next to where it was caught- doesn't get much more local than that, right?

I know it is not every day that I'm in a situation that demands those decisions of me, but I am not really keen on undertaking a lifestyle of extremes such as veganism knowing full well that time and again I will make exceptions in the pursuit of understanding and respecting other cultures.  Nor do I think that eating healthy and ethically has to come in the form of extremes, as it only serves to further alienate the majority of the population who cannot afford such a lifestyle.  Millions of Americans struggle to get enough fruits and vegetables in their diets-- not because they are ignorant or lazy, but often because the things that are heavily subsidized by the government (corn, meat, processed dairy) are more affordable and more filling, despite how nutritionally poor and lowbrow on the foodie scale they may be.  Healthy and responsible eating should not have to be expensive, divisive, or elitist.  But if the poor keep eating poorly
based on the few affordable choices they have (and looking at the factors for beef consumption in America, geography, income, and race have a significant impact on who relies most on meat in their diets) and the rich who can afford to make food choices that reflect how "socially conscious" they are continue to buy into their exclusive diet and lifestyle clubs, what will change?  What incentive (other than it being the responsible thing to do) does the government have to correct the subsidies that encourage these unhealthy behaviors?  What incentive do companies have to target health foods at a wider population and offer them at more affordable prices when they already have a faithful elite that keep them in business by paying top dollar for organic-local-vegan-status-symbol products?  There really isn't much.  In this way, I think the small changes have the potential to be most effective.  If enough people start to be a little more discriminating about what they put into their bodies, I believe it can have a much stronger impact than if a teeny tiny fraction of the the population decides to cut out entire groups all together.

I've rambled a bit, from shark finning and dog meat to culture and American diets.  Things got out of hand.  Food is fascinating, isn't it?

I'd like to just end with something that I read awhile ago on my friend Andy's blog, which really seems to sum up the conundrum I face balancing health and social responsibility with respect and appreciation of culture when it comes to food:
Eating nutritious and local food is important to me, but I don’t want to turn my back on culture to do it.  Truly experiencing food is what I’m after, and if that calls for settling for imperfection here and there, bring it on. In a perfect world, we’d all grow turnips in our backyards and eat them like candy.  In a perfect world, our farmers would tell us what to eat, not our televisions.  In a perfect world we’d all be eating well.
Truthfully, I’m happy with eating goodly.*
*Eating Goodly is the name of Andy's blog- as a future Master of Management in Hospitality student at Cornell, I assure you he can get away with making up words to make a point.  For some thought provoking posts on food (from ethics and culture to darn good french toast and beer), I encourage you to check it out!


  1. I love this, Lindsey. Never thought about the Dog:Cow taboo before, but its so true.

    Another HUGE point is about the lack of incentives for change. Sucks that those in power won't really budge out of social responsibility. It's a similar theme as the book I'm reading now: The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard. It's less of a "what should we be eating?" book and more of a "what the hell are we all thinking?" book, but it connects the dots in a super comprehensive way. I'm only a few pages in, but it definitely seems like something you should check out.

    And thanks for the suggestion for eating goodly. I took it to heart!

  2. Its funny- literally minutes after writing this I got to the chapter in Guns, Germs, and Steel about how and why certain animals became domesticated (as well as tamed), adding a bit more to the evolutionary/historical background of food production (the previous chapter dealt with the development of agriculture). It doesn't offer much in a 21st century "why do we still do these things?" but it makes it pretty easy to understand why, say, on an island nation like the Philippines or on a Far East Eurasian peninsula (Korea) dogs and pigs were domesticated and became part of the diet (and why their diets lacked sufficient protein without animals based on the types of crops that were viable in their environments). I'm really enjoying the book thus far- I'd definitely recommend it.

    I'll have to check out the Leonard book/I need to check your new library!


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