I think that my cuisine was a tad on the extravagant side today. For breakfast, I ate a steak, egg, cheese, and hashbrown burrito, chased down by a cup of coffee whose insulating sleeve proudly pronounced that it would not tell me where the coffee beans were grown. For lunch, I ate a “Baconator” sandwich from Wendys, which contained a square patty, several strips of applewood smoked bacon, american cheese, ketchup, mayo, and no vegetables. I washed that down with a chocolate frosty. And yes, for dinner I had three slices of Little Caesars pizza and four slices of Italian cheese bread. Thus, I should not be surprised at the stomachache I have. Perhaps I should even be thinking that this stomachache is an example of what the Scriptures call “reaping what you sow”. But the question I’m wondering, as my intestines rebel against my choices, is this: have I damaged my soul? have I sinned?
I’m not talking about the sin of gluttony. Surely that is a sin, and much can and should be written about it; no, I wonder whether I’ve committed the sin of “eating non-ethically”. I’m still trying to figure out what exactly this sin is, because everyone seems to be talking about it, not least of all Alan Richman, who wrote an article in this month’s GQ called “Eat No Evil”, which I’ve been reading while moaning about my stomach. The article is worth reading, and not only because he writes things like “Buying 11 grain bread instead of 7 grain bread does not make you a better person”. But even this quotation betrays that fact that the North American middle class already has an entrenched moral compass concerning food. Jack Falstaff’s famous self-deprecation “to be fat is to be hated” may not be linguistically PC, but it does seem true that the less offensive “to be obese is to be morally suspect” is an unacknowledged legislation of contemporary culture. And while we’re on the subject of linguistics, how many times have we seen chocolate desserts described as “decadent”, “tempting”, or just downright “sinful”? Yoplait’s current commercials all feature yogurt eaters as (usually female) temptation-overcoming saints admired and respected by (usually male) piggish slobs who lack the moral fortitude to resist an ice cream sundae. I know that these examples are from the world of advertising, and that advertising intentionally appeals to the lowest common denominator, but mightn’t that be the point? Our dubious moral assumptions are obvious to even yogurt purveyors.
I must admit that I’m pretty ignorant about what’s currently accepted by those in the know as “ethical eating”. I often eat vegan for religious reasons, and I’m familiar with the words local, sustainable, organic, and fair-trade, but even these fads may be out of date by the time of this post. I’m also familiar with the old notions of fasting and feasting, but those notions have little to do with the history of the consumed products, which seems to be the main concern of the current food morality. While I’ve been trying to fast and feast according to the church calendar for a few years, its only been lately that I’ve realized I’m quite ignorant of the history of the food I eat. I don’t know where the beef I ate came from. I don’t know where the coffee was grown, or by whom. As I spoon this frozen yogurt into my mouth, I realize that I’m only now wondering where the milk came from (I did mention that I’ve also been eating cheesecake-flavored frozen yogurt didn’t I?).
Sometimes I remember that have a degree in philosophy, which usually leads to me waxing metaphysical about simple topics. I’ll try to keep it to a minimum. It seems that one of the most pertinent ethical question when it comes to food is this: to what extent am I morally responsible for knowing the background of the food that I eat? If, for example, the ground beef in my “Baconator” came from a cow that was treated cruelly by its butchers, then am I implicated in that cruelty by buying and eating it? And how morally responsible is the foodseller for informing me about the background of my food? Is my morning coffee provider unethical for boasting that they wouldn’t “bore” me with the origin and history of the coffee beans?
Of course none of these questions are new, but I do think that the detail at which we worry about them in contemporary culture does shed light on how vague and unexamined other areas of our life are. How ethical is my treatment of my co-workers, my attitude toward my wife, my thought life? It has been true that in some periods of our history we have cared much more about the morality of our relationships and mental life than we did the ethics of consumed products, and it strikes me that the extreme focus on the ethics of what we consume is not particularly an indication that we live more examined lives than our carnivorous, non-organic predecessors. We just examine other areas of our lives than they did. Still to be found is the man who examines all things, who lives a life of holistic responsibly, who has been taught, as T.S. Eliot said, the appropriate times “to care, and not to care.”