You Are What You Eat

Herd About It?

by Ana Grarian

We are what we eat. This idea came up in two separate conversations this week and it got me to thinking along these lines. How does what we eat, and our disregard for how it is produced figure into how we see ourselves and what we are both organically and spiritually?

I am reading “Righteous Porkchop” by Nicolette Hahn Nimanand eyeing a copy of the new collection of Wendell Berry essays with a forward by Michael Pollan called, “Bringing It To The Table”.

Righteous Porkchop describes the fight to clean up the confinement hog operations in graphic detail. As a hog farmer who has used similar containment facilities, I could not grasp how it could be so bad – until I read this book. Think of it this way….Maybe you ride to work by train. If the train is clean and relatively uncrowded – it’s not so bad. Maybe you visit with the other passengers, take a nap, watch the scenery. Now imagine the train is standing room only and the ride is several months long. How long until you start snapping at the people next to you. Oh and the bathrooms are backing up and the roof leaks.

Those of us who have raised meat animals or hunted know that the state the animal is in when it is killed affects the meat. A calm animal tastes good. An animal that has been fighting for it’s life has more blood and stress hormones in it’s muscle, the meat is darker and tougher. The taste and tenderness of the meat is different.

Wendell Berry has a knack for tying the spiritual into the mechanics of living. What does it mean for us that we are willing to ingest, to take into our mouths, food that has been produced in a filthy, dangerous and frightening manner? Do we become what we eat? If we have disregard for the land, the soil, the creatures and the people who produce our food – do we have disregard for ourselves? Is it possible to have real self-respect if we don’t respect our surroundings? Does the actual nutritional content (or lack thereof) of our food affect our bodies and minds in ways that mimic the means of production?

I would say yes, though I have no scientific study to back it up. Certainly the water we drink and air we breathe has been contaminated and effects us body and mind – does it injure our soul as well? Even fresh fruits and vegetables are often not as nutritional as they once were because we have leached the good out of the soil through bad agricultural practices.

I remember eating a fresh tomato picked from my garden vines and eaten still warm from the sun. Or the surprising excellence of home grown brussell sprouts picked on a beautiful fall day. I remember the family sitting down to dinner and my three year old putting together the idea that the meat on her plate came from Rosie the pig we had raised. She knew that pig had trotted around the lawn until she had to be fenced away from Grandma’s flower garden. Then Rosie trotted around amongst the cows and our horse, rooting in the pasture and rubbing noses with friends. She also knew that Rosie died quickly at home before going to the butcher for cutting. This child grew quickly to understand the debt we owe to the creatures and soil – and the people- that nourish us.

Does our disregard for that radiate out so that we are disdainful of waitresses and cooks and packing house workers, etc? When we know that we have that disrespect, at some level, don’t we lose respect for ourselves? Or at least realize that we have lost the respect of the others who consider themselves farther from the source than us? Could this be what is driving our disdain for those who can’t afford healthcare, or housing, or food, even if we have been, might be close to being, or could be in their shoes in the future?

The circle of life is a closed loop. Introduce evil into any point in the circle and it eventually affects us all – “what goes around, comes around”.