Photo by FotoosVanRobin/Flickr CC
In the august house chamber of the beautifully restored Texas state capitol building yesterday, two committed vegetarians took on two committed meat-eaters as part of the great Texas Book Festival. The festival is a fairly miraculous gathering that endures in an age of authorial angst and defunded everything, and turns the already great town of Austin into the weekend-long literary capital of America every fall. I've been lucky enough to be there two years running, and each time Halloween fell during the festival--and the Halloween parade down Sixth Street is worth a trip in itself, though given the year-round music scene and college-town vibe, now with glitzy LA-film-world overtones, you never need an excuse to go.
About that vibe: after I led a discussion with Lidia Bastianich in the same "cooking tent" where the Food Channel itself began to take shape--last year I met Carol Ann Sayle in a discussion I moderated, and knew from her tangy, unmistakable voice that she had to be a founding part of it--a man from East Texas introduced himself and told me that I had to visit and get to know the thriving farming scene, something others have told me and I intend to do. "The only thing we don't grow there," he said in reference to my public praise of Austin, "is liberal Democrats."
If many of his compatriots were in the house chamber, they didn't have much of a chance to be heard, because the panelists were themselves pretty diverse (even if I doubt he'd think so). All the writers want to make you think about where the food you eat comes from and what choices you're making when you buy and eat food, mostly the hidden ones.
They come at it in different ways. Jason Sheehan, a hardscrabble, profane, deliberately naughty chef, is following in the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain with his Cooking Dirty: A Story of Life, Sex, Love and Death in the Kitchen, like Bourdain funny, entertaining, and provocative--but he also gives you an idea of just what life is like for the people who make that BBQ in the roadside joint, or the corned-beef sandwiches in the famous Irish pub on St. Patrick's Day. He's full of bravado, and you're sure he'll have sleeve tattoos, though as it happens he doesn't.
I'm late to discovering Novella Carpenter's wonderfully funny Farm City: the Education of an Urban Farmer, though friends have for months been ending conversations and emails telling me I had to read it. They were right, of course. Hers is a voice as unmistakable and entrancing as Carol Ann's, with grit and erudition and constant resilience--as she needs to turn 4,500 rubbish-heaped square feet of a vacant lot next to her mean-streets Oakland apartment into a productive paradise. There's nothing self-conscious or self-satisfied about her stories of raising not just heirloom watermelons and tomatoes but heirloom birds for meat and then pigs: just spunk and humor, and plenty of suspense as practically about every vine and animal is threatened by urban predators. She's great company.
Sheehan's and Carpenter's books are mostly about voice; the other two authors focus mainly on ideas, though they're remarkably clear and passionate writers too. Jonathan Safran Foer brings his famous blend of adventurous exploration and attuned observation of worlds both without and within to his new Eating Animals, which has ample amounts of his famous storytelling (as the excerpt in the New York Times Magazine displayed), but also straight-out reporting and advocacy against eating meat for any reason, including environmental responsibility.
Environmental responsibility is the main subject of James McWilliams's Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, a book I'm reading with close interest and will have more to say about--as McWilliams, a contributor to the Food Channel, will too. As everyone who reads him knows, McWilliams doesn't shy from breaking locavores and generally right-minded food people of many of their most cherished assumptions, even if he shares many of their practices: he's a committed vegetarian, though more from his grounding as an environmental historian than the kind of passionate personal conviction Foer brought to the crowded chamber with a kind of quiet, flame-hard purity.
What unites all the books is meat--or so I thought when leading the panel, with the long defense by Nicolette Hahn Niman, our Food Channel contributor, fresh on our minds. Particularly McWilliams's and Foer's, as they both had pretty strong reservations about the arguments they found incomplete or unconvincing. McWilliams, who calls meat "the new caviar" in a resonantly titled chapter, to evoke both its unsustainability and the costs it incurs even if it's wrongly cheap, pointed out that much of the grass in grass-fed beef is fertilized, which isn't good for the environment. Neither is the literal denaturing of all agriculture throughout history and especially the amount of land being used for meat, both small-scale artisan-level and industrial-scale. Foer devotes a fairly long, fond section to visiting the BN Ranch in paradisal Bolinas, but still can't find any defense for killing animals, no matter how good a life and good a death they have had.
The other two are unapologetic meat-eaters. Carpenter writes wonderfully about making herself part of a thousands-year-old tradition of carefully tending animals, and as the book goes on she becomes less and less tentative about the act of killing and sharing the "harvest," a word she can come to use with pride and not irony. Sheehan, who the day before the panel had told me, with his bad-boyness, "I'm your drug pusher," was sufficiently subdued by the gravity of the discussion and the surroundings to say only and truly that as a chef he wants to find the best product he can, and that if you want to know more about how your meat was raised you should talk to your chef.
I was fascinated by it all, as the audience seemed to be--and as I am now by the ongoing discussion between Niman herself in her reply to Helene York's post responding to her Times article, and the many commenters who have joined in. I also liked Sheehan's advice. We all know that we're supposed to talk to a farmer, and go to farmer's markets and support local communities--though you'll need to read Just Food to see what an incomplete and even false step that can be to achieving your right-minded ends. We know already what great voices farmers can have, from our own Carol Ann and from Carpenter's book, which you should read just for the pleasure of meeting her. Now you can resolve to talk to your chef too--and hope that he or she has a voice as salty, frank, and funny as Sheehan's.