In 2007 I interviewed Anthony Bourdain. It had been a little over a year since Bourdain had found himself stranded in Beirut trying to film an episode of "No Reservations" as carloads of Hezbollah took to the streets, soon to be followed by flocks of Israeli bombers. (He wrote about it here
, in Salon.) Bourdain had once compared vegans to Hezbollah, so now that he'd had some experience with the real thing, I asked him if the comparison still stood.
After some thought Bourdain replied, only a little jokingly, "Um...I like Hezbollah more." When I asked him to elaborate he gave me an answer that helped me explain to myself why I've never been able to maintain a commitment to vegetarianism.
"I'm offended by fundamentalism of any kind. I believe that curiosity is my greatest and maybe my only virtue. I think a willingness to try other things in traveling is compulsory. So on that basis, vegetarianism really offends me. If you’re Hindu, fine. I get it. If you’re in India and you grew up with a vegetarian regime, this is your life. But if you’re privileged, or from a privileged Western society and you’re able to travel, I’m offended by that. Just as I’m offended by fundamentalist Christians, and anybody who is absolutely certain about anything."
I have too many vegetarian friends to ever be that hardcore. My brother is a strict vegetarian and I respect his choice. But all he ever ate as a child was hotdogs, so I would argue that it was easier for him to swing to the opposite end of the reduced food spectrum. Ever since I was a kid, however, I've always been a food adventurer. I can remember my mother taking me to a restaurant in Paris when I was nine. When I ordered escargot the waiter looked down his nose and said "Are you sure mademoiselle? They are very...ah...spicy." I looked right back up my nose at him and said: "I hope so."
I hope now, with age, I've become a little less smug about my food choices. Like everyone from my generation, I've struggled with ambivalence about the treatment of animals, and about eating meat in a society that now offers so many reasonably good alternatives. For a couple of years I lived with vegetarian roommates and ate pretty much what they ate, and happily discovered all kinds of interesting recipes. I'm not a tofu snob. I love a culinary challenge and pride myself on finding a way to cook and enjoy almost anything.
But the year my 40th birthday rolled around, my friends started talking about having a party for me at the latest new culinary fusion and tiny-portions of-perfect-vegetable-place, and something deep in my soul just rose up in rebellion. What you eat to celebrate your entrance into the prime of your life says a lot about who you are, what makes you happy, and what kind of eating resonates with your soul.
I chose to celebrate that birthday instead at the most Montreal of Montreal of restaurants, Au Pied de Cochon. It is the brainchild of Quebec cuisine's enfant terrible, Martin Picard, the guru of what the New York Times recently called
Montreal's "slaughterhouse-chic" and one of the first North American chefs to champion nose to tail cooking.
Before you watch the video I posted of Bourdain visiting a duck farm with Picard, or watch them running around with the flock of geese that will eventually become the foie gras that Picard will serve as hamburgers and poutine, you should probably first know a little bit about the genealogy and history of the Quebecois.
Quebec got its start as a fur trading outpost. Most of the original settlers were adventurers actively encouraged to marry into the native tribes to establish peaceful relations and a flourishing continental furtrade network. Then around the mid seventeenth century, France started noticing how big the English population in British Colonies was getting.
For a period of ten years France implemented a population plan called Les Filles du Roi. Roughly a 1,000 young orphaned city girls were shipped over with state supplied dowries. They started life here in group homes where they were educated in agricultural skills, in the hopes of getting at least some of the men to settle down and try farming instead of fur trading. It worked. Roughly %20 of francophone Quebecois can be traced directly back to these women. But there's still a pretty active, if smaller, percentage that are descended from this hybrid of Indian princesses and voyageurs. Martin Picard and the movement in Quebec cuisine that he's spawned (which is now taking root in the rest of Canada, thanks to his Food Network show, "The Wild Chef") is like the Rabelaisian love child born of those two traditions.
The family farm is still the overwhelming norm here. A good fatty chunk of our agricultural profits come from pig farming. There was a period near the end of the millennium where, in an attempt to stay competitive in global markets, Quebec tried out large scale industrial pig farming. But the public outcry, (sparked in part by a the National Film Board documentary "Bacon, Le Film") was big enough that the province ended up introducing some of strictest pig farming regulations in the world.
As a result, %90 of pig farms in Quebec have less than 2,000 pigs, compared to the average farm in North Carolina, which has 20,000. But this decision to limit growth was not without its cost. Quebec pig farming has taken a significant economic hit as large scale American pork farms undercut their prices.
So on the surface, Martin Picard may seem like a poster boy for irresponsible gluttony, but there's actually an interesting political agenda to his madness. Picard prides himself on his direct relationship with farmers and the quality of the product he serves. He personally buys all the meat he cooks directly from farms and suppliers who work directly with these farms. Once a year he hosts a lunch at which he has hunted and killed all the meat served. Basically he's Alice Waters with a lot of extra testosterone.
While duck, chicken, fish, game and plenty of seasonal vegetables are always on his menu, it is centered primarily around the pig. Picard believes that with sane farming practices, pigs have the potential to live the longest, best lives of all the farm animals. He serves every part of the animal on his menu, from deep fried pigs ears, to marinated tongue, and of course the fatty pigs foot.
I discovered Picard around the time I started feeling less conflicted about the killing of animals than I did about the practice of industrial farming and what it does to, not just animals, but to communities. I'd seen enough film footage of tortured chickens that I couldn't eat poultry from the supermarket in good conscience anymore.
I will always be conflicted, however, about giving up meat. There's a very real cost to humans and animals when educated people with disposable income give up or reduce meat eating en masse. This means less money going to family farms, which makes them vulnerable to the industrial lobby. And it means that animals go from being killed, to being tortured and neglected.
As a single parent on a freelancers salary, however, I've never had a huge disposable income. Then in 2004 something very fortunate happened in my life. A few blocks from my home, a small, unique, store opened. To take advantage of the sudden trendiness of pork eating, the Palardy family farm decided to open a storefront to showcase its specialty: milk fed, antibiotic free pork.
The meat at Porcmeilleur is not technically organic, because the milk used to feed the pigs isn't from organic dairy cows. But it's reasonably priced, almost as tender and lean as chicken and when not overcooked, as tasty as beef. The store offers such a large variety of pork products, filets, chops, cutlets, roasts, ribs, ground, ham, pate, and sausage, that I've been able to make this pork the central meat in our diet. And then there's the bacon, thick, traditionally cured, and fresh enough it's actually enjoyable raw (though obviously better cooked.)
I don't kill the animals I eat, but knowing the people who kill the animals I eat, and knowing that most of my meat budget goes to these cheerful pig specialists who take pride in what they're doing, puts my soul a little more at rest. Increasingly, I have a hard time seeing myself renounce traditional livestock agriculture. It's part of my culture, my history and the economy of the place I live in. And I know I will always feel more conflicted about renouncing those things than I ever will about eating meat.