San Francisco – In last week’s Insight (San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday Feb 3, 2013) Professor Brinkley, a frequent essayist and contributor to the Chronicle, wrote about some commonly valued species that are disappearing in Vietnam, due to Vietnamese food preferences. He seemed particularly troubled by dog eating, which the lamentation, at least to this writer, seems churlish. It suggests a parochial world view.
As a long time vegetarian but erstwhile non-vegetarian, I plead guilty to the same narrow mindedness about meat eating. Meat eaters tend to be both sanctimonious and prescriptive, ignoring the basic precept that life, regardless of species, is not meant to be consumed. But, as long as you consume one, all species are fair game.
Several episodes from my hoary past come to mind to illustrate the inconsistency of meat eaters.
As a north Indian, per the Hindu tradition I inherited, you either eschewed meat if you were from an orthodox family, or if you came from a relatively secular family, you ate meat – mainly chicken, mutton, (lamb in the US), and fish. In our family, meat dishes were compulsory even at weddings, and in fact, the more committed meat eating relatives would occasionally skip a wedding dinner if they were warned that the menu was expected to be strictly vegetarian.
Our presumably liberal family also made no exception between halal and jhatka meat (animals slaughtered in the Muslim and Sikh tradition, respectively). This required some amount of awkward juggling at lunchtime in school where some friends would not eat meat dishes cooked in a Sikh home if they were Muslim and vice versa.
At 21, when I first came to the US, my strictly vegetarian mother and wholly non-vegetarian father both asked me not to have beef, given the cow’s holy status. It was particularly surprising therefore to see some Indian students at my campus, who were from diehard vegetarian Hindu families, but had transitioned from no meat to beef eating.
A few who cared to explain indicated they took to beef eating for some of the same reasons as Gandhiji did in his early life in England. Among others, they felt the weather was too cold to endure without beef. Others, who started eating beef, justified it by saying, ‘It is an American cow.”
I abided by the stricture for several months until one day the chili cooked by my roommate was too similar in aroma and appearance to the keema (mince mutton) we ate at home. So I had a small taste and was not surprised that I neither puked nor did it make me anguished or restless in my soul.
Although I never ate beef after that, having found it totally acceptable to heed my mother’s more reasonable rationale that, “If you can’t observe religion, don’t go out of your way to hurt it,” I felt for the first time that meat is just that and to garb it as sacrilegious or religious was a matter of economic, agrarian or economic convenience, and not a divinely ordained issue.
Thereafter, even as I turned and have remained vegetarian, I have lived with the normative belief that either you stay away from meat of any kind, or if you do eat one kind of meat, other kinds are no less admissible in the cafeteria of edible species. To my kids I gave the same uncaring instructions. Eating or not eating is your choice, but not eating one kind is a meaningless taboo, and I see no ground to respect one meat eater more over another.
Distressed with the invisibility of birds, squirrels and dogs due to Vietnamese relishing these species, Brinkley avers, if you don’t see them in the country, it is because “most have been eaten.” He ends his essay with a more judgmental quote from a “western” blogger: “I can quite honestly say it’s the most gruesome thing I have ever seen.” Brinkley adds to the above quote his vote of confidence saying, “I could not agree more.”
Serving dog for dinner is in no way more gruesome than killing any other land, sky, or sea life. It is just a matter of cultural ingraining. Food habits are Time’s evolutionary legacy, but nothing makes western legacy more civilized than Vietnamese or eastern. Perhaps Stanford’s rich multicultural ethos should have influenced Professor Brinkley’s sensibility more than he seems to have imbibed.