I had an argument with a vegetarian friend on Facebook just before Thanksgiving that prompted me to think about how American politics has changed my personal food politics.
After accusing me of being party to mass murder of turkeys, she complained that nothing she could say could stop me from enjoying a genetically modified, antibiotic-laden turkey on Thanksgiving.
I don't care if animals bred for food are killed. Do vegans weep over the souls of farmed shrimp? But her parting shot -- an appeal to the environment and my health -- would have worked on me 6 years ago, and I might have spent the holiday wringing my hands with guilt. Not anymore, courtesy of George W. Bush. Though I'm a lifelong Democrat, I should send him a thank-you note.
I have always been a political shopper. I believe your most important vote is the money you spend.
The 2004 election changed me in an important way that I'm only now able to express.
There are two types of social-values shopping: positive and negative. I can support businesses I approve of by buying their products. Conversely, I can reject products I don't approve of by refusing to buy them.
Until November 2004, I practiced both. In fact, I gave up beef for 14 years because I am convinced that it's impossible to raise cattle for food in an environmentally sound way. I spent much of the 1990s evangelizing this position, annoying my friends every time they ordered a steak or burger in front of me, and trying my best to prevent anyone from getting a beef dish at any shared dinner.
It wasn't easy to give up beef. I loved cheeseburgers, prime rib, kitfo (Ethiopian-style raw beef), beef tacos, steak tartare, short ribs. Note the two raw dishes: I liked the flavor of beef so much that I went through a phase of ordering my hamburgers raw, with onions, pickles and melted cheddar, after discovering it that way on a Tampa restaurant menu.
I'm not an anti-beef activist anymore, and besides, "Fast Food Nation" evangelizes better than me. I still don't believe large cattle ranch operations can be run responsibly, and little operations can't really compete with the big guys. Bill Niman doesn't own Niman Ranch anymore; that should tell you something.
So why did I eat at House of Prime Rib last night?
About a week after Bush won re-election, I was out in one of the closest conservative suburbs to San Francisco. I noticed many people driving 9-passenger SUVs by themselves. I thought, I could live a Buddha-like life, never supporting any bad industries -- in fact, I could buy nothing at all, starving to death when my kitchen emptied -- but it would have no impact compared to what the mass market does. A steakhouse sells more beef in a day than I could forego in 20 years. I had my first cheeseburger in 14 years that very day.
I had always identified myself as an environmentalist, but from 2005 to Nov. 2008 I was instead a jaded ex-environmentalist. I didn't litter or ask for extra styrofoam packaging, but I didn't deprive myself of anything I wanted. Why bother?
Barack Obama's election forced me to rethink. In fact, that night, when I came in from literally dancing in the street, my wife asked if I planned to give up beef again. I said no, and it felt right, but I didn't have a solid reason. Now, thanks to my angry vegetarian friend, I finally have a cohesive philosophy.
Even during my four years of being jaded, I never stopped buying organic or sustainable produce, fertile eggs from pasture-raised chickens, line-caught fish, all that sort of thing.
I choose now to act only positively as a political buyer. I'm a locavore. I support people and businesses I believe in. But I don't bother to deprive myself of anything, because I don't see the point.
I haven't bought a Coca Cola in probably 20 years. I haven't bought a Hershey's bar in maybe 30 years. Neither is for political reasons; they're just too sugary and simple for me. Nonetheless, is the lack of my patronage, for whatever reason, hurting their bottom line? Of course not.
I can't stop the American beef industry from running roughshod over our public lands. But I can support a Marin County farmer who raises a small grass-fed herd sustainably. As often as possible, I will do that.
And when I don't -- when I decide to have a hunk of prime rib, or a corporate food product (I am NOT giving up LVMH Champagnes) -- I'm not going to feel guilty, no matter what my further-left friends say.
So that's my philosophy: Depriving oneself has no impact, but supporting good businesses has a positive impact.
And yes Michelle, that mass-murdered, genetically modified, antibiotic-laden turkey was mighty good. Try it next year with some giblet gravy, made from the tasty internal organs. Mmm, mmm.