Meat and mystery

Another day, another tale of mystery meat.

Nestle voluntarily recalled two of its Hot Pocket products as part of a larger meat recall….

These products may have been affected by a recall by Rancho Feeding Corp. last week of 8.7 million pounds of beef product.

Regulators said the company processed “diseased and unsound animals” without a full federal inspection, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA says the products were unfit for human consumption.

What, faced with such horror, are the temptations? One is to crawl back under the covers and hide, to gnaw our Hot Pockets in nurtured ignorance. Another is to raise the hue and cry, to demand regulation or retribution, after which (we hope, stupidly) all will again be well. A third is to run away, retreat, withdraw into a culinary monastery of one, refusing to eat anything that might be tainted.

All three temptations lead us wrong. All three reinforce the error that led wrong us in the first place — that raised livestock to disease and unsoundness, hashed them into “beef product,” flavored them with chemicals, wrapped them in pastry and called them dinner.

What is at bottom wrong with our food system is that it indulges our desire to believe ourselves separate, apart, above. Food is grown from mud and shit. Every living thing is nourished by the death of another, or of many others. We rely on an earth we cannot control for our sustenance and on the decency and goodwill of others to bring it to us. Nature is messy. Life is messy.

The supermarket permits none of this. Dinner is chopped, diced, sized, sorted, arranged, flavored, cheerfully labeled, engagingly presented, laboratory-fresh, untouched by human hands, neat and clean and ordered.


What is at bottom wrong with our attempts to reform that system—with any of the actions or inactions that commonly tempt us—is they indulge our desire to believe ourselves separate, apart, above. Ignore the cracking dike, the chaos insistently leaking through? Check. Demand a solution? More laws, more order? Punish the transgressors? Check. Withdraw into an order of our own?


I would not trust myself to be a vegan; I struggle as it is not to think myself better, apart, alone. To be a vegan would be merely self-righteous of me. And gain me no purity: Anything can be contaminated, by germs or by sins, even — especially — something I grew and prepared myself.

And yet to do nothing is merely self-indulgent. If I buy a piece of meat I try to know what I can about it, about the animal from which it was cut, about the people who raised it and killed it and cut it, about the sunlight and the grass and the feed. More important: I try to remind myself of the limits of that knowledge, of what is unknowable. I cannot trust but verify; I must only, past some point, trust. Even if I raise the animals myself, even if I fry an egg from my own chickens, at some point I have to trust. I have to trust my own eyes and labor, the health of the bird and the wholesomeness of the scratch. Learn, study, know what is knowable, but then have faith and engage.

Engage. Embrace the mess. Avoid anything that hides it, anything that denies the death behind the life. Avoid the pretense to order, the institution and the corporation and the factory. Read the label; know that it tells you nothing of importance. Trust a smile and a scent and an echo of sunlight. Seek out the human and the dirty and embrace it. You are human and dirty; seek out yourself and embrace it. We are tangled up in all this mess, and cannot untangle except by death — and not even then. Engage.

Accept that in your inevitable engagement you are vulnerable.

And then pray, humbly. Thank you, Lord, for this meal: for the animal that gave its life that we might be nourished; for the farmers who raised it and grew our vegetables; for the workers who shipped our grain and baked our bread and butchered our meat and sold us our food. Watch over them and care for them, and make us all more able and willing to care for one another.

Meat, perhaps, shouldn’t be a mystery. But life most certainly is. When we choose how to nourish our bodies we choose also how to nourish our souls, and in thinking to sever that connection we made our great mistake — and still do.