June 4, 2009

The Compassionate Carnivore by Catherine Friend

For a while now, I've felt like a hypocrite. I love meat. I mean, I really Love meat. But the inhumane living conditions, and even worse, the dying conditions that many animals raised for food experience on factory farms and in standard assembly-line meat processing plants disturbs me. It isn't the act of eating another creature that bothers me. I'm a human and, as such, I'm an omnivore, which means that my diet consists of both meat and veg in varying degrees depending on the budget, my iron levels and what I happen to feel like cooking.  What does bother me, however, is needless suffering. I don't think that the animals that will become the meat I eat should have to suffer for the privilege of feeding me. So I've been at a cross-roads for about a year, unwilling to completely give up the yumminess of meat, but increasingly unable to stomach the practices that put it on my plate.

Given this backpack full of guilt, empathy and hypocrisy, I didn't feel prepared to read Catherine Friend's book, The Compassionate Carnivore, when it came out a year ago. I made excuses like, "I'm not ready to think about this yet" and "I'll check it out soon...." Well, I finally did check it out and it was, in two words, freaking excellent. 

Friend is a life-long carnivore. She also raises sheep on a small farm in Minnesota with her partner. They sell their sheep for meat. They eat the sheep they raise, and they raise those sheep in such a manner that they have very good, safe, sheep-like lives, before they fulfill they're ultimate destinies as lamb chops and mutton. I say all this upfront, because it's important to understand that Friend's point of view is one that stems from respect - for the farmers, for the consumers and especially for the animals.

Friend is not about giving up meat. In fact, that's the opposite of helpful if one's concern is animal welfare. Rather, Friend would have meat-eaters continue to eat meat with one important change. Think about where your meat comes from and make a conscious choice about the kind of meat you buy - organic or local? Vegeatarian fed or grass fed, or grass finished for that matter? Slaughtered humanely (I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but it isn't) or herded into meat-packing plant's disassembly line? 

Once you've decide what kind of meat you want to eat, the next step, according to Friend, is to vote with your dollar. Support small farmers whose practices reflect whatever it is that you feel is important, whether its sustainability or humane treatment or just a little less corporate agra-business putting the squeeze on family farms. 

What really makes The Compassionate Carnivore work is a combination of two things. The first is Catherine Friend's humor, empathy and total lack of bull-shit. Not only has she been through the meat-eater / animal lover's conundrum that I outlined above, but she's still going through it, and rather than taking an all or nothing approach, she recommends baby-steps, as in her experience, you have to be patient with yourself if you want to make a lasting change.  The second thing is the abundance of resources she gives you to help you educate yourself and make whatever changes are right for you. This book never once hit a preachy note - a pleasant and important surprise considering how volatile the subject is.

All in all, I would recommend The Compassionate Carnivore to anyone - to those who eat meat with joyful abandon, as well as to those who have given it up because of fear of animal cruelty. What Catherine Friend outlines is a middle-road full of good humor and dual-perspectives. On the one hand, it's vital to have compassion for the environment and for the creatures who will one day become our food. On the other hand, it's vital to have compassion for yourself, which is something that I needed to hear.