Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What Exactly Is Eating Grass? (A Rant About Language)

(Pardon me while I rant a moment.  If you’re not into ranting, check back here tomorrow for some discussion on vegan probiotics!)

Can you tell me what is wrong with this next sentence?  “We eat a lot of grass-fed beef.”

I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it.  It’s the phrase “grass-fed beef.”  Beef, as I understand it, doesn’t eat anything.  Because beef is dead.  It’s the chopped up remains of a dead animal.  That animal was once a cow, and it’s been transformed into beef.  I object to the transformation of language that we use to distinguish living, breathing, eating animals from the dead ones that become beef.

I hate the language of meat.  I find it deeply offensive that we have so many words to describe the body parts that we remove from the animals we have killed.  I hate the words beef, pork, and poultry.  I think it speaks volumes about our bloody hands that we use different language for food than we do for the living animals that become our food.  Of course this isn’t the case with all food: we talk about eating chicken or turkey or duck or even alligator.  But to that counterexample, I love what Colleen Patrick-Goudreau says: “Do you eat chickens?”  Notice the plural.  Because if you eat meat, you aren’t just eating chicken.  You are eating chickens, many of them over the course of your lifetime.  And think about vegetables for a moment.  I wouldn’t ask someone, “Do you eat tomato?”  I’d ask, “Do you eat tomatoes?”  Though it is interesting to note that when we talk about not liking something, we’re more likely to use the singular: “I don’t like eggplant.”

Back to the issue of grass-fed animals.  I do think that people who seek out grass-fed cows are to be applauded for choosing the healthier, more environmentally responsible choice.  I don’t want to eat grass-fed cows, but as an environmental vegetarian, I feel like we have common ground in our concern for the health and welfare of the animals, the humans who raise them, and the nutritional profile of the food.  I believe that there will always be people who want to eat meat, and I’d rather they have a more humane choice than factory-farmed animals.

Still, the phrase “grass-fed beef” just doesn’t work for me.  Neither does “pasture-fed meat,” or any variation that doesn’t reflect the idea that these were living animals that were eating grass.  The language gets even trickier when we’re talking about milk from grass-fed cows.  “Grass-fed butter”?  That doesn’t even make sense!  To get around this problem, I take the time to say “butter made from the milk of grass-fed cows.”  Because I want to remind people that all these animal products, whether it’s meat, milk, butter, or eggs, come from living animals.  As soon as our language starts to slip away from that reality, we are distancing ourselves from the realities of our food supply.  What the cow eats, I eat.  And if the cows are sick, as so many of them are on factory farms and feedlots, I will become sick.  Maybe not today or tomorrow from E. coli, but perhaps twenty years from now with heart disease or cancer.

I feel really passionately about this issue.  When it comes to food, we all have to choose a side because we all have to eat.  Whether or not you eat meat dead animals, you have chosen a side in the political battle that is food.  I want to come down on the side of health, compassion, and sustainability, and all three of those things require that we see things clearly.  We have to see ourselves as connected to the means by which our food is grown, and to me, that means seeing animals as living animals, not just the “grass-fed beef” that might show up on your dinner plate.


Shannon said...

i like it! i've always thought the wording was a bit off... and it's like people don't connect the dots. like they think ignorance is ok on that front?

Rosiecat said...

Thank you, Shannon! I wondered if this would make sense to anyone else, or if I'm a nutcase for making a big deal about it. I'm glad it resonated with you :-)

About ignorance: I think that's spot-on. For as much as you and I know about food (because we care about food and cooking and health), there is so much ignorance out there. I don't want to beat people up, but there is so much at stake with our health that we are ignorant at our own peril. I want to help connect the dots.

Raquelita said...

Hmmm.... I think one of the issues is that for plants that we don't eat all of we do sometimes use specific words to reference that - like we qualify artichoke hearts or we refer to broccoli florets versus stems.

I'm going to be thinking about this some more. I might even do a little etymological research because clearly there is a long history of using different terms to refer to different cuts of meat/dead animal, etc.

Rosiecat said...

Hi, R! Good point about the plants. I'd add that we do keep the name of the plant: BROCCOLI florets or ARTICHOKE hearts. (Mmm, I love artichoke hearts.)

I don't have a problem with having specific names for cuts of meat. But again, we talk about pork shoulder, not pig shoulder or a beef brisket, not a cow brisket.

I would love to hear more about the etymological origins of this practice! I'm pretty sure the food names (like beef or pork) are from French, while the living animal names (like cow or pig) are from old English. But beyond that...? So yes, put those historian skills to work and report back :-) (in your "spare time," of course...right? Right!)

Raquelita said...

Very preliminary investigation shows that beef comes from Latin (bovinus) via Old French and was being used in English by the fourteenth century. Cow comes from Old German (and referred specifically to female bovines). Beef-cow seems to have been a relatively common usage until the 19th century. Pork comes from the Anglo-Norman for pig, so they were probably once basically interchangeable Pork also seems to have been used in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period to refer to pig meat that was uncured. I shall continue occasional digging when I am tired of grading and have some time. :)

Rosiecat said...

Thanks, R! It's nice having a historian around :-) Some of my favorite people were history majors in college.

Anglo-Norman...that seems like it implies both the people of the British Isles and the coast of what is now France. So perhaps the word pork has roots in more than one language?

Jeremy said...

This is a great post. Our language most definitely informs our perceptions, and hence affects our choices. And it's probably not a stretch to suppose that the animal industry prefers that we separate ourselves from the truthful descriptions.

A side: the term meat wasn't always exclusive to animal flesh. Meat and mead was food and drink. I like to think of my vegetables as meat :)