NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

November 21, 2012

Feasting on what?

Viewpoint
Stuart Deane

---- — Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, but I now have a little complication.

My daughter-in-law and little grandson follow a vegan diet — she by choice, he by being a toddler who eats what she puts down in front of him. The same goes for my son, though he is not averse to throwing a steak or a chicken breast on the grill for guests or even for himself.

The holiday is my favorite because it is the least commercial, without the gift-buying frenzy of Christmas. The family simply sits down together at a meal — traditionally a turkey with all the fixings.

As for my daughter-in-law, she has made the choice on ethical, environmental and health grounds. I respect her choice.

But what to do at Thanksgiving?

The obvious answer is to have an alternative main course — as the sole dish when at her house, as a second dish when at another family member’s table.

But this has got me to thinking. Is it ethical to slaughter animals for food?

My mother’s side of the family came from a long line of Vermont farmers who were well-versed in the first-hand harvesting of animals.

My father’s family was a generation removed from Western Massachusetts farm life, but we gathered at Thanksgiving for the traditional turkey dinner, rotating between my grandparents’ house, our house, that of an aunt and uncle, all in Athol, and another aunt and uncle on Beacon Hill in Boston.

The first aunt and uncle were famous for their “surprise” dishes prior to the main course. My uncle was a hunter, and my aunt cooked what he brought home.

“Try it! You’ll like it!” they would urge us children, amused at our unease. Usually it was something like partridge, pheasant or raccoon in a pot pie recipe. And, yes, it did taste like chicken.

So, indeed, in addition to the commercially raised turkey, we were also exposed to game animals, just like generations before had procured food under the Biblical imperative for man to have dominion over “the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea.”

So why a vegan lifestyle?

I understand the qualms about the taking of life. The omnivore’s response, I suppose, is that these creatures in the modern supply line would not have existed if not for the need for food. That’s why they were bred, probably artificially. Hunters would argue the need for culling the herd in the complex food web of the natural world. As for fish, I am reminded of Ben Franklin’s observation on eating fish that if not by him, then his dinner would have ultimately been eaten by the next larger fish in the sea.

I don’t quite get the non-dairy component of the vegan lifestyle. I guess I think of my grandfather’s dairy herd, brought in from the pasture for milking, then turned back out for foraging. As a matter of fact, it was the grandchildren’s “chore” to bring in the cows when we were visiting. I think more of “contented cows” here than taking advantage of or mistreating animals.

Another argument for the vegan lifestyle is that it is more efficient, more sustainable for the environment. Protein-rich soybeans are closer to the base of the food pyramid than cattle. Less energy is necessary to produce food. Growing soybeans is thus more eco-friendly. No argument here on that.

Finally, as for health, I think the jury may still be out on the vegan diet. Do these consumers get enough calories, enough protein? Do they get all the building blocks? I wonder, for my grandson’s sake, but his pediatrician, herself a vegan, assures my son and daughter-in-law that such a diet is healthy and that their little son is progressing nicely.

Admittedly, red meat is not good for the cholesterol. It may have other impacts as well. Who knows? Scientific research keeps surprising us with different results, often contradictory. For the time being, I come down on the side of the balanced diet from all the food groups. All things in moderation.

Still, I would not like the chore of the early farmer in putting meat on the table. I will take the coward’s way and head for the grocery store. I have mixed feelings about all this, and I still think about it, but I don’t mind carving a turkey for Thanksgiving.

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Stuart Deane lives in Newburyport.