Monday, October 5, 2015

Good and bad culinary traditions

Whenever I travel, checking out the local cuisine is a big part of the experience. While I obviously try to check out vegan restaurants (if they exist), I also like to examine what people eat in general. On a recent trip to France, I thought a lot about tradition in food and how this relates to the embracing (or not) of new ideas (such as veganism) that often cause a break from tradition.

France, as most of you already know, boasts one of the world's most renowned cuisines. Many people come to France for this reason alone - to try the food. Now, generally speaking, there is nothing wrong with being happy with your country's culinary accomplishments. Unfortunately, much of France's extremely diverse and often tasty cuisine comes at the expense of animal lives and animal suffering. Don't get me wrong, France is not the only place where cruelty is part and parcel of culinary tradition. This is true of most cuisines around the world. It is, however, one the proudest countries when it comes to this, and, in my experience, one that is very reluctant to let go of its traditions, some of which are pretty cruel. We all know about foie gras, with its incredibly cruel method of force-feeding ducks and geese before killing them and eating their liver. According to a poll conducted in 2014, almost 50% of French people said they would support a ban on force-feeding ducks and geese when making foie gras. Good news, but one can't help but feel a little sad that over half the people in that country still don't mind that these animals suffer so much. To see just how cruel French cuisine can be, one need look no further than "ortolans", a dish which basically involves cooking a beautiful songbird alive. The practice is currently (thankfully) banned in the EU, but some French chefs would like the ban to be lifted. Why? Because, to them, it is tradition.

The following message is not only for the French (and others) who support foie gras, ortolans or other horrorshow food; nor is it only for the apologists of bullfighting around the world, though it applies to both of these cases. It is meant for anyone that glorifies a tradition despite the harm that it causes to other sentient beings. The message is simple: A tradition that involves animal suffering and death is not a tradition worth keeping. Looking down on your plate and seeing the remains of a living sentient being, any sentient being, should bring one shame, not pride. And the more suffering that was involved in bringing the meat (or other animal product) to that plate, the more shame one should feel. And it doesn't matter how beautifully you dress it up, because that's just smoke and mirrors designed to prevent you from thinking about the suffering. The exquisite garnishes master chefs use to make lamb look good on your plate should not distract your attention from the fact that an innocent animal lost its life so that you could have a momentary (and ultimately unnecessary) pleasure. If a restaurant’s menu is made up of meat, dairy, and egg products, it doesn't matter how many stars it was given by a Michelin guide, or how many tourists line up outside its door every afternoon. We have come to a time in our evolution, when an ethical approach to cuisine should trump all of this.

The solution, then, is to create a new tradition that is not based on cruelty. The people who I find the most inspiring, from a culinary point of view, are those that break new ground by finding innovative ways to make super tasty cruelty-free food. France is struggling with this. Out of all the countries that I've visited, it has the fewest number of vegan restaurants (and I'm talking about big cities, not small towns). I'm not sure if this is because of the general pride in traditional French cuisine, a lack of knowledge about the rich variety of vegan cuisine, or because people just don't care enough about animals... possibly a combination of all three. French chefs are renowned for being wonderfully innovative and creating spectacular world-class culinary concoctions. Hopefully, in time, more of them will start being innovative with plant-based cuisine, and in doing so give it some of the renown currently enjoyed by its traditional cuisine.