The conscientious philistine

| 09 Mar 2012 | 11:04

    Whenever I eat shrimp tails, people look at me like I just helped myself to a heaping spoonful from the tub of butter in the middle of the table. If they’re not strangers, and sometimes even if they are, they ask: Did you just eat the tail? I nod. I am chewing. It takes a minute. Few are satisfied with this answer. Most have to follow up with: Why?

    My stock answer is that crustacean shells are a natural source of glucosamine, a supplement that helps build cartilage and is probably good for the knee whose ACL I tore two years ago.

    That satisfies them. The statement is scientifically true, as far as I know. It is not, however, the truth.

    The truth is I have always eaten shrimp tails. I am mystified by other people’s reasons for not eating shrimp tails. I imagine it must be one of those texture-based objections, although I don’t interrogate them, because I know from experience how annoying that can be. Plus, I’m still chewing.

    I eat shrimp tails because I eat everything: the cartilage off the ends of chicken bones, unpopped kernels at the bottom of the popcorn bag. Husband Joe (lovingly) compares me to a (cute) whale eating krill. I just unhinge my jaw and swim.

    I ate everything until recently, that is. This fall, I stopped eating factory farmed meat. Since the earth became my beat, I’ve been reading nonfiction and watching documentaries, visiting farms and eating local and growing some of my own food. But it was one book, Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer – in fact, it was one passage in that book, which for a hot second I thought about reprinting here – that finally gave my superego the ammunition it needed to keep my id in check. But being a responsible citizen of the earth does not come as naturally to me as it does to, say, my big brother, who’s been uncomplainingly vegan for a decade. And the wild animal in me has been on the verge of bloodthirsty revolt every day since.

    I still eat “happy animals” that grazed on pasture while they lived, but that’s not the kind of meat that’s served at the average barbecue, and you can’t find it at the grocery store near me. Even most fish are off-limits in the happy animals diet, because of all the bystander fish, known as bycatch, that are inadvertently killed in the process of harvesting.

    Knowing what I now knew and couldn’t very well un-know, the happy animals diet seemed like the responsible choice. The only problem was that it was proving unsustainable. As soon as my superego let down its guard, my id would blatantly disobey this new code of conduct. I’d get drunk and find myself polishing off chicken wings.

    The day after Thanksgiving I hit on a compromise. I was in a friend’s kitchen, watching him wash dishes and considering helping. A turkey carcass with plenty of dark meat still on it was marinating in a tray of its own juice, which had pomegranates and mangoes floating around in it. He was going to throw it away. What a tragic denouement to that ShopRite turkey’s unhappy life. This I could help with. I sat at the island in the middle of the kitchen and worked that turkey until it was picked clean. I felt grateful. And just plain full. The wild animal in me had been sated.

    I’d figured out how to toe the line between living responsibly and savoring life’s gravy. It was possible to be a conscientious philistine. The combination of eating happy animals and eating meat that would otherwise be thrown away might necessitate a bit of patience, but in the end, very little self abnegation. People are constantly throwing food away for silly reasons.

    Which brings us back to shrimp tails. Platefuls of those crunchy delights are always headed for the trash, which makes them a mainstay of the conscientious philistine’s diet. Excuse my reach.

    What? Oh, they’re a natural source of glucosamine.

    Becca Tucker, editor