Sunday, June 27, 2010

Reading Masson's "The Face on Your Plate"

My experience reading Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's The Face on Your Plate: The Truth About Food.

Personally Motivating
Masson's argument against eggs and dairy is compelling and utterly convincing. I have a mostly vegan diet, and reading this book has motivated me to make the exceptions to that "mostly" as few and limited as I can (and perhaps doing away with the "mostly" part altogether).

Masson's discussion in the final chapter on the health benefits of a vegan diet and general prescriptions for healthy eating is also convincing for me. There's not too much he suggests that I haven't already heard about (and have been moving toward), but I still found reading it motivational and convincing.

It's not often I read a book that I can say will directly impact the way I live my life. I can say this about The Face on Your Plate. I want to point out that it makes some of the critiques I offer below seem a bit shallow.

Eating and Words
Masson discusses language of animals and food:

"The word 'veal' was chosen because it has no resonance in English. In fact, it is simply the translation of the French veau (calf) because it would offend some people's sensibilities to be asked if they would like to be served calf for dinner. It's not dissimilar from "pork," which comes from the French porc, meaning pig. Americans don't like to ask for a pig for breakfast. "Bacon" means nothing to us beyond its use for breakfast; we have no other associations. "Hamburger" or "burger" do not resonate with us or conjure up images of cows peacefully grazing, minding their own business and getting on with their own lives (We do, however, speak of chicken, lamb, and calves' liver without blushing--so, go figure)."

Masson is talking about the ways people often distance, distort, or hide our food choices so that they don't have to think about the animal they are actually consuming. This is, in my view, a real phenomenon, and there are many ways people do this (including the way we use language); Masson explores this well in the later chapter "Denial." But Masson states that the words are chosen deliberately to hide the animal ("was chosen because," "because it would"). I do not believe this to be the case: the history of the English language actually offers an explanation why our words for animals-as-food are often different from our words for actual-animals.

C.M. Millward explains in A Biography of the English Language that the English language has thousands of French "loanwords," brought in after the French speaking Normans conquered English speaking England in 1066. These loanwords entered several semantic areas, including food; Millward lists some French loanwords in English associated with food and eating:

"dinner, supper, taste, broil, fry, plate, goblet, serve, beverage, sauce, salad, gravy, fruit, grape, beef, pork, mutton, salmon, sugar, onion, cloves, mustard."

There are historical reasons why our words for animals-as-food feature French words (which seem disassociated with actual-animals to English speakers) and not match our words for actual-animals. Words involving food and eating feature a lot of French loanwords in part because "English household servants would have learned French words like table, boil, serve, roast, and dine." However, as Millward explains:

"With this pervasive influence of French in so many semantic areas, it is surprising (and even consoling) to discover that some aspects of English life remained relatively untouched by French loanwords. One [...] area was farming and agriculture in general. The word farm itself is from French, and agriculture is a loan from Latin. However, the Norman masters themselves apparently left their English servants to work the fields by themselves, for most basic farming terminology remains native English to this day."

Millward then provides a list of words associated with farming that "come down directly from Old English," including many words for animals: "ox, horse, cow, swine, sheep, hen, goose, duck."

There is the linguistic history of English that suggests Masson is inaccurate here: we have a lot of French words for animals-as-food and Anglo-Saxon words for actual-animals not as a deliberate con, but for specific historical reasons. But there are also a couple of tells in his paragraph which hint themselves that he's not quite right. One such tell is in his "go figure" parenthetical. In fact, we do have French loanwords for animals-as-food for chicken (poultry) and sheep (mutton), yet English speakers still often use the more familiar actual-animal word for these types of food: this suggests there is something other than distancing/distorting going on with the less familiar French words. And secondly, Masson's argument implicitly suggests that English speakers from around the world are subject to and party to a linguistic conspiracy to distance and distort the reality of meat from eaters, but that French speakers around the world are, apparently, more naturally comfortable linguistically admitting they are eating animals. This may be true, but I doubt it, especially since there is an historical linguistic explanation for French loanwords for food.

Perhaps Masson isn't indicting the English language itself of this distortion, but is referring only to the word "veal." But the Oxford English Dictionary (available online via subscription) defines veal as "1. The flesh of a calf as an article of diet" and "2. A calf, esp. as killed for food or intended for this purpose. Now rare." For the first definition, the OED cites Chaucer using the word around 1386, and a couple other references in the early 15th century. These uses almost seem to conflate the word "veal" as actual-animal and as animal-for-food: Chaucer writes "'Bet is,' quod he, 'a pyk than a pikerell, And bet than olde boef is the tendre vel'," and around 1400 Mandeville writes "Thei eten but lytille or non of Flessche of Veel or of Beef." These uses of "veal" are quite old, and appear not long after the French influence altered the English language. It would seem odd to me to argue that the word was "chosen because" it doesn't remind people they are eating a baby cow; it seems far more likely that the word wasn't really chosen at all, but simply entered English organically from the French influence.

The distancing of actual-animal from animal-as-food in an English speaker's consciousness may certainly be an effect of having different words for animals-as-food than for actual-animals. That is not, however, the cause of this difference.

This is not the only part of the book where I found Masson's argument sloppy (I'm not nearly as comfortable with the science as with the English language, but I'm pretty sure in the introduction Masson counters the argument that meat consumption had an evolutionary impact on human brain size relative to other primates by citing evidence that human brain size is impacted during infancy, and that the breast-feeding mother's diet--whether meating-eating, vegetarian, or vegan--has no impact on brain growth and size. Showing that meat-eating has no impact on contemporary human brain size relative to other humans is interesting, but doesn't seem to address the argument of how meat-eating affected human evolution to get us to this point, relative to other primates. But like I said, I'm not nearly as comfortable interpreting science as language, so I could be wrong--hence being stuck in parentheses). But these very occasional lapses in sound logic and evidence do not cause me to doubt Masson's larger points or his specific claims: he is generally narrow, specific, and diligent about identifying sources.

Personal Problems
I suffer from two problems when I read books that detail the reality and consequences of factory farming. The first is the repetition: no matter how informative or well-written, a lot of the material Masson presents I've already encountered in other books, articles, and blogs I've read as somebody who follows these issues. However, I don't see this as a significant problem: I still learn things, and I still find re-reading material educational and edifying.

My second problem is more existential: when I read about the ways humans are wrecking the earth, I tend to despair, losing hope that anything can or will be done about it. I used to be, on the whole (despite some obsessive-compulsive tendencies, paranoia, and anxiety) a largely optimistic person, seeing affirmations of life everywhere and feeling hopeful for the future. As I've learned more about the ways humans are devastating the environment, my long-range view has become, alas, rather pessimistic. Sometimes my greatest hope is just that the things humans are doing to wreck the earth don't take major effect until my children have lived long, happy lives.

I wouldn't blame reading about environmental issues alone on my nearly despairing pessimism. The hope I felt for political change in '06 and '08 was strong, but now I can't even envision the serious political will to end the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. And then there are the Minnesota Vikings. It may seem trivial in the big picture, but for over a decade, I believed at the beginning of each season that the Vikings were going to finally win the Super Bowl that season. After all the massive hopes of the 2009 season, for it to end the way it did in that NFC title game, I've gone into sports despair, which no doubt effects my broader view.

And I'm also now a parent. I love my children too dearly for words, and the strongest hopes I have are for them: that they are healthy, that they are happy, that their lives can be filled with joy and purpose, and that the world can be beautiful for them, that they can bring their beauty to the world. Having children is also nerve-wracking, filled with anxiety, fear, and (for me at least) near-constant worry. So to think about the future, while being aware of the impact humans are having on earth's environment, while hoping and fearing mostly for my children, can lead me toward a sense of dread.

Writing Problems
There are some repetition issues and some odd organizational choices in the book that do not negatively affect the reading. There was another problem, however. I think when vegetarians and vegans write about food and eating, it is necessary, effective, and understandable that they would insert themselves into the book to a certain degree. I think, however, this book features just a bit too much of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson sharing how interesting Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson is. That may sound harsh, and it's probably not that bad, but it's certainly the impression a reader can be left with as Masson ends the book by talking about which foods he likes best (and why) and describing the types of food he regularly eats. Sometimes Masson's inclusion of his own experiences or tastes don't really contribute much to the argument, and his use of himself as an anecdotal argument for veganism occasionally comes off as "Look at me: I'm 68 but look at all the amazing things I can do and how amazing I am."

Having said that, this is the kind of book Masson wanted to write, and frankly if I were going to write about the topic, I'd be constantly tempted to inject my own experiences and tastes, too. The subtitle of the book seems to suggest a more objective than subjective approach to the subject, but that doesn't mean that would actually be preferable, and that can be found elsewhere too. Just as Jonathan Safran Foer did in Eating Animals, I think on the whole it works for a vegetarian or vegan writer to inject his/her own idiosyncratic style and personality into the book.

That last chapter, "A Day in the Life of a Vegan"
The final chapter of the book features two parts, really: Masson gives a pretty good overview of the health impact of a vegan diet and advice for how to eat healthy, and then gives a description of the wide variety of healthy foods vegans can eat, as well as a description of the foods he eats. And while I criticized this point just a few sentences earlier (right up there!), I actually found the latter part interesting for reasons I don't understand. I have no idea why: there were a lot of plant-based foods discussed (most that I already know about and eat a lot), and Masson shared a lot of his personal history and liking for this food (which shouldn't interest me at all, but did). I know that as a mostly vegan vegetarian (who has also lost over 50 pounds and is concerned with living healthy), food is directly on my mind quite a bit, and I'm always conscious of what I'm eating, so it's what I want to talk about. I try to avoid it (why do others care what I'm eating), but I am glad Masson wrote about it.

However, I would make two points. First, in this chapter Masson does a great job selling the health benefits of a vegan lifestyle, but he doesn't do much to make it sound appealing to people who don't already like fruits and vegetables. I do, and found this interesting. If my brother (hi there, buddy) read this chapter, he wouldn't find the food terribly appealing. Having said that (I'm going to deliberately use this phrase frequently from now on to honor Jerry Seinfeld), how else can a vegan advocating a healthy lifestyle write about it? "You're supposed to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. Here are a bunch of the wide varieties of healthy and delicious fruits and vegetables." What are you supposed to do to convince somebody who doesn't like something that he/she should? It's like saying "Oh, you think soccer's boring, but you're wrong, you should find it interesting." It's a tough sell.

Second, while Masson seems to think he's describing his typical day as a vegan in order to show how easy and simple it is, his description is not, in fact, easy and simple. Hey, a writer describing his day as a vegan can only really describe his own day as a vegan, so it's hard to blame him. But I think a lot of readers would find his description a bit intimidating. Having said that, when a person adopts a way of living, it quickly becomes simple to him/her. In comparison to Masson, I think my typical vegan day is much, much simpler. However, if I started to explain it to others, the specifics of the description might make it seem more complicated than it really is. I take it for granted as easy, even lazy, but I think to others it may not be so.

On the whole
I'll finish with a melodramatic statement that I nevertheless believe is true. I wish for more people to read this book; I think the world will be a better place if they do.

1 comment:

  1. Hi.

    Your last sentence reminded me of this, from the inside cover of The God Delusion: "If this book doesn't change the world, we're all screwed."

    I know, a lame response to a well-written, long article. The part about French loan words was especially interesting. Linguistics for the win.

    I have hangups about eating me, just not enough to do anything about it. We are so removed from the disturbing aspects that the connection between a cow and a burger is rarely made.