Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas Tradition

In a well-intentioned and well-written recent article, newspaper columnist Sarah Hampson puts the case for family tradition when it comes to holiday food:
Rituals and traditions are a certainty in an uncertain world. They remind us that some things don’t have to change. And they cement our group identity. … They both obviate and trigger emotions. They’re a continuum from the past into the future; an attempt to ritualize love; to make it endure. And they express our need to reach for a past we can never fully recover or precisely remember. (“In praise of ‘bullet buns,’ rum balls, and other odd family traditions,” Globe and Mail, December 22, 2014)
As you might expect, Hampson has little interest in exploring alternatives to the Christmas food traditions of her family: "Needless to say," writes Hampson, "this is not a household that would tolerate Tofurky." The most important implication of that statement is clear, though I imagine it is not one realised by the author. Any North American household that, in the name of tradition, will not tolerate any shift away from egg-based, dairy product-based, and turkey-based foods is a household that gives its unwavering support to the practices of North American factory farming practices. Those practices entail not merely killing endless numbers of innocent non-human animals, but also making them suffer throughout their lives. Unless we eat only the much more expensive meat and eggs and dairy products that we know come from free-range animals (or unless we refrain from eating animal products, which is surely best of all), we are entirely complicit in that cruelty. In the end, no amount of rhapsodizing about tradition can hide that fact.

To be fair, it is a difficult thing to face up to the degree that our food traditions are based on horrific cruelty to non-human animals, and tradition of the sort Hampson describes is something worth caring about. But one can keep the traditions that don't entail cruelty while jettisoning the traditions that do; surely that is preferable to endeavoring to hold on to all family traditions, no matter how much pain they cause others. We all see this point clearly when we hear about certain traditions in other parts of the world--traditions in many parts of Asia, for example, that involve the intensive farming of dogs who are then killed and eaten. Sad to say, our own practices are just as cruel.

One of the best and most warm-hearted discussions of how to change while still being kind to the humans we love is Jonathan Saffron Foer’s Eating Animals. The account in that book of how Saffron Foer deals with his grandmother's feeling that eating chicken is a form of family love when he has come to realise that dead birds reach North American tables only after unspeakable suffering that he cannot accept, is wonderful reading for anyone who cares both about tradition and about animals--human or non-human.

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