Saturday, February 21, 2009

fish are friends (not food?)

If you've got a toddler living in your house, you recognize that line. Finding Nemo's character Bruce the Shark's 12-step program for "nice sharks, not mindless eating machines" begins with a pledge that concludes with the mantra: "fish are friends, not food." Nemo is Clare's current TV obsession; so Bruce the Shark's fish-friendly mantra has been repeated about three times a day for the past week during Clare's mid-winter break. (Don't worry, we've done other stuff too--fingerpainting, trips to the playground, a quick jaunt out to Princeton to say goodbye to friends moving overseas, that sort of thing. It's not all glassy-eyed TV coma around here.) She's a mimicry machine these days and so of course, not only is Bruce repeating his mantra three times a day, Clare wants to remind me too: fish are friends, not food.

We also made a short little shopping trip and picked up Eric Carle's Mister Seahorse for Clare. It's a beautiful book, with a cute little story about (of course) Mr. Seahorse and other various fish for whom the "daddies" are the primary nurturers of their offspring. [pause for tangential children's book critique: while I love the role reversal that is the theme of the book, the Mr. and Mrs. names for all the fish pairs irk me a bit, and when Mr. Bullhead tells Mr. Seahorse proudly that his eggs have hatched and he is now "babysitting," I can't help but hear echoes of a friend's anecdote about the absurdity of calling a daddy's care of his own kids "babysitting."] Mr. Seahorse, who keeps the seahorse eggs in his pouch; Mr. Kurtus, who sticks them on his head; Mr. Pipe, who keeps them on his belly; and Mr. Tilapia, who carries them in his mouth.

On this week's menu: pecan-crusted tilapia.

I'm not sure Clare will eat it. She might refuse on toddler-intuited principle. And hell, even my vegetarian baby sister will eat fish occasionally. (Pesky-vegetarian.) (Just kidding, mei-mei. You are a delightful vegetarian who makes a kick-butt curried butternut squash bisque.)

But the problem's worse than whether or not I can convince my toddler to ignore her Nemo-indoctrination and eat her fish, because the real issue to decide beforehand is whether or not I should. Aside from the fact that my Shoprite-bargain frozen tilapia fillets hail from China rather than sustainably managed US farms, (damn! should've known), the prior philosophical dilemma of how we define food and how to eat well are raised.

This is an ongoing negotiation for me. Not convinced yet that vegetarianism is mandated, I try to at least consume meat responsibly; this means, basically, eating less meat, and whenever possible, taking into account the practices that provide our meat. (These two things are mutually reinforcing, since free-range/organic/sustainable meat is more expensive.)

Fish are friends, not food: it's a curious mantra when you get down to it, the opposition of "friends" and "food" as categories. It reminds me of one of Mary Warren's seven multileveled criteria for personhood, specific personal relationship. She argues that even if you don't consider cats (for example) as "persons" categorically speaking, you're pretty likely to consider your own cat a "person," or something like a person, because you have a relationship with that specific cat. Now this makes sense, but by itself, the logic is inadequate. The big loophole of course is that we could turn it around and say, "I don't know you personally therefore you are not a person"--leading to a great rationalization for, say, killing people in a war. Just for example. We have a word for this of course: dehumanization. (Warren's proposal balances this criterion with several others, so this is not a criticism of her proposal as a whole.)

Fish are friends, not food: what kind of relationship is necessary with another creature to preclude categorizing it as 'food'? Pretty much everyone will stop short of human cannibalism; pretty much everyone would refuse to eat their own pet; pretty much everyone would refuse to eat other animals of the same kind as their pet. This is true even in places in China where dog is an acceptable meat for some dishes; I learned in Changsha that there is a particular breed of dog for eating, and it is not a dog one would keep as a pet--it has its own distinct ontological category. I wonder if people who keep aquariums feel queasy about eating fish. I bet most of them, like dog-eaters, accommodate by drawing more specific ontological boundaries.

What will I tell Clare? Will she connect the pecan-crusted tilapia fillet on her plate to Nemo and Mr. Tilapia, the good daddy fish with his mouth full of baby fish eggs? Or will there be an obvious and distinct ontological boundary provided, courtesy of the rounded edge of her plate--separating food from the rest of the natural world--to prevent her from making that connection?

The truth is, "there is no way to eat and not to kill, no way to eat and not to become-with other mortal beings to whom we are accountable, no way to pretend innocence or transcendence or a final peace" (D. Haraway, When Species Meet, 295). But this admission is no blank check, as if by acknowledging that we live via the practice of consuming our others, we put ourselves beyond redemption and therefore accountability. It matters how we eat, by what lives and in what we ways we sustain ourselves. Recognizing that the category of "food" overlaps with the categories of other creatures with whom we have relationship (acknowledged or not, functional or dysfunctional, personal or not, sustainable or unsustainable) is part of what it must mean to well, and not blindly. Bruce reassures us: "I am a nice shark, not a mindless eatin' machine." We too can at least aspire to be more than mindless eating machines. That fillet in my freezer is a fish: once a living, swimming creature with physical needs and competencies and intents, different from my own, but no less vital from the fish's point of view. Perhaps that fish once carried his baby fish eggs in his mouth, like Mr. Tilapia of Eric Carle's story. If Clare can make that connection, how can I deny it? Certainly not without distorting reality for the sake of maintaining a false purity of boundaries in pursuit of the innocence Donna Haraway assures me does not exist--and which, in the end, if she learns anything from me, she will dismantle as an adult. Maybe it's too difficult a truth for a toddler to understand, that killing and eating cannot be hygienically separated...and yet, Nemo's mommy gets eaten, as do all his siblings, at the very beginning of that Disney narrative; and Bruce the Shark's mantra is bookended by Nigel the pelican's dry comment, "Fish gotta swim, birds gotta eat."


kel said...

you could tell her that the movie was just being funny, because sharks have to eat fish. obviously irony isn't age appropriate, but she might get the idea that people say things that aren't true to be funny. it's not a lie if people are aware that you're saying it to be funny. that's my take anyway.

i think an interesting conversation would be that sharks don't have other options, they have to eat fish, and cows have to eat grass, but there's no one thing humans can eat and get all of our nutrition (with the one huge exception of manna), and the one thing we can't survive without is variety.

Anonymous said...

This was really a fun post to read. It sparked several questions that are real (relate to each of us) and deserve time and consideration. Taylor hasn't seen Nemo in a while, so I don't know how she'd react to Bruce's comments or if it would even stick with her. On the other hand, in her play food there is a fish and one day I was pretending to eat the fish and she yelled at me, "No, Mommy! We do NOT eat fish!" The fish was then moved to the general play toy basket.

I have to say that (even though I am a vegetarian) I am not opposed to eating meat from animals who lived a "good" life. Animals who grazed on pastures and were able to reproduce and weren't injected with hormones and unnecessary antibiotics. But as you mentioned, that type of meat is expensive compare to the unethically raise (my opinion) meat that lays in my grocer's freezer.

I haven't gotten all this figured out yet and I doubt I will anytime in the near future. So for now, I'll just keep doing as Dory says and "just keep swimming."

Oh, and when Taylor went through her Eric Carle stage we got Mister Seahorse. Come to think of it, he could have called it Daddy Seahorse, but then it might not have expressed the fact they were married. You know they've changed the ending of The Little Red Hen from when we were little. I guess people didn't want her to eat her bread with all those illegitimate children of hers. Who knows? Politics is everywhere.

Stasi said...

Check out the work of Stephen Webb (a Christian philosopher writing about vegetarianism from a distinctly Christian perspective).