The Turkey That Will Change Your Life

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. All over the United States, people are traveling, packing, cooking, gearing up. Children have spent the past several weeks cutting out pumpkins and happy fowl, writing poems about why they are thankful and learning about hungry pilgrims and generous Native Americans. As part of this celebration of abundance and community, supermarkets are packed with shoppers, pie mix, sweet potatoes, and, of course, turkeys. These turkeys come in all shapes and wrappings: there are the classic Butterballs, injected with extra juice and wrapped in opaque plastic. There are the high-end “free-range birds” you can order in advance and even wild turkeys raised on special farms. These “lucky birds” have not been genetically engineered to have gigantic breasts like the rest of their doomed kin; in fact, their legs are so long that it’s a challenge to get them in the oven.

Then there is the presidential turkey pardon. Once a year, in a fantastically bizarre tradition, the President of the United States picks one of two turkeys from a nearby farm and “pardons” it. This turkey will live to see another November. The other one goes home to slaughter. There’s a great espisode of the West Wing where C.J. spends all the day with the turkeys in her office and then tries to save the unlucky bird.

This is my first American Thanksgiving in a long time. It is my children’s first. We usually live in Argentina, a country where people love to eat animals but not turkey and not on the last Thursday in November. We are also vegetarians, one of the many reasons we haven’t reproduced the Thanksgiving tradition in our mid-summer calendar. This year, our contribution to the family table will be Shepard’s pie made with crumbly pieces of soy and mashed potatoes.

Over the past few weeks, my son, the older and more neurotic of the two, has begun to develop an anxiety that someone will make him eat turkey on Thanksgiving. My daughter is hoping that she will get a taste of the forbidden bird. When she was four, someone asked her what she wanted to be when she grows up. Her answer was simple: “A carnivore.” My husband is a strict vegetarian (and the chef of the Shepard’s Pie), while I have fallen into the common trap of calling myself a vegetarian but eating sushi when I’m out with my girlfriends and succumbing to tuna-fish sandwiches when I crave them. I became a vegetarian at 15 as an adjunct to my adolescent eating disorder and as another way to annoy my mother. I relented when I moved to Argentina (because there was nothing else to eat). It is actually true that Argentine beef is as delicious as everyone says. During both of my pregnancies I discovered a taste for blood sausage and devoured great quantities of all varieties of animal flesh. My explanation was that I “needed it.” I craved what Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee has called “death juices.” But pregnancy seems to give women license to justify their irrational behavior with impunity.

My husband looked at me in disbelief (and sometimes disgust) as I deepened my study of yoga and continued to eat chicken and fish. Just as ignorance is the field in which all of the other mental poisons or kleshas grow, ahimsa or non-violence is the first of Patanjali’s yamas (or ethical restraints) and the soil in which all of yoga practice is rooted. Jainism bases its entire theology on this simple idea, and orthodox Jain practitioners sweep the earth before them in order to avoid inadvertently killing any organisms in their path. This practice, along with straining their drinking water to avoid swallowing tiny creatures, can appear extreme to Western eyes, but Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai (to name a few) have transformed the world with this same principle; they have embodied non-violence in the face of the world’s aggression. As their bodies attest, their courage comes at a great cost.

Avidya is the Sanskrit word for ignorance and etymologically it means to see without clarity. In his commentary on the Yoga Sutra, Georg Feuerstein explains that avidya, “is not to be understood as mere lack of knowledge; it is the absence of self-awareness and thus, positively, false knowledge, distorted cognition. Avidya is the cause of the fatal epistemic dichotomization into subject and object which yoga seeks to remove.” Classical yoga describes our basic ignorance as confusing our bodies and minds with the “true Self.” It can also extend, I would argue, to confusing violence with satisfying our appetites.

This is a difficult subject, and people identify intensely with their camp. On one side are passionate vegans and on the other, Anthony Bourdain. In the middle are people busy living their lives and trying to support their families; people who want to make healthy choices but who also struggle to get dinner on the table at all. Outside of the conversation are millions of people who starve to death all over the world. Jonathan Safran Foer has written with courage and honesty about all of these ideas in his book Eating Animals. In an attempt to see clearly and to decide what to feed his own child (having been a lax vegetarian and relapsed meat-eater) he spent four years researching what it means to consume animals: the truth about factory farms, antibiotic resistance and the impact of raising livestock on the environment. Foer reveals in his poetic and laser-sharp prose that eating animals is devastating for the planet, bad for our health, dangerous for our children’s immunity (thanks to the massive use of antibiotics), and predicated on cruelty to animals that even horror films wouldn’t represent. I know many people who don’t want to read Foer’s book because they don’t want to change their lifestyle. I myself felt wrecked after finishing it, and missed the blind eyes I had cast on the factory-raised salmon and chicken breasts.

But blindness plays a crucial role here. To consume another living creature’s body is to turn a blind eye to its suffering, to the value and purpose of its life. I recently heard a scholar of the Yoga Sutra discuss ahimsa, or the principle of non-violence. He described the process of fishing. He asked us to envision the hook entering the fish’s skin and then digging in deep as the fish is pulled into the air, where it asphyxiates. How could we choose to inflict this suffering on another being? Why, asked the scholar, are we different from the fish?

I used to repeat the popular argument that animals eat animals, that they tear each other to pieces, that eating animals is “natural.” But for sentient beings with the capacity to choose and discern, eating animals just means that we choose violence over non-violence, that we believe animal suffering doesn’t matter, that we prefer to live comfortably and without sacrifice. Nutritional science has proven time and again that plant-based diets are better for us and that an excess of animal protein (see the average American diet) is correlated with all of the illnesses (cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke) that are currently killing us. You can read Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, the China Study and many other “reputable” sources for more detailed and depressing findings. These same authors also address the devastating impact of animal farming on the environment; a recent UN study placed livestock as one of the top three contributors to climate change. The only argument left for consuming animal protein is that it gives us pleasure and that it supports the economy of factory farms. The alternative, switching to a plant-based diet, could help us recover our health, heal the planet, and bring some of those millions of starving of people back into the conversation by feeding them with the grain we give to cattle and pigs. Not to mention sparing millions of animals the torture of being raised for slaughter in unimaginable conditions.

So much of modern life depends on cruelty that we do not see but that we tacitly condone. It’s hard to get through the day in a modern city without profiting in some way from child or migrant labor, environmental degradation, someone else’s poverty, and myriad other awful things. In addition to driving a car and living in a house without any renewable energy, I continue to buy water in plastic bottles when I get thirsty. I fly in commercial airplanes. I send my children to a privileged, suburban public school, while inner city schools are falling to pieces. I am hugely implicated in the suffering of samsara, another cog in the great wheel.

But I no longer want to be on the other end of the fishing line. I no longer want to pop a tuna roll in my mouth and fall into the “fatal epistemic dichotomization” of subject and object or the belief that the fish and I are separate, that I am indifferent to its suffering. The calamity of climate change hangs on this great avidya: I am separate from the fish. I am separate from the glaciers, from the air I breathe, from the rising seas. If we continue to believe in this separation, the field of avidya will swallow us whole.

In Eating Animals, Foer writes about his own family’s Thanksgiving and how it has evolved over the years. He describes their traditions and how certain things, like the presence of a turkey, have changed. Foer says: “Thanksgiving is the dinner that encompasses all others. The meal we aspire for other meals to resemble. The Thanksgiving table is not a sanctuary from the world, but a representation of our best hope for it.” We do not usualy tell our children the true story of the first Thanksgiving and the brutality inflicted on Native Americans. We tell them the story we aspire to, the story of our true values, instead of the historical record. Of course, everyone makes his or her own choices, and an ethical life depends on this freedom. As my children grow older and see that most of their friends eat meat, we talk about the fact that everybody makes a different choice and that’s fine. But let’s really choose, instead of simply repeating what we recognize, what we think is comfortable, what we have inherited as samskara from those before us. Is the shining, golden turkey at the center of the table our best hope? Could we treasure this family moment just as much without someone’s suffering (which is inevitably our own) at its center?

Today I went to pick up the turkey my siblings and parents will eat during our Thanksgiving dinner. I went to the Whole Foods in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where some of the most highly-educated and well-meaning people in the world buy their Thanksgiving groceries. A jolly man in a pilgrim hat handed the dead bird to me amidst pretty Christmas decorations and all manner of organic and “cruelty-free” food. I walked past a sign that said, “Eat like an idealist” and then encountered a poster of a woman holding a chicken. Emblazoned on the photo were the words: “Know what kind of life your dinner lived.”

Animals are not “our dinner.” Subject and object belong in books on grammar. Thanksgiving is an opportunity to reflect, to choose; as Foer writes, “To set the table, in this case, is to announce your vision of how things ought to be.” What is your vision? What does it really look like?

The November issue of Bon Appetit promises a recipe for “The turkey that will change your life.” Maybe this is it. Maybe this a chance to make a difference choice. I’ll send you the recipe for the crumbly soy Shephard’s pie. It’s delicious.

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