The Kalabaw Paradox

How how indeed! - S
How how indeed! – Source

Ever since the age of 14, I have devoted inordinate thought to the ethics of meat-eating. Around that age, my mother became a pescatarian; and I, being a hopeless mama’s boy at the time, was quite ready to emulate her example. It wasn’t a difficult decision, and not just because she was the only person I was living with at the time, as well as the one who cooked my meals. I had always loved animals – as a person with autism, I often found them much easier to relate to than people. And although I was certainly a gluttonous little porker, meat was never one of my favorite things to stuff into my greasy little piehole – you could’ve given me a bag of salt & vinegar potato chips over a juicy T-bone any day of the week.

My first memory of wrestling with the thorny issue of culinary ethics was from fifth or sixth grade, on the playground with my inseparable chum Dan. At the time the media was abuzz with the clubbing of baby (“baby”) seals in the arctic, and Dan indignantly declared, with a withering contempt far beyond his years, that the same people who bellyache about seal clubbing don’t care about millions of chickens being killed everyday. I had no answer to this at the time, but perhaps my eventual vegetarianism was a delayed act of spite – an “I’ll show him”, with my revenge exacted a few years too late. He did have a point, though.

For the first eight years, I diligently followed the path of pescatarianism, my self-righteousness not always tempered by the fact that I was not a vegetarian at all. During this period I was once asked if I was one of those people who think fish are vegetables. I have no idea how I answered at the time, but I suppose I instinctually felt less kinship  with animals that don’t even breathe the same air as us. Nonetheless, my belief that only land animals had the right to not be killed and eaten eventually collapsed under its own absurdity, and I managed to transition into full-on lacto-ovo vegetarianism – to wit, the belief that animals should not be killed for their meat, but only brutally slaughtered when they cease to produce milk or unfertilized offspring, or happen to be born the wrong sex. Finally, I knew that righteousness was truly on my side!

In retrospect, with all the flaws inherent in any sort of partial vegetarianism, it seems like full-on veganism would have been the only truly moral stand. But at that point my life was about to undergo a huge change: I was leaving meat-crazed Canada for the even more meat-crazed Philippines.

About two days into my stay in Manila, it became clear to me that it was completely unfeasible to be even a lacto-ovo vegetarian in that meaty megalopolis – at least, while living the life of a cheap, lazy bachelor who refused to cook and wanted to eat exclusively in food courts. Basically, when it comes to cheap eats in Manila, you can have anything you want as long as it’s meat in a thick brown sauce. (To be fair, the situation has improved a bit in the years since I first arrived, but getting good and reasonably healthy food for cheap will still require some research and legwork.) It was then that I broke down and reverted to my older pescatarianism, pretty much living off deep-fried bangus (milkfish) for my first two months in the country.

Unfortunately, my love affair with bangus began to wind down when I met an American in Cebu who extemporaneously preached to me about the evils of fish farming, and how the avaricious fish pen owners will feed their fish the cheapest crap they can find. He pointed out that even Americans are advised to only eat farmed fish once a month, and that’s in a country with presumably more stringent food safety protocols. This man – who my father, whom I was traveling with at the time, thought might be a CIA agent, but who was probably just another white-guy-of-a-certain-age-“hanging-out”-in-the-Philippines (and the two do have virtually the same profile), did have a point. Whatever antibiotics they were presumably pumping into those fish pens by the kilogram, I’d probably developed an immunity to them by that point. A few months later my appetite for farmed fish decreased further during a massive fishkill in Taal Lake, where thousands (millions?) of fish died due to the lake being atrociously overstuffed with fish pens. I was an avid reader of the Philippine Daily Inquirer at the time – a habit I have since dropped due to my desire to not become suicidally depressed – and it was during this period that I learned all about the charming practice of feeding chicken manure and donut scraps to farmed tilapia. After that, I tried to eat more wild-caught seafood.

My next big dietary shift came six years later. I spent a year living in Davao City on the island of Mindanao, and although it was an unhappy period of my life (don’t ask), I was eating awfully well. Unlike Manila, where a lot of the cheaper seafood is basically bycatch – the little juvenile tunas they inadvertently dredge up while trying to catch the big fish that get sent off to Japan – in Mindanao I was eating the real deal. Every major market in the city was selling huge, tantalizing slabs of succulent, pink, completely boneless tuna, and I consumed it voraciously. And why not? The fish was by definition free-range, it was very healthy (if you weren’t a pregnant woman or child), and it was delicious. But then, of course, I ruined my own fun by using the Internet and defiling my mind with the poison of knowledge. Because guess what? Most seafood is horribly unsustainable, with the vast majority of the world’s fisheries grossly overexploited.

And so, in a supreme act of ethical self-immolation, I threw up my hands in frustration and decided to reintroduce a bit of meat into my diet, since farmed meat and at least provided a more sustainable food source than wild-caught seafood. But what kind? Cows seemed too docile to eat, like large, lazy dogs that stand around eating grass all day. And with their perpetually underrated intelligence and relatively hairless bodies, pigs seemed too much like honourary humans. Why not chickens, though? There was something vaguely malevolent and untrustworthy about them, with their beady little eyes and their propensity for pecking at everything including each other. They didn’t seem to be much smarter than fish, either. Besides, I convinced myself that I would be eating the happy little chickies that I could see pecking their way around the idyllic Philippine countryside. Upon launching myself into this delusion, I was happy to discover that, being a meat-crazed people, Filipinos are also pretty good at cooking meat. The tender flesh and beguiling sweetness of Davao’s chicken BBQ were a revelation after eating so many dried-up, barely-seasoned slabs of bland grilled fish throughout the Philippines. And then there were the meaty, glistening chunks of fried chicken being sold on every second corner of the city for fifty cents a pop – the most delicious heart attack one could hope for. (One of my most revelatory experiences came when I was talking to my kindly neighbour, a woman of 69 years who had been aged and crippled beyond her years by a nasty stroke. When I offhandedly made a comment about fried chicken being unhealthy, she innocently asked, “Why is that?”) And so, soon enough, what started as supposedly a fallback option for times when I had no decent vegetarian options available became my go-to gullet-crammer.

But then, of course, I discovered that the chickens I was eating were not the happy little birds I had seen following their trails of seeds without a care in the world. In most cases, they were hideously bloated factory-farmed meat sacks, bred and scientifically enhanced to the point where their joints could hardly bear the weight of their own bodies, and crammed into unbearably confined spaces with other identical meat sacks. If there was any consolation, it was only that they were also engineered to reach full size so quickly that their miserable lives only lasted less than a month before slaughter. Beyond that, one also cannot lose sight of the awe-inspiring rivers of shit and arsenic that pour out from chicken farms into the rice fields and waterways of the Philippines. But on the other hand, Spicy Breakfast Chickenjoy with hot chocolate is so damn tasty.

So again I threw up my hands in frustration, and responded by – no, not by making an earnest return to actual vegetarianism – but by further diluting my moral principles by taking in more meat. In California I even ate pork for the first time in half a lifetime – it was OK because it was free range. In Nicaragua I ate beef again because I assumed I was eating one of the cows that buses were forced to swerve around on the highway. I have now reached the point of labeling myself, not without a hint of self-loathing, as a flexitarian. And as I grow older, I seem to draw all of the wrong lessons from the world around me. In my studies of Buddhism, I have focused rather too little on the importance of compassion and rather too much on the grim inevitability of suffering. My completely dispiriting investigations of climate change have taught me, not that the biosphere is a precious resource to be conserved, but that we are all completely fucked and there is no point in caring about anything whatsoever. And in that context, what’s the harm in a piece of fried chicken? (I do regret the free range ham, though – by some measures pigs are even smarter than dogs, you know!)

But I’m still not sure where I stand on the kalabaw, the local name for water buffalo. This dignified draught animal still represents one of the defining symbols of this country, where you will see it ploughing fields next to the highway. I’ve tried the meat a few times in my life during the special “I’ll try it if it’s weird enough” loophole, but it was always tough and stringy. (A Vietnamese man explained that this is because commercially sold water buffalo meat is from old animals that are no longer fit to work. To experience buffalo meat properly, you must attend the buffalo fighting festival in Haiphong City, where vigorous young buffalo battle to the death. The loser gets eaten, and is apparently quite tender and scrumptious in his youthful vigour. I think the winner might get eaten, as well.) After a few run-ins with this unappetizing meat, I pushed it completely out of my mind – that is, until paternal duties brought it back into my awareness.

I had been feeling guilty about feeding my beloved dogs a low-grade diet of off-brand kibble mixed with shitty rice, and wanted to do something to improve the quality of their meals. A friend recommended that I get some cheap bones at the market and boil them into a soup, which I could then pour over the dogs’ flavourless shitpiles to add a bit of umami. Following the rationale of countless monstrous men throughout history – that any kind of vile behaviour is excusable if done for the sake of one’s family – I went off to the Alabang Public Market and found some alluringly shirtless young men selling kalabaw bones for the princely sum of $1 US per kilo. These young Adonises, their bodies lean and toned from endless days of cleaver-whacking, enthusiastically hacked up the bones, which looked like something out of the Flinstones. I took my bag of bloody bone fragments home and boiled its contents, pouring the resulting thick, greasy, vitamin-rich broth over my dogs’ previously unappealing kibble rice. There was much celebration, and much wagging of tails. And as their father, I was proud and pleased.

But a funny thing happened when I told my Filipino friends about the latest addition to my dogs’ diet – they seemed upset. According to them, it was sad for an animal that had spent its entire life plowing farmers’ fields to be unceremoniously turned into soup. And by the standards of retirement packages, I admit it’s not a very good one. But why would they think that an animal that spent its days getting exercise in the fresh air and sun was worse off than one that was kept in a box and pumped full of food until it got fat enough to have its throat slit? Plus, during the farmer’s rest breaks there were surely ample opportunities to wallow delightfully in nearby mudholes. It seems strange to me that people would have more compassion for a monstrous ungulate on a penal farm with deluxe mud amenities than they would for an honourary human kept in solitary confinement. But at this point I feel that the ethical waters have been muddied (ha!) so badly that we end up back at the thesis of my last post: nobody knows anything, and everything is terrifyingly meaningless. But the joy of a small, furry brown animal upon consuming the boiled remains of another, larger animal is as undeniable as the deliciousness of Spicy Breakfast Chickenjoy to our taste buds. And also kind of horrible.

8 thoughts to “The Kalabaw Paradox”

  1. I find the more I meditate, the more I get caught in the Buddhist’s Dilemma. Are people and other living things just natural processes, like wind and rain storms? Or are they agents? If they’re the former then their strange and infuriating behavior can’t be explained, or at least can’t be *blamed*. Your ethical stance toward them is necessarily one of compassion but also, if you’re hungry, you can eat them – we are all part of an impersonal materialist world of trophic cascades, and I am food as you are food. If they’re the latter then yes: You can’t eat them, or not without remorse. (Your degree of remorse is a matter for further discussion.) But then their ignorance and stupid decisions can and should be held against them, and one wonders whether the intellectually-lazy global-warming-denying idiot who voted for Trump and just wants to watch TV until the day he dies has a counterpart amongst the rest of the mammalian kingdom. Are there pigs, cows and sheep that behave in morally reprehensible ways to their fellows, or are so intellectually lazy you’d just want to slap them?

    Maybe the answer is to stop meditating.

    1. Perhaps the sheer impossibility of really making sense of it is a good case for taking refuge in ourselves? But that doesn’t really provide any moral guidance in our daily lives, e.g. whether it’s OK to slap Trump voters.

      That said, though: Yes, IF YOU ARE HUNGRY THEN I CAN EAT YOU.

  2. My philosophy on the subject has been pretty straightforward, unflinching, and unromantic for a long time: life is the process of consuming other lives, and life consumes any available lives in order to continue.

    It would be ideal if the process could unfold with a minimum of suffering, but that’s rarely the case. And that’s leaving out the likelihood that life in the wild for most animals is a constant state of terrified discomfort prior to falling to a predator or the elements. There’s nothing inherently better about eating a parsnip over a fish or a toddler in the big scheme of things, outside of the emotional/criminal perspective. The bigger problem is that there are now too many mouths to feed, not enough food to be sustainable, gross amounts of food-waste, and odd cultural preferences about what is/isn’t valid food. Insects are going to be very important very soon in our direct food chain, whereas larger-footprint sources like cows are a ludicrous indulgence – at least for their meat.

    1. Makes sense to me. I’m personally happy that I actually enjoy eating seaweed, and did at least find spiced crickets with lime juice to be minimally palatable in Mexico. I think of all the people here in the Philippines who just want to eat nice slave-labour-farmed mangrove-killing jumbo shrimp, even as the seas still teem with healthy but unglamorous fish. (But not for long!!!)

      And I guess the question is whether we as humans should strive to rise above nature. Should we try to be better than the delicious cruelty of a boa constrictor or a porpoise-tossing dolphin? I like to think so, but then my nihilist Buddhist nature takes over and I feel like it’s all pointless anyway. WHERE WE GOIN’ WE GONNA DIE!


    P.S. For anyone interested in combining parsnips, fish, and toddlers into a single foodstuff, I recommend the great, great, great grandson of the author of Dr. Zhivago: Blowfish Pasternak.

    1. YOU HAVE BEEN MODERATED. (Belatedly!) I don’t think I can appreciate all of the onionlike layers of your joke, but… thank you for playing!

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