The Karma of Kale

» December 14th, 2012

I’m writing this piece from the porch of Casa de Luz, my favorite place in the world to eat.  Vegan and macrobiotic, the food here does more than nourish the body.

After a week of thinking deeply and writing actively about a range of questions—why did a college in Vermont ever want to kill its oxen?; how do violent tactics fit into the animal rights movement?; how should we conceptualize the place of companion animals in our lives?—the food here, in its simplicity and honesty, reminds me that authentic, unthinking clarity can be found in a plate of green beans, kale, lentils, brown rice, and pickled cabbage. It’s a well-timed reminder.

The act of eating has always intrigued me. Even before I began advocating for ethical veganism, I’d been interested as a historian in why cultures ate what they ate, the meaning they imbued in their meals, and rituals in which they embedded this most basic act—one that’s up there with sex and sleep as essential to keeping us going.  I spent a decade of my life exploring these issues.

The more I look back on this work the more I’m struck by how the academic impulse was always to question and complicate, analyze and contextualize, to the point that the essence of the act of eating was buried in the expectations of professional imperatives. Think too much, conform to institutional formatting, and the most inherently simple topic can be pounded into academic mush. I turned out some mush.

Eating healthy, eating vegan, and eating intentionally are goals that really need not be over-analyzed, or even analyzed for that matter.  Their obvious benefits resoundingly speak for themselves. Perhaps less obviously, eating a plant-based diet can and should provide us with an anchor of clarity and hope in a murky sea of confusion and suffering. If we’re open to the experience, it can inspire.

I know that, as I write, animals are being slaughtered. Thousands before I even finish writing this sentence. I know that at least 18 children were killed today in a Connecticut school shooting. I know that a person close to me is suffering a terrible situation beyond her control. This is all so murky and depressing and it’s going nowhere soon and I could just wallow in despair over it all.

But I won’t.  My meal is my antidote, a very real one, and I have no problem allowing it to make me feel good about life, my fellow humans and non-humans, and the potential of goodwill to make small dents—and sometimes large ones—in the systematic suffering that easily overwhelms those who hunger for peace and justice.

I guess you could say I’m seeking convenient denial in the extra plate of kale I just requested. And I guess that sounds pretty lame.  But right here, right now, it’s working for me.



6 Responses to The Karma of Kale

  1. Gena says:

    This is really beautiful, James. I shared on Facebook. It’s been an autumn of tragedy right and left: Sandy, this shooting, major personal tragedies for two people close to me, and the usual horrors done to animals. I take solace in food and in nourishment, too.

  2. Melissa says:

    Lovely post, and a small, specific gratitude: thank you for what I find to be an apt description of academia, which so often does result in — even compel? — mush. At one point I had become so disenchanted with the profession that I considered leaving (and then steadfastly ignoring) it, but I’ve come to believe that academics *can* be part of the movement to move the world to a clearer, more compassionate place. Whenever I falter in that belief, I look to people like you, James.

  3. Joan Bollaert says:

    Agreed…..A lovely and heartfelt post.

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