Friday, January 12, 2007

The Ontological Status of My Deprivation: On Balancing Food Issues

The Wife and I went out for brunch. We don't do this often, but we had things to do in Manhattan, so we found a place that served fancy schmancy breakfasts at an hour late enough to allow us to make it. She ordered scrambled eggs with bacon and a small salad. I got their vegetarian eggs benedict (I can't remember what the non-Canadian bacon was, but I remember thinking it was mediocre). I drank tea, she drank Coke, and we talked about her job, my classes, our wedding, our housemates, and probably Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At some point, she offered me what was left of her salad. I like salad, so I said, "Sure." I shoved it onto my plate and started eating.

Bacon. It tasted like bacon. Warm, smokey, fatty bacon. The slices she ate must have laid over it when it was served. "Goddamnit," I said to her. "Your salad tastes like bacon. That's just mean."

"You could eat bacon, if you wanted to," she said. "And, I mean, you ate an English muffin right in front of me."

"You don't have anything against English muffins. And I didn't put it on your plate."

"I'd get sick if I had an English muffin. You're still eating the bacon-y salad."

And it's true. I ate the whole, bacon-flavored thing.

Both of us eat restricted diets. I'm what's commonly called a lacto-ovo vegetarian: I eat eggs and dairy products, but no meat, poultry, fish, or seafood. I would term it as not eating anything that had been alive, although the 'aliveness' of eggs is open for debate. (The historical debate has come down across the board. For South Asian vegetarians, eggs are meat; for those who keep kosher, they are dairy.) The Wife, on the other hand, is a celiac. Celiac disease is a condition where certain proteins, called gluten, in wheat, rye, and barley cause the small intestine to, for lack of a better explanation, quit and move to Venezuela, which is not what you want a body part doing. The only way to cure the disease is to avoid wheat, rye, barley, and oats (which are usually contaminated with gluten) entirely. For the rest of your life.

We also don't share each other's restrictions. There is a "gluten drawer" in the fridge with pita bread, whole wheat sandwich bread, and knishes for me and the Boy to eat. She eats pepperoni sandwiches for lunch three days a week.

We have something in common with our different restrictions. Neither of us dislikes the food we can't eat. I crave bacon, hot dogs, sausages. Part of her wants bread, pizza, donuts. But we choose not to eat them because the way we want to live our lives includes not eating these foods, and the benefits we get (ethically, medically) from forgoing these things we want.

The issue here is the different ontological statuses of our food restrictions, by which I mean the way they came into being and their fundamental nature. I'm a vegetarian because I think eating meat is morally indefensible for a whole host of ways. (Something seems wrong about killing other living creatures; meat production is environmentally destructive; the meat industry is cruel in the extreme to animals living in it. I'll leave out the 'meat is gross' issue.) Being a vegetarian comes from a place about ethics and morality, about living a life I feel is justifiable. So I don't eat meat.

The Wife, on the other hand, does not eat gluten because her health depends on it. Since going gluten-free, she has gained weight for the first time in her adult life. She has stopped having what I will obliquely call "tummy trouble" that traps her in the bathroom for an hour at a time. She has more energy than she ever had before. If she eats gluten accidentally, she becomes physically ill. This is about living without suffering.

Our differences in eating stems from different sorts of ideas about "the good life." The good life is the goal of a number of "ethical" branches of moral philosophy, beginning with the work of Aristotle and leading to Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen today, which present various ideas of what the good life consists of. The point is that each individual gets to determine what her good life is, and from there act accordingly.

My notion of the good life revolves around notions of doing right. In this, the ethical (what is required to live a good life) comes close, some would say too close, to the moral, that which all human beings are required to do in order to live in society. But vegetarianism, not killing animals for my own pleasure, is to me ethical, a decision that I make in order to live the "good life" with a clear conscience.

The Wife, on the other hand, chooses not to eat gluten out of another idea of the good life, one that involves bodily well-being and lack of physical suffering. Her good life involves being free of pain and capable of living her everyday life with fewer restrictions than previously.

The trouble is the tendency to make one of these ideas of the good life prior to the other--that is, to decide one is a better life. I could easily argue that, since my good life is more moral than hers, mine wins. Therefore, no more pepperoni in the house, no more turkey on Thanksgiving. However, she could respond that my good life is about adherence to a principle, not to anything concrete, where as she concretely suffers if she eats gluten. No more gluten drawer, no more sneaking donuts on the side.

She doesn't have anything against English muffins. Nothing is going to happen to me if I eat bacon.

I think this arguing over the ontology and ethics of our food preferences is silly, though. We each are acting out of confirmed beliefs about what makes our life good. We also recognize the importance of each other's beliefs, and respect them. When I said I couldn't cook a turkey, she said, OK. We'll order one. When she says I can't buy croissants when we're out, I say, OK. I'll eat something else. This is the way we manage our life together, by recognizing what we each have to say about food and the good life. And that's why, I think, our life together is so good.


Blogger Katie said...

It's a good argument, that we balance our needs and such. My only issue with it is that I truly cannot eat gluten, it will slowly set me up to die of several unfun intestinal cancers. Oh well, the debate in our house continues. And I only cry a little at the Tastycakes on the counter.

3:48 PM  
Blogger Emily said...

but, technically, it's a choice. i mean, you could choose to eat gluten, and it would be a bad choice, with nasty consequences, but you could make it. you make a choice to be healthy--and that's part of figuring out how to make your life be good.

though you might be trying to argue that the level of consequences each of us would suffer from not making our choice is different--you would suffer serious, possibly deadly consequences, whereas i would just do something 'wrong.' entirely different notions of 'serious,' there.

and i like that we're having this conversation on the internet while i'm sitting next to you in the car, borrowing internet from a closed cafe.

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