Killing Traditions


A student of mine once wrote a paper saying he couldn’t stop eating meat because it would mean giving up too many traditions. For example, on Thanksgiving Day you’re supposed to have the smell of roasting turkey wafting through the house all day. A vegetarian meal would simply cook too fast.

To a purist this is an atrocious argument. What, a turkey is supposed to be bred to ridiculous, uncomfortable proportions, housed in cramped conditions, and carelessly slaughtered, just so we can enjoy all-day cooking?

I see myself as pro-animal, but not as a purist. I do take it seriously that traditions would have to change if we were kinder to animals. It’s hard to completely embrace a vision of the future with no sheep dotting the hills in Wales, and no cattle milling around in west Texas. It’s hard for me to say the good people of Dallas should close down their barbecue restaurants and steak houses. I even have some sympathy for Eskimos who want to go on killing whales.

Last summer I had a chance to learn about the Eskimo whaling tradition in depth at the museum of art and history in Anchorage. Native peoples necessarily depended on animals for everything—food, fuel, clothes, even the walls of their houses. (It turns out Eskimos never lived in igloos year around—that’s a myth.) They were very clever about this, even making windows and waterproof parkas out of seal guts. Whales served the community’s needs, but also brought it together in an activity that had to be communal. (You can catch a hare on your own, but not a whale.)

For all that Eskimos vitally needed to hunt whales before first encounter with westerners and their resources, they weren’t as crudely exploitative as we are today. They didn’t think of the whale as a mere commodity. The Eskimos justified killing whales with the thought that they made a voluntary sacrifice—they gave themselves up for slaughter. No doubt wishful thinking, but at least this myth shows an awareness of a moral problem—how can I justify giving priority to my life over any other living creature’s life?

Eskimos want to keep killing the bowhead whale today. Now, I think that’s a bad idea, both because there are too few of them left (despite what native ecologists want to think) and because each whale is a truly glorious creature. But I take the loss of native traditions seriously. One wants to think there could be a way to hang on to something of it, if not the main thing. (Maybe establish a world-class Cetacean Research Institute in Barrow Alaska?)

Getting back to my student, and Thanksgiving—who says traditions have to stay exactly the same? Here it is, food that takes forever, and probably the only recipe you will ever see on this blog. To my fellow colonials—Happy Thanksgiving!

* * *


(serves 10, takes all day, adapted from Fields of Greens, by Annie Somerville)

  1. Make mushroom stock. In large pot, use 9 cups of water to cover 1 chopped onion, one clean chopped leek, 4 cloves crushed garlic, 1 oz dried shitake mushrooms, 1/2 oz dried porcini, 1 tsp salt, ½ tsp peppercorns, ½ lb sliced mushrooms, 2 small carrots, 6 parsley sprigs, 3 fresh thyme sprigs, 2 fresh marjoram or oregano sprigs, 2 fresh sage leaves, 2 bay leaves.Simmer an hour or two, strain, and simmer some more until you have 3 cups. Set aside.
  2. Make a pie dough with 1 ½ cups flour, 6 TB butter, ½ tsp. salt, a bit of cold water. Keep in refrigerator until needed.
  3. Using a big heavy pot, heat 2 TB olive oil and add 4 cups sliced mushrooms. Sear for 6-7 minutes over high heat, add 4 finely chopped garlic cloves and ½ cup sherry. Simmer until mushrooms are pretty dry. Put all that in a bowl.
  4. Chop firm vegetables of your choice, such as potatoes, celery root, parsnips, turnips, rutabagas, fennel, carrots (best with all of the above). Use enough to nearly fill 2-quart oval earthenware casserole (or whatever you have).
  5. Heat more oil in the big pot and add a chopped onion over medium heat. Saute a little while, then add all the chopped vegetables. Cook and turn for about 20 minutes. Add 2 TB each of fresh marjoram, thyme, and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste. Turn off heat.
  6. Make sauce out of stock. Heat 3 ½ TB butter in medium size saucepan and add 5 TB flour. Whisk until smooth. Gradually add stock, whisk, cook over low heat, turn off heat.
  7. Pour all the vegetables and mushrooms into the casserole dish. Add the sauce. Don’t fill the casserole to the top or it will boil over in the oven.
  8. Roll out the dough and cover the pie with it, crimping the edges. Roll out leftover dough and cut out turkey image. Affix to top of pie using whisked egg. Brush the rest of the pie with egg. Make slits in top of pie.
  9. Place on baking pan just in case of spills. Bake in 375 degree oven for 40 minutes. Take out and let cool 5 minutes.

Leave a comment ?


  1. What’s so special about traditions? Slavery was a tradition in the old South. Apartheid was a tradition in South Africa. The oppression of women is a tradition in Saudi Arabia. I fail to see why the fact that something is tradition gives it ethical validity.
    Most traditions were formed in societies based on oppression and injustice and in this case, on cruelty towards animals. The only good thing that I can think of about communism is that they abolished all the traditional holidays.

  2. Some traditions have to come to an end, all things considered. But it makes sense to have some respect for the attachment to traditions. Of course slavery had to come to an end, but watch “Gone with the Wind”–a whole way of life was lost. I mean, it seems silly crying over plantation life, but it really was a loss. Traditions deserve some respect because it’s legitimately satisfying to participate in a long-standing way of life. My suggestion is–retain what you can. Celebrate the whale, study the whale, but stop killing whales. Create traditions that are continuous with the old ones–the interminably complicated Thanksgiving pie.

  3. I say end all traditions, we’ll wing it as we go along, improvise on the improvisations, change the changes, add on to the add ons, experiment with the experiments, follow our whims and moods, just like the kids do. Everybody knows kids have more fun than adults, they make up games as they go along and being kids don’t think about tomorrow, if that.

    We won’t have to worry about the debris and wreckage we leave behind, we will just invent, legislate, create, and dream, free spirits unhindered by experience or memory, second thoughts or regrets. We will insist on plunging on, undisciplined by the knowledge of error, untroubled by doubt, our minds focused on the future which we know we can easily control.

    However if we do like something new we will treat it with reverence, in a few days it may become a custom, possibly even a tradition, unless it’s trampled on by even something more exciting.

    Somewhere Nietzsche said that even a bad tradition is better than no tradition, I wonder why he said that?

  4. Yeah, I can’t agree either… I’ll agree there is a certain sentiment that is lost, but if we are only losing sentiments and gaining moral behavior, then its a no brainer. Just because you’re attached to your traditions cannot justify cruelty. Appealing to a “long standing way of life” is exactly how the church argues against gay marriages and such.

    In some ways I may accept your replacement tradition, but if it still has a significant hand in the wrongness of the original tradition, then is seems like the point is moot. Okay, cook a complicated pie, but if there is meat involved, then whats the difference? ( In this case your thanksgiving pie dodges the objectionable actions, so this is a good tradition replacement.)

    I guess I don’t have a beef with tradition per se, or sentimentality in general, but we can’t use them to guide our actions.

  5. You should keep a tradition, maybe just because you don’t know why you should keep it.

    Maybe some things are obvious, others won’t be. References form the past, solutions, identity, stupid acting out.

    Nietzsche didn’t take himself absolutely, most things he said, he said because there was some beauty thought in them.

  6. I would also try to run away form dismissing cruelty. For me is like dismissing death, or error. Better live with it. Maybe you are inherently cruel, should you be destroyed?

  7. Jean: I doubt that many African-Americans cry over Gone with the Wind nor will the whales (I’m speaking metaphorically) cry when people stop killing them.
    I was brought up with traditional gender roles, and I suppose that I could lament the fact that I can no longer lie on the couch reading the newspaper, as my father did, while the woman of the house prepares dinner. Such a lovely traditional way of life, so full of heartwarming memories for we males who didn’t have to help in the kitchen or wash dishes. My mother is an excellent cook: why did she give up preparing three course meals and go back to the university to get a graduate degree in sociology? She liberated herself from tradition. Good for her and it was good for my father too.

  8. Is a privatised tradition parasitic on the sort of community tradition that arises out of a shared set of values. If there were only family traditions would that not be the sign of a fragmented society? Personally I tend to reject as pathetic the notion of the ‘holiday season’ as being more inclusive than Christmas. I love being in India at Divali or Dasara. I enjoy their enjoyment. So it’s turkey, free range if possible whose neck has been pulled by an expert.

    I think we ought to make clear distinctions between the respect due to persons and that due to the animal kingdom. Euthanasia applies to Grannie and not to kittens. If you like eating lower on the food chain, by all means do, but is it the ethical choice? I am prescinding here from ecological considerations e.g. land usage, inputs etc. Whale stocks once renewed could be hunted by strictly traditional means under licence.

  9. Johnt’s plea for making it up as you go long is so eloquent I’m almost ready to abandon both the turkey and the turkey-like vegetable pie…but not quite. I like traditions.

    Just a gentle reminder–I’m not eating turkey on Thanksgiving and I said I think Eskimo’s need to stop killing whales. So I’m not giving absolute value to tradition. But a tradition is a long-standing way of life that gives a pretty deep sort of satisfaction to a whole lot of people. Of course that counts! Of course it’s sad when people lose some of their sense of themselves and their place in the world.

    As explored in Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart”: it’s a big deal with cultures fall apart. Doesn’t mean they’re sacrosanct.

  10. “Of course it’s sad when people lose some of their sense of themselves and their place in the world.”
    What about the poor member of the KKK or SS who loses some sense of himself and of his place (his place being a function of his ability to oppress and to feel superior to others)?

  11. Surely the traditions that we are taking issue with are the ones that involve a moral dimension. Sure if you want to keep benign traditions like whacking pinatas on a birthday, be my guest. But if there are relevant ethical transgressions involved with the tradition, then they should be abandoned.

    I agree, that just taking people’s traditions away would be cruel, perhaps as cruel as eating turkey, or hunting whale. But sometimes we just have to take a step back away from our cultural traditions and say that there are some things much more important than our traditions.

    I think we can all agree that there is a certain irrational sentimentality that is involved in traditions, as is involved in our “blankie” or childhood teddy bears. But like our teddy bears, we might just have to grow up and leave them behind, espescially if we know that having that teddy bear causes some kind of harm to others.

  12. I’ve lived in Barrow, AK for a year now, and I can say that there is no comparison between a Texas BBQ or Thanksgiving turkey traditions and the living culture of Inupiat whaling. All year, the people prepare for the hunt, then they hunt, then distribute it to the whole community, then celebrate, then start preparing for the next years hunt. It is what they do, and who they are. I left North Carolina with its own rich BBQ traditions, and it didn’t change who I was when I gave up pork. An Eskimo forced to give up whaling is like nothing anyone in the US can comprehend. They are the last culture that I know of in this country that still lives a lifestyle that predates no only Colubus, but even the Native Americans he met when he landed. There is no other reason for the people to live in such a difficult place, and yet despite increasing reasons and opportunities to leave, they stay. Western culture has already erradicated most other ancient cultures, and we should support and learn from one of the last remaining links to prehistory we have.

    Also, next time you come to Alaska, please come to Barrow to see this for yourself. The “native ecologists” and the western scientists who work with them here in Barrow are the most knowledgeable resources for bowhead and other marine life and are the leading researchers in their field.

  13. I didn’t mean to equate giving up turkey and giving up whale-hunting…just see some connections. But your point is well taken. The Anchorage museum really does effectively bring out the huge importance of whale hunting…so yes, if it were given up it would be a huge loss. I see that! The native ecologists I mentioned were discussed in the book The Whale and the Supercomputer (Charles Wohlforth), which is sympathetic to the Eskimo side of things. As much as the author makes a thorough, interesting case, I can’t stop being on the whale’s side, I’m afraid.

    I would do anything to get to Barrow, but we only got as far as Fairbanks. The flights from there were just too expensive.

    Amos–I don’t see the problem with understanding what people have to give up when they change some practice. Which is not to say I really waste my tears on Nazis and the like. I’m too busy feeling bad for their victims, in that instance. But I do think there’s a huge difference between that and the topic at hand. Once upon a time, whale hunting really was 100% innocent. It got culturally entrenched at the time when it was a necessity. So there is an innocence to it that’s missing in the SS and KKK examples. Slavery is a more mixed case. People who inherited slaves actually did innocently wind up with a huge problem–morally they had to free all their slaves, but that might mean losing all their wealth. Understanding this dilemma is not at all the same thing as approving of slavery.

  14. Wayne:
    How is eating turkey cruel if the turkey is humanely reared and slaughtered? Is it per se cruel or cruel because there is an assumption on your part that its fate is the end result of an industrial process which is inherently cruel? You need to open your suitcase for inspection.

    I say this because there is excellent fowl available from certified free range organic sources. It’s expensive, as it should be.

  15. Michael: Isn’t there something contradictory about your phrase “humanely slaughtered”? If you were “humanely slaughtered” by some stronger being, would you consider that being to be cruel or not?

  16. Jean K, Subtlety is an occasional visitor to my style, even to my thought. But it escaped my post of yesterday. Be assured that whatever blunderbuss I take to the battlefield of ideas I, as you do, like tradition. And with the reasonable pruning and editing requisite to understanding and valuing, a process absent in a couple of places above, I will go so far as to say I revere tradition.

    However if you were giving me a sly dig that’s alright also, one who digs must expect to be dug back at, if you’ll forgive a bad neologism.

    Enjoy your turkey, let the others sip their gruel.

  17. johnt, Actually, not a dig at all. Your comment was eloquent and amusing…for real! fyi, I’m defending sensitivity to tradition, not preservation…the vegetable pie that takes all day, not the bird in the oven.

  18. Michael, Unless you’ve been to the farm to inspect the turkey’s condition, resting your hat on the certifications placed on a turkey is weak inference that the Turkey had a “good life.” Organic refers to a particular diet, not about treatment. Free-ranged in the US means that it had the ability to leave the warehouse it was probably raised in through a door, but usually only for the last two weeks of its life, and usually they don’t, since they’ve been inside the warehouse for their entire life, and find the outside world frightening.

    That said, if the turkey is raised under good conditions, and is as humanely slaughtered as possible, (which the majority of poultry in the united states is not esp. with bird flu fears now) then I have no objection. I would call myself a Demi-vegetarian along the lines of R.M. Hare. But even Hare admits that a demi-vegetarian would most usually be a real vegetarian most of the time.

  19. Amos:
    Are you calling me turkey?

  20. Michael, No, you’re a whale of a fellow.

  21. Wayne:
    Certification can be a problem, some types are better than others – better standards, better policing. It’s up to the consumer to find out what free range and ‘a good life’ means. It’s possible to get turkeys (Ireland) reared in open conditions who might have spent their lives bullying the hens. They tend to be slim fit creatures.

  22. Factory farming is the norm in the United States, so for most (virtually all) people celebrating thanksgiving, they will be eating a factory farmed turkey that was raised without the turkey’s welfare or well-being in mind. Thus there is good reason for us to not eat turkey in observence of tradition.

  23. More today on “free range turkey”, with lots of links, at my personal blog here.

  24. This year my wife decided to have a dry run thanksgiving day to test out her recipes. We soaked the bird in a brine solution she got at William Sonoma it really kept it moist. OMG, the turkey was so good and I get to do it again in a few days!

  25. Could it be that tradition are eventually meant to be lost for new ones to come in?

  26. Some people hunt for their Thanksgiving’s turkey. Then it is not cnfined in a little cage. If humans were meant to be vegans like the authro suggests, then why do we have canine teeth? If you want to only eat plants and lose energy due to malnutrition then so be it. But leave some opening to all animals, whatever their diet may be.

  27. Craig,
    did you ever consider the fact that those cainine may be vestigial parts of a time when meat was necessary for survival? a time before man was able to adaquately find other sources of food?
    What can you say about that little ol’ appendix of ours?

    I’m a very healthy vegetarian, not dying of malnutrition, but also not serving as a walking talking graveyard.

    As per the author’s student’s comment about the loss of tradition without the consumption of turkey, I think its disgusting and horribly unsupportable. In my opinion, it makes you want to desert the tradition rather than preserve it.

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